It means giving them responsibility and access to information

EMPOWERING WORKERS HELPS THEM TO WORK SMARTER

November 25, 1991|By TOM PETERS | TOM PETERS,TPG Communications

In tomorrow's organizations "each employee becomes a business," consultant Stan Davis and University of Southern California Professor Bill Davidson write in their book "20-20 Vision."

Ralph Stayer, the iconoclast CEO of Johnsonville Foods, says his many waves of empowerment "turn each worker into a 'businessperson.' " Percy Barnevik, CEO of ABB Asea Brown Boveri, told me his 50-person profit centers (about 5,000 of them grace the 215,000-person European conglomerate) are so effective because "they have customers pestering them. That makes them real businesses."

Think about the corner grocer. Think about a line worker, or even a middle manager, in a big, traditional firm. The former is a businessperson. The latter "fills a job slot." What a difference! But smart corporate leaders such as Stayer and Barnevik are trying mightily to bridge the gap.

The new concept is captured brilliantly by systems re-engineering guru Michael Hammer, describing revolutionary change at a giant insurance company:

"The long, multistep process [of handling applications] involved credit-checking, quoting, rating, underwriting, and so on. An application would have to go through as many as 30 discrete steps, spanning five departments and involving 19 people. . . . [Subsequently] existing job descriptions and departmental boundaries [were replaced by] a new position called a case manager. Case managers have total responsibility for an application from the time it is received to the time a policy is issued. Unlike clerks, who perform a fixed task repeatedly under the watchful gaze of a supervisor, case managers work autonomously. . . . In particularly tough cases, the case manager [can call upon] a senior underwriter or physician, but these specialists work only as consultants and advisers to the case manager, who never relinquishes control."

One result: The typical five- to 25-day application turnaround time was slashed to a day or so, a few hours in a pinch. Moreover, case managers started handling more than twice the volume of new applications processed in the past.

Harvard's Shoshana Zuboff would call these case managers "informated individuals." As she sees it, employees must be more than just empowered. They also need the corporation at their fingertips -- i.e., real-time access to all information and experts throughout the system.

Perhaps you'll recall a column about Lakeland (Fla.) Regional Medical Center's "care pairs." The registered nurse-technician duos are trained in numerous tasks, so they can handle 90 percent of their five to seven patients' needs on their own. (Almost 50 people in numerous departments used to get involved.)

Furthermore, the care pairs are "informated case managers" -- a computer in the patient's room allows them to quarterback the "customer's" entire hospital stay and coordinate the specialized 10 percent of activities they can't perform.

This idea can be extended far beyond corporate borders. MIT's Chandler Stevens touts "electronic organizations" and "expert networks."

Consider Legitech Network, an electronic network that connects state government science advisers. One scientist queried the network with, "What are alternatives to road salt for dealing with icy highways without polluting water supplies?" Within two weeks, the questioner received a raft of helpful answers. That is, the truly informated case manager-cum-businessperson has a window on more or less the entire world! And, increasingly, she or he needs it.

"The quality and quantity of information comprehended per unit of time," says venture capitalist Mel Phelps of Hambrecht & Quist, "may now determine who wins or loses a sales order or a war."

In short, I can readily imagine a scenario where most every worker has:

* Extensive cross-training.

* Access to all the firm's information (and its experts, "on call" via a formal knowledge-management structure).

* Links to electronic bulletin boards, data bases and other networks that amount to "an extended global university" of experts.

* And customers!

I'm loath to add more jargon, but I'll take the risk anyway. How about "businessing"? In the end, per Johnsonville's Stayer, we are indeed trying to "business" everyone -- to turn each employee into a real, whole businessperson responsible for customers from order to delivery of a service or product.

As Davis and Davidson say, "The conversion of 'organization' into 'business' always strengthens corporate performance."

How about it: Can you imagine a payroll of 100 percent case managers/informated businesspersons/entrepreneurs in your future? I'd suggest your answer had better be "yes."

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