The Beauty Regime

Last week’s announcement at the ThinkFM conference that BIFM and CIPD will be collaborating on a number of research and insight projects has generated an interesting reaction on Twitter. Amongst the talk of better outcomes, identifying the value drivers of 21st century working and building bridges, there has been a mixture of excitement, zeal and curiosity tempered by some reservation and exasperation.

Not having been involved with previous cross-functional initiatives or collaborative efforts, I cannot comment knowledgeably on what has gone before. However, I can understand the frustration of those who argue that this idea is nothing new and that they have been working collaboratively with the other workplace functions for years; I certainly count myself in the “already doing it” camp.

Having said that, my reaction is one of cautious optimism given that there has been an acknowledgement of the need for change and closer alignment by two of the leading workplace professional bodies. There have been some excellent blogs on this subject already (notably from @workessence, @simonheath1, @PerryTimms, @chriskane55, @ianellison@dougshaw1 and @markcatchlove) and I have seen two key themes develop in the ensuing Twitter discussions.

The first is the need for meaningful outcomes, picking up on the idea that what we collectively want to achieve (i.e. making work “better for all” and doing “good people stuff” courtesy of Mssrs Timms and Heath respectively) could be unintentionally de-valued through institutional sanitisation. The second is the theme of identity and purpose and the distinction (if any) between the workplace functions, the so-called core business and the concept of internal customers. I have decided to leave the latter for my next post for reasons of keeping this one to a reasonable length so the rest of this post is devoted to the former.

I have been thinking a lot about why organisations, corporations, institutions and other formal bodies behave the way they do. Much of it is driven by the overwhelming desire to manage risk and produce outcomes with greater certainty (hmm….) so huge control is exerted through governance frameworks, compliance requirements, prescribed structures, standards, audits, assurance, rules and procedures.

In parallel, this need for control has led to the rise of artificially contrived “customer” experiences and products and has had a significant part to play in the ascendancy of PR, Marketing and Comms. Brand values rule, OK? A good example of this was Saturday’s FA Cup final. At the risk of coming over as a misty-eyed sentimentalist, the degradation of this once beautiful event was there for all to see. The relentless advertising, the 5pm kick-off time, a famous pop star drowning out the crowd singing God Save The Queen and Abide With Me *shudders*

What follows is a controlled rant about the need for substance to prevail over style and this applies particularly to the journey on which BIFM and CIPD are about to embark. Please do watch out for spittle though.

From a Systems Thinking perspective, the prevalence of Command & Control means that work in most institutions is predominantly designed in activity or production-centric ways. At the same time, and counter-intuitively, the detail of the work itself is increasingly taking a back seat (sometimes it’s even in the boot) to what has become a rather unhealthy fixation with being strategic.

There is an ever-growing gap between organisational decision makers and the customer-facing people who do the work and understand it. Many leaders do not appreciate the importance of the detail of this work (“I am sorry m’Lord but I couldn’t contain myself. My boss waved his hand at me and said ‘as long as it’s managed properly’ and the next thing I knew he was lying unconscious”) and I believe this has resulted in conditions in many companies that have been damaging and divisive, undermined service quality and produced considerable waste. Oh yes, and led to the failure of many businesses.

This reality gap has been exacerbated by the modern disease of limited attention spans combined with a short-term culture that seeks out immediate gratification and only sees value in the glamorous. Don’t misunderstand me; of course there is a real need to think strategically and be able to develop effective strategies but my point is that far more attention needs to be paid to the detail of implementation because this is where organisational success or failure is determined. Bad implementation will undermine a good strategy anytime, anyplace. Implementation is highly complex, it can be anodyne and it requires monumental effort; my worry is that this is not a recipe for success in terms of prevailing societal attitudes.

This is a long-winded (but quite satisfying) way of saying that the road ahead must be to “get knowledge” of the work that is done in our organisations. Inquiry and the study of work, especially how the component parts of an organisational system interact with, and influence, each other to achieve the purpose of that system, are pre-requisites for our success. It is all about understanding CONTEXT, WHAT WORKS AND WHY IT WORKS for the specific and totally unique circumstances of individual organisations. In the words of John Seddon, we need to understand how the work works.

In CRE and HR, we do things like portfolio management and organisational design pretty well but at the transactional level (the bit our internal customers tend to understand and appreciate), we often get it wrong. Spending inordinate sums of money on mechanised or commoditised services that are ‘pushed’ at our customers has been an object lesson in waste creation. We should be ‘acting with’ not ‘doing to’. We should aspire to a purpose-centric (rather than production-centric) people and place service delivery capability that is highly responsive to the pull of our customers’ demands.

There is a lot of ground to be re-gained from style by substance. We must start with ensuring that the conversation is kept organic and authentic; ditto the outcomes. Systems Thinking provides a suitable frame of reference and the tools to understand how these outcomes might be achieved and I hope this will be embraced and explored further by BIFM and CIPD as their courtship blossoms.

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2 Responses to The Beauty Regime

  1. Pingback: Inside The Tent – Peeing Out | Work Musing

  2. Chris Kane says:

    Lots of food for thought in what you say. At its core this is all about people trying to make sense of a working environment which has evolved without much thought. Based on an Industrial Age approch to process work its no wonder that many workers find their work to be a grind and that’s before the commute!
    I believe we should approach this next chapter with an open mind, nurture the conversation to be as organic as possible, encourage input and debate plus invite all comers to participate.
    As ever your systems thinking mindset should be used as much as possible to help build understanding on the key point that we all exist within the ecosystem of work and need to play our part in helping it prosper not become totally toxic.

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