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E-xploring the E-conomy- XVIII

Article by Management Consultant, Sam Swaminathan
E-concept #14
Recognize that Empowerment is not a dirty word.

The more complex the world becomes, the more complex decision making becomes. Customers are simply not willing to wait while front-line people talk to their managers to extract decisions. Customers behave more and more like they were sitting in a dentist's chair. They want the toothache to go now, not later, not tomorrow. The reason is simple - their customers are impatient as well. Customer expectations are rising so rapidly, it is virtually impossible to satisfy your customer with the same level of service that satisfied her last time.

So we have two problems - a great deal less time to respond, and having to be innovative all the time to provide greater satisfaction to retain the same level of satisfaction as before. Another paradox.

Now, add the world wide web as a medium for customer fulfillment, and you have a veritable tinder box full of explosives. The web can de-personalize interactions very easily. I recently had a problem. I use Yahoo! Finance Vision to view video clips of interviews with analysts, brokers, and CEOs. Recently, for some strange reason, I stopped getting the video feed. The audio feed is fine, but the video doesn't appear. I searched the site's help pages, with no joy. So I wanted to send an email message to Yahoo! to get some advice. I couldn't find an email address. You decide how frustrating this can be. All my love for Yahoo! evaporated like the first drops of dew on the arrival of sunshine. Gone! I am now disappointed and soon I will be angry.

Now, if someone has to take this problem right up to David Filo or Jerry Yang, it would take forever to resolve what I am sure is a small technical problem. Even if I could get through to them, it is highly likely that they wouldn't have the faintest clue what to do. Someone in the trenches who knows needs to be empowered to take quick action to sort this problem. Customer loyalty in the Web is as thin as the horizon. Lose it once, and it is gone for good.

The need of the hour is to get everyone thinking about his or her responsibilities in a holistic manner, and having lots of initiative. This has a significant impact on your hiring processes and selection criteria.

Remember, it is no use giving the keys of a beautiful automobile to someone who doesn't know how to drive. It would most likely terrify her. The question then is one of finding the talent that is:

a. capable of taking responsibility
b. willing to take responsibility
c. given the right environment to take the initiative
d. rewarded for successes and counseled for failures

Empowerment means that mistakes will be made. The key lies in management's ability to distinguish genuine mistakes from careless or callous ones, and dealing with them differently.

Empowerment also means investing heavily in training yoru troops - those who are closest to the business. Don't forget that the everyone who works in your company is not a management scientist to figure out what empowerment is all about.

Get their hearts in the work they do, and empowerment becomes a lot easier. You no longer have to institute truckloads of checks and controls to figure out what people do or don't do when no one is watching.

Moreover, people just seem to come up with better ideas when they have the freedom to take decisions. Some companies are great at getting half a dozen people to sign on forms, all in the name of due diligence. Well, ask GE what happened with the Kidder Peabody debacle. Approval signatures ran up to heaven, so no one felt responsible.

Empowerment means that any more than two signatures for approval is a serious dilution of responsibility and accountability. Everyone from the third person onwards thinks that the others have taken a good look.

Empowerment energizes; it unleashes creativity, and enables quick and cost-effective resolution of problems. This is key in a customer-centric world where everything spins ever faster.

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