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January 2007 – Canvassing employees is the best measure of management

The first full week back at work after the Christmas and New Year breaks is the busiest time of the year for divorce lawyers according to research among law firms published earlier this week.

The findings didn’t surprise me. Christmas is an unsettling time for all relationships, including those in the workplace. While recruitment traditionally experiences a lull at the end of December, it gathers pace again quickly in January after companies have reviewed their teams and ambitions for the coming 12 months.

Too often managers forget that individuals are reviewing their own circumstances at the same time. So, as a rule of thumb, it’s probably better to delay any large scale personnel changes for a month until the dust has settled after New Year departures and arrivals.

I welcome the end-of-year break as an opportunity to reflect on new ideas. This may explain why I spent part of the first week in January on a photography course re-learning the fundamentals of single lens reflex cameras and how they are applied in digital photography.

Photography used to be quite straightforward. There were a few things to learn such as aperture settings and how they relate to film speed and shutter speed. Today adjustments once confined to the darkroom are replicated in software which has introduced so many other possibilities.

The software works best when handling “Raw” images, so-called because they consist of unprocessed digital information. It struck me that there were parallels to be drawn between the processing of photographic images and the processing of work.

Like most work, photography is a combination of technical skill and artistry where the results of both are clearly visible in the final image. Ours was an evenly mixed group of men and women.

“When we start taking photographs on the courses I almost always find that the women achieve the best results,” said our trainer John Clements, who specialises in Nikon cameras.

This should come as no surprise. While men are burying themselves in the technical details, women are creating the image they want to see in their frame. Accepting the generalisation - not all men ignore artistry and not all women shy away from technical considerations – it does help to explain some of the tensions in approaches to performance management.

For more than a hundred years since Frederick Taylor first used technical measurements to wrest management power from workshop artisans, work has been under the microscope of efficiency research.

The earliest applications of scientific management, particularly when combined with moving assembly, were decried for the way that they treated people like machines. Today it is fashionable to discredit Taylorism yet its principles remain in many of the measurement systems applied in modern performance management.

At the end of my course I received a little certificate, not that I had taken any tests. It was clear as I attempted to apply the learning over the next few days that I remained as raw as my images in the technical work. But I know how to frame a photograph so the results are passable.

A similar situation arises when new management processes are introduced among people who have been doing the same jobs for years. A shop manager I know was complaining about newly introduced sales targets set by her head office.

“The targets are meaningless. If I reach them I get little recognition for having done so and new targets are immediately imposed. The managers are never satisfied,” she said. In this shop there are standard arrangements for every bit of merchandise and staff are coached in ways to make additional sales such as selling the polish, for example, to go with a pair of new shoes.

In reality I rarely come across great service in shops, partly because good service involves building an instant rapport with the customer and few people have that skill. I went into one shop last week with the aim of buying a leather chair. I found one that was much cheaper than others on sale in the store. It looked a good buy and the assistant agreed.

“Why is it so much cheaper?” I asked. “Well, it’s just not in the same league as our other chairs,” she said. In that one short sentence she not only lost the sale, but others too, since I don’t feel inclined to go back. How many customers want to think they are buying things that are second class? It was a lesson learned many years ago, to his cost, by Gerald Ratner, when he told delegates at a business conference that the product range in Ratner’s jewellery stores was “total crap”.

If the assistant had continued to stress the good value and serviceability of the chair, if she had possessed one scintilla of empathy for her potential customer, her sale would have been in the bag.

How well, I wonder, would this company have rated under management author Fred Reichheld’s “net promoter score” that ranks customer service on the likelihood of customers recommending a company to others? The same principle can and has been used among graduate job candidates, rating their experiences with specific companies.

In fact the ranking of companies among employees is spreading on the internet within sites such as that rates employment experiences for women and, a US-based web site that asks employees to award points to their employers over a range of criteria.

As these rankings grow in popularity, so companies will feel the need to respond. It is imperative, therefore, before external employer rankings grab a dominating influence of customer and job candidate behaviour, that companies co-operate over generic measurement systems that are going to add meaning to their businesses.

The Reichheld measure was criticised by John Fleming, a customer engagement specialist at the Gallup Organisation, writing in the December issue of the Gallup Management Journal. Given the multi-faceted approach of Gallup Measurement it was not surprising to find criticism of Mr Reichheld’s claim to have found a single killer measure.

But Mr Fleming’s argument that detailed analysis requires a variety of cause-and-effect measures need not be at odds with a plea for a more simplistic approach.

For more than a year now, the Human Capital Standards Group has been discussing the need for generic metrics and the reporting of those metrics in annual company reviews. As debate has progressed, the thinking has settled around a combination of hard and qualitative measures.

When dealing with people I believe that counting things has only so much value against measuring the climate of opinion. If you ask people, for example, how well they believe they are being managed, the answers they give when compared year-on-year will prove a useful indication. It can’t tell a company everything but, when asked with a batch of other questions and supplemented with existing business knowledge, there is the opportunity to develop a richness of employee information that can inform future management decisions.

But no amount of measurement can replace good management and leadership. Just as no amount of technical knowledge will create a great photograph. There has to be something in human achievement – call it talent – that escapes our best efforts at measurement. We all know it when we see it but some important constituent will remain forever indefinable.

See also: Campaigning for human capital standards

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