Monday, June 18, 2012

Performance - will you drive it or elicit it?

Let us face it. Organizations do not do anything—only people do—and if organizations are to perform at all, their people must perform first. Individual, group, organisations, institutions, ecology and so on, would it be? The implications on performance of humans at the contemporary workplace are not lost on anyone interested in workplace excellence. Fred Nickols made a glorious attempt in his paper "Dawn of a New Era" earlier published in Performance Improvement, Vol. 51, no. 3, March 2012,  © 2012 International Society for Performance Improvement  ( Published online in Wiley Online Library ( • DOI: 10.1002/pfi.21243)

Here I attempt to make concise points of mention from that perspective.

1. What Shifted : What happened in the pre-wikinomics era was largely the result of technology and economics. Work shifted in dependency. The shift was from the availability of materials to the premises of information. General Dynamics, General Electric and General Motors generally became ‘smarter’. Warheads and drones too have ‘information’ at their tips! Some, like Peter Drucker, referred to this as a shift to knowledge work. Fred Nickols says “It would be more accurate to refer to it as a shift from prefigured routines to configured responses. Instead of doing what someone else had figured out, the work of many people now required them to figure out what to do.”

2.  Who shifts? We cannot ‘engineer’ the outputs of people in high skilled, high-end jobs. The new workers have to do it themselves. For information-based work, the information varies, the conditions are nonstandard, the interactions vary, and the outcomes sought vary. Consequently, activities have to be configured in response to the circumstances or the context at hand. Job-crafting came up in response I guess.

3. How does it occur? When work activities are essentially intangible, the focus of control must shift from activities to results or outcomes. The focus of control must be on the intangible work, not the worker. In such circumstances, the principle of managerial control must shift from ensuring compliance to eliciting – and not soliciting contributions from the worker.

4. Where does it happen? The role of the worker, shifts namely, from an instrument of managerial will to that of a relatively autonomous agent acting on behalf of the employer in the employer’s best interests. The standards that matter are variable and internal to the worker. Knowledge is now widely dispersed or diffused; indeed, in many cases, only the workers possess the required knowledge in idiosyncratic code at times.

5. Why does it matter? Employees are living control systems who design their own performance. Orchestrating that kind of outcome is not done by using models that depict people as compliant, conditioned beings capable of being manipulated ad nauseam.  Not anyone who is able to exercise adequate control over others will figure this shift easily either. Top Management should be genuinely and intensely interested in how to help people craft their own performance because the path to organizational performance passes through the ever refining sieve of individual discretion.

6. Whom does it matter to? Conditions for performance are controlled today in more sentient ways. Models of human behaviors and performance in the workplace must correspond to an irreversible aspect of human evolution. Humans are more than what a manufacturer once thought of autoworkers "I just want to hire a hand, but the whole person always comes with it.They are not simple, stimulus-response organisms. Cultures they create are intangible assets.

“They have, they set, and they achieve goals” says Nickols. I am personally delighted that my association with Bob Ebers allows me to work on this frontier of engaging the science of yield from the wisdom of groups. Through statistical aggregations and content analysis of individual opinions a range of possibilities are presented for human judgement. Predictive analytics and behavioral economics are 'out there'. So are balance-sheets and stock-markets. Performance is felt 'in' employees, and not elsewhere. Leadership is about recognizing this subtle balance between 'externals' in the dynamic environment and the 'internals' of the employee coping, if not thriving on both realms of change.

This blog is an acknowledgement in part of the great opportunity of making contemporary web 2.0 technology work on behalf of a humbler leadership working in service of enlightened employees. Performance is no longer what it used to be. And people are at it indeed.