The Power of Partnership: Enabling Action Through Collaboration

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This is not the first article I have written about collaboration. Regular followers of my ramblings will have seen the words, “silo” and “cross-functional” woven into many of my written and spoken engagements over the years. I make no secret of the fact that I consider one of the greatest barriers to driving a sustainable focus on customer experience is the inability of organisations to collaborate cross-functionally.

Last week I had the pleasure of listening to a fantastically engaging talk from the “head of transformation” at a Telecommunications company in Ireland. As will often happen, several things he said – words he used – resonated with me. The particular statement that has stuck in my mind is this one:

“Actionable customer experience is best achieved and sustained through effective business partnerships”

“Cross-functional collaboration” is a remarkably corporate term! Partnership is, perhaps, a far more “people-centric” way of describing what is necessary to continuously enable the delivery of the customer experience an organisation its customers to have. The pertinent part of the Wikipedia definition of “partnership” is as follows:

“A partnership is an arrangement where parties, known as partners, agree to cooperate to advance their mutual interests.”

When we consider how corporate organisations are built, in principle, every employee in them should be working towards a common goal. Even if that goal is primarily a financially driven one, all employees should be cooperating and collaborating to achieve whatever the goal happens to be.

Most organisations I have worked in and with over the last 25 years have professed to have a “goal”. Most businesses profess to have a strategy. If you just scan a random selection of company websites, you will find enough examples of missions, visions and values statements to keep you busy for decades. So, if that is the case, why oh why are so many of these organisations failing to achieve them?!

It could be argued that one of the major challenges is the very nature of the way organisations are structured in the first place. The website, http://www.organisationalstructure.co.uk/, states that there are three types of structure:

  • Functional Structure: Functional structure is one of the most widely adapted structures in the organisations today. In the functional structure, different employees are grouped together depending on their function or role in the organisation. An example can be taken of an organisation which has different departments such as Marketing department, IT department, Sales department, Production department, Customer Service department etc. The functional structure is regarded as the best setting for relatively small or medium-sized organisations. In such a structure, each department is autonomous and keenly rely on the talent and throughput of their employee in order to contribute in the overall production of an organisation. The issues in such an environment are normally dealt with internally within the department. The main drawback of such a structure is that it limits the communication within the department due to the organisational boundaries thus leaving each department to work in isolation.
  • Divisional Structure: The second type of organisational structure is the divisional structure which is a well-suited setting for relatively large scale organisations. Especially those large scale companies whose departments are mostly geographically apart from each other. The separation of the organisation can be within the country or even internationally. An example can be given of a large scale import-export company where different sections of the country operate globally in different countries dealing with separate goods particular in that country. The idea behind such an organisational structure is that the needs and requirements of the organisation are more closely analysed and addressed. The turnaround time and the productivity both get efficient which otherwise wouldn’t be possible in any other organisational structure. Communication is such a structure is again a problem as different divisions operate in isolation and a good geographical distance between them. Another disadvantage of such a structure is that its set up cost is expensive due to the larger size and scope it has.
  • Matrix Structure: The most innovative, yet the most effective organisational structure is the matrix structure. This structure basically is the hybrid combination of both the functional and divisional structure. This structure is mainly adapted in typical large-scale multination companies of today. The idea here is to take the best of both functional and divisional structures into one organisation. The drawback here is related to power management as the structure is such organised that it leads to dual management. It has several managers working in the same area and also sometimes at the same managerial level.

In a way, this makes for rather depressing reading. In all three cases, the words “partnership and “collaboration” do not align with the defined organisational models. Maybe this explains why so few organisations are able to genuinely and tangibly work together to realise the common goal and for the benefit of the company as a whole?

Partnership is all about encouraging and enabling everyone in an organisation agreeing to cooperate to advance their mutual interests – both at a personal level AND at a company level. Whilst we may not be able to change the reality that all organisations are “structured” functionally, divisionally, or as a matrix, maybe we can instead focus on embedding a culture of partnership – whatever the structure happens to be.

The “head of transformation” who inspired me to write this, has worked very hard to do just that. He recognises that his organisation is structured functionally. To enable it to transform, he has very intentionally created a network of “business partners”, as he calls them. Senior leaders across all functions of the business to partner together to achieve a collective vision for customer experience. Instead of having to “fight” his way into different functions and divisions, he has created a network of partners within each of them – who all believe in achieving the same thing – to enable collaboration and actionable change.

And that is the point – the power of partnership is that it can and will enable action through collaboration. Trying to influence across an organisation alone is difficult – if not impossible. Influencing as a partnership of people throughout the organisation is far more effective. So, if you are charged with transforming your organisation to become more customer-centric, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Do we have a defined customer experience strategy, detailing our desired customer experience?
  2. Do I know how my organisation is structured?
  3. Have I identified a partner in every business function who knows about AND believes in the customer experience strategy?
  4. Do we have a plan for the cross-functional partnership to drive tangible action to deliver the strategy?

If the answer to any of these questions is negative – then you will find it very difficult to drive collaborative change. The power of change is most definitely through partnerships – strong, robust, co-operation for the common good of the organisation and the benefit of customers, employees and shareholders.

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