Adapting employee empowerment to evolving technologies and changing times.

Peacock (2011) has provided us with the following chart which presents us with a view that aims to provide  ”enterprise architects with a better understanding of how to manage their investments over time.” The author then goes on to state, “By recognising how best to integrate and manage empowered technologies, enterprise architects can take ownership of their innovation management process and can enjoy becoming empowered themselves.” .

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Oliverio, Pasewark and White (2007:26) state that “empowerment requires for the company to be understood (…) every aspect of the job will be of greater interest (…) better understanding the job will allow the privilege of the use of empowerment successfully.”

Before we go any further, it is worth noting that Potterfield (1999:6) examined several reasons why employee empowerment should be critically examined and enumerated the following:

“Empowerment is:

– a popular concept that influences powerful institutions (…)

– an enigmatic concept, related to a range of organisational development and business management theories (…)

– a controversial concept (…)

– an ideology.”

Whilst developing each of the above reasons, the author pointed out that we are all “affected by new management practices designed to bring changes in corporate behaviour”, (Potterfield,1999:8). As such , if management practices affect the stakeholders within and beyond an organisation, which in its own turn affects the corporate behaviour, and if these actions and reactions are oscillatory and cyclical without being predictable, we must regard all types of empowerment, including employee empowerment critically with regard to all aspects of evolution.

With regard to employee (or any empowerment for that matter) being enigmatic, the author states that it ” not only lacks a precise definition but also contains ideas and practices that are embedded within a wide range of related management approaches.” (Potterfield, 1999:10)

As for its being a controversial concept, the author postulates that if an organisation aims to simply provide its customers with “a high volume service or goods at a low cost”, (Potterfield, 1999:11), the only means of achieving this goal is to implement a traditional “production line approach” (Ibid) whereas if it aims to “provide highly personalised service”  then the best adapted approach would imply empowerment of front-line employees so as to make quick decisions adapted to the customer’s changing needs. (Ibid)

Finally, in terms of empowerment being an ideology, the author reasons that because employee empowerment literature is researched, analysed and written by experts in collaboration with, if not based on management measures, whilst presenting “a liberatory promise”  (Potterson, 1999:12) addressed to the workers may suggest a misleading if not a presumptuous character in some cases.

Now, lets take all that has been said above in due consideration and ask some specific questions pertaining to the various empowerment-related statements and assertions with regard to technology, which seems to be advancing at a rate that no organisation can possibly keep up with and the reasons why that is the case.

Lets take the case of small- and medium-sized enterprises first. Whilst most of those that remain are either family-owned and family-run enterprises, communication within the workforce and the management mainly remains informal and principally verbal. It might well involve the purchase and use of a more or less sophisticated smartphone or a tablet in some cases, a laptop or a desktop suffices in most cases with less technologically advanced means being preferred by the older and less technology-savvy or technology sceptical generations of the enterprise.

Taking the reflection a step higher, to a start-up in its initial or more developed phases, the enterpreneur’s final aim being to sell the enterprise once it achieves its ‘cruising speed’, all technological investment is justified for the enterprise to reach its apogee within as short a lapse of time as possible. This requires for the personnel and the management to work hand-in-hand, but also for everyone to be aware of the latest developments. This, in most cases, dictates for the hierarchical structure to be as horizontal as possible and for the employees to be empowered in terms of decision-making to best satisfy the customers’ needs, desires, whims and fancies as long as the enterprise is able to recuperate its investment along with a premium.

When such start-ups or smaller entrepreneurial units are absorbed by bigger organisations, they undergo profound changes in their operational and management structures because the aims then change from a flat hierarchical structure to a more vertically pronounced hierarchical structure on the one hand, and the productivity approach changes from placing the onus on the client’s satisfaction to more productivity-based effective and cost-efficient operational methods. This more or less automatically filters out the “out-of-the box leaders” of the start-up and leaves space for more classically minded management-oriented to take over.

Finally, lets look at the bigger organisations – be they national or multinational – which take over the smaller ones we mentioned above. They could broadly be categorised in two columns:

– those who depend on their stockholders, financiers, investors and balance sheets to evaluate their ongoing strategies;

– those who have a more democratic way of deciding their policies by involving their stakeholders including the ones enumerated above.

When it comes to technology and its advances on the one hand, as well as the national and multinational organisations’ approach towards them, something that cannot be ignored is the fact that all organisations have to progress with their environment. Barker and Angelopulo (2006:122) were referred to in a previous post (Organisational Communication / Corporate Communication – The five questions, when? why? what? where? how? – 9.10.2011) with the following terms: “Without exception, changes in the external environment(s) necessarily require changes in the internal environment(s) of an organisation, thus having a direct bearing (positive or negative) on the communication networks with employees.” So we realise that the approaches in response to the changes in environment due to the technological advances of both types of organisations would be different.

The more conservative organisation which bases its policies on financial results will guard their finances and only invest in technological advances for the benefit of the employees when they have no choice left. Till such time, technology shall be employed, as all other resources are, to the singular aim of making more money. The more democratic of the organisations, on the other hand, I think, would tend to invest in the technology, principally with the aim of empowering their employees and promoting employee motivation.

We know from reading specialists in either or both fields or through experience of our own that change management and technological advances have requirements of their own. This makes it somewhat difficult for any of both types of organisations mentioned above to find too varied approaches whilst merely (trying to) react and adapt themselves to the changing times that environ them. Given that technology has been advancing in leaps and bounds in recent times, and that no one organisation is able to either keep up with or control the velocity of technological progress, we still have to find ways in which we can protect the organisations from being damaged by either excessive behaviour because, as Hippocrates is said to have said, “Everything in excess is opposed to nature.”

One might then argue that the excessive velocity at which technology advances today is also contrary to nature. I would only like to state that this is just why organisations should ideally keep up with the technological progress on the one hand without having to compete with it or having to resist adapting to the changes that occur in their internal and/or external environment(s)

Reference:

Barker,R and Angelopulo,G.,(2006),Integrated Organisational Communication, Jutta & Co., Cape Town, RSA, available at http://goo.gl/0z11n accessed September 2011

Oliverio, M.E., Pasewark, W.R., White, B.R., (2007), The Office Procedures and Technology, (2007), 5th ed., South Western Cengage Learning, available at http://goo.gl/A1GjX accessed in October 2011

M. Peacock (2011), Top Sixteen Technologies for Empowered Employees, CMS Wire, available at http://www.cmswire.com/cms/enterprise-20/top-16-technologies-for-empowered-employees-013176.php accessed in October 2011

Potterfield, T.A., (1999), The Business of Employee Empowerment: Democracy and Ideology in the Workplace, Quorum Books, Greenwood Publishing Group Inc, available at http://goo.gl/rdhT9  accessed in October 2011