Putting people at the center: much more than care

Since I have been working there has not been a time when I have not heard that we should put people at the center. And given that the subject already existed before and still exists today, it seems that we haven’t really got there yet.

What does it mean to put people at the center?

When I hear the speeches behind these exhortations they fall into two categories.

First of all, the logic of “care”. People are our most important asset, so we must take care of them. This also applies to people who say the same thing simply because they are people who think without any logic of value, which I have sometimes heard called the Care Bear trend.

And then there are performance logics. It is the capacity of people to innovate, to make decisions, to solve problems, to be creative that will allow the business to get by, and since the world has changed, since the “brainpower” is becoming more important than the manpower, we must rebuild operationally around them.

Care works but it is not what people expect

On the whole, care logic has worked as long as the businesses wanted to follow this path.

For this to work, three conditions had to be met

The first was that either the business had the necessary culture or that it had its back to the wall. Or a good mix of both.

For those whose culture was compatible with it, the impulse went quickly, for the others, between the COVID, the confinement and the fear of Quiet Quitting, they found the compelling reason to force their nature.

Then they had to have the means. The advantage of care is that if, ideally, it requires means, it can also be done in a fairly economical way by working on behaviors

Finally, and this reason is rarely mentioned, it was necessary that it did not change anything in the daily functioning. The organization, the role of the manager (or very little or in a light manner, because in the end HR will do the work of managers who do not do it), the processes… nothing fundamental is questioned and life goes on.

This has been put in place and it works up to a certain point, the point where employees realize that it is mainly used to avoid tackling what they consider to be their real problems.

Leadership thinks what people want is to have the forum to break down or talk,” she says, “but that’s backward. People don’t want to really open up to their colleagues, and if they did, they probably wouldn’t do it at a company workshop.”

Simply, employees may not want to opt into corporate wellness programmes because these resources are not entirely the right kind of help. “Do I want classes on meditation? Yes. But do they move the needle on the stuff that matters, that will actually change the way an employee feels? No,”

And what matters to them is their working conditions, the way work is organized, their pay (now the number one criteria for employee experience) and I’m not even talking about those for whom having people at the center of attention (i.e. talking a lot by doing little) is already more than enough.

Which brings us to the second point.

Putting the organization at the service of talents? Complicated.

The other option is to rebuild the organization around people and collective intelligence, and as I said above, this is more and more necessary every day because it corresponds to the context in which businesses operate today.

This can materialize in various ways (non-exhaustive list)

  • Open innovation
  • People Centric Operations even if, as I said here, this is still an unfinished research.
  • The implementation of dual organizations mixing hierarchy and networks.

I will dwell on this point because it is the one on which we have the most distance. Although he is not the only one to have studied the subject and come to similar bottom lines, John Kotter has clearly formalized the interest for a business to operate according to a dual organizational model.

Hierarchy, a formal structure, to give structure, efficiency and stability to what is planned and even scheduled.

Informal networks to provide agility and responsiveness, to deal with the unexpected and react to what cannot be predicted.

That’s for the theory. In 2009, I talked about how CISCO had transformed itself around networks and communities of experts.

In the video, which has now disappeared but I found a similar one and anyway the text of my comments remained, John Chambers, the CEO of Cisco, said nothing else:

  • the business must be able to handle more market transitions (choose between create, buy, build and say how) and faster. The goal was to be able to handle 26 of these strategic priorities per year, compared to 1 at the start.
  • To achieve this, the hierarchical organization no longer worked and it relied on boards and councils, virtual communities of experts created in an adhoc manner and operating outside the hierarchy with the pillars of collaboration and collective intelligence.
  • For this to work, he had to change his own leadership style (he admits to being a control freak, but understood that the future of the business was elsewhere), force managers to spend part of their time on cross-functional activities, and had to let go of managers who didn’t fit into the model.

This is a good example of an organization that puts people back at the center: the organization and functioning of certain activities are built around networks that form and disappear as needed and once these communities have allowed management to make a decision, the formal and hierarchical part of the business takes care of the execution.

Many businesses have been tempted by this model and this type of transformation has been the core of mo, work for about ten years. What was the result? I’ve heard that less than 1% have succeeded and I think that’s a credible figure.

Why? I’ll come back another day on the limits of what is called “technolog-led transformation” but one of the answers is quite obvious and is a mirror of the reasons why care has taken over: we touch structures, processes, leadership modes and this up to the top of the business.

Not only is it very complicated, let’s face it. But then, not everyone has the will to do it and those who have to impose it don’t have the courage to go through with it.

Putting people at the center is basically :

  • Empowering people
  • Letting people make decisions and have a say in the major choices of the business
  • Letting people have an impact on the way the company is organized and how their work is organized
  • To a certain extent, put the business at the service of talents

All of this, of course, in a system that is built, managed, organized, measured and not in a joyful cacophony.

But for this to happen, we also need to trust. But it’s funny to see that we are doing care because people are the most important asset of the business, but that we don’t trust this asset enough to put it at the center of the business, of operations, of decisions.

But we talk about collective intelligence, and in the end, few businesses are betting on intelligence versus the illusion of control.

Bottom line

There are two ways to put people at the center of the business.

First, by taking care of them, and second in a logic of performance, by putting them at the center of the business, of decisions, of the construction of working methods, of operations, in a logic of performance.

The first works but disappoints over time, and the second has always been very complicated to implement because, unlike the first, it puts a lot of things into question.

This is the reason why we keep talking about the subject because it is never really solved?

Images: people centric from batjaket via Shutterstock

Bertrand DUPERRINhttps://www.duperrin.com/english
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

Recent posts