Guest Blog by Norman Pickavance. My first car was a Volvo : An evolution of the thinking and practice behind Shared Enterprise at Grant Thornton. Part II

My first car was a Volvo : An evolution of the thinking and practice behind Shared Enterprise at Grant Thornton

Guest blog by Norman Pickavance

As a graduate trainee I was paid to spend my Thursday’s at what is now part of Manchester Business School. I really couldn’t see the point of many of the subjects, but I did have a favourite class. Late on Thursday afternoons, when many students slipped off down the pub, I would  stay and listen to a  quirky professor, in an ill-fitting suit and kipper tie, talk about experiments in empowerment. His pet topic was ‘Alienation Theory’. Modern business practices , he said , inevitably led to people losing control of their lives because they had lost control of their work. As a result people ceased to be ‘autonomous beings’, ultimately leading to feelings of alienation and stress, and my professor enthused, this was the real source of Britain’s terrible record in employee productivity.

He did however know of one alternative. In the small town of Kalmar, Sweden, a factory had been purpose built to bring humanity back into the workplace. About 4 hours drive south of Stockholm, Kalmar was producing the iconic, Volvo 240 estate car. The Kalmar plant set out to be deliberately anti-Fordist. Gone were the long production lines with people acting as replaceable cogs in a giant assembly process, and in came work designed around people. Early videos showed people working in teams, around rotating circular ‘jig’s’ which could raise or lower the cars allowing one team to build one car at a time, alleviating feelings of disconnection, each person able to put something of themselves into the end product, generating a clear sense of identity, purpose and pride.

I was so taken by what I had heard , that the first car I could afford was a very, very old Volvo.

I was therefore more than surprised when, the idea that the workplace needed to be re-invented in a more humanistic way, failed to really take hold. The plant in Kalmar is now closed, Britain’s productivity figures still lag the rest of the G7, and whilst the idea of people working side by side on production lines may have been replaced by robots, there are still plenty of offices from Manchester to London where banks of people sit side by side working on disaggregated tasks, where it’s hard for any individual to see the real value of their individual contribution.

Contemporary thinkers like Frederic Laloux, believe that this is all about to change, that we are at long last about to enter a new era, in which businesses who need to be more authentic, collaborative and innovative will only be able to perform if they open up to the humanity of all their people. In some ways however his case studies serve as a stark reminder that organizations who are doing things differently are still few and far between and in some ways are the exceptions that prove the rule.

As if to underline the point, a few weeks back I was invited to participate in a round table on shared ownership at the Houses of Parliament. A table of experts gathered, including Graeme Nutall author of the Government’s Business Department’s ( BIS ) report on Employee Ownership, Karin Christiansen from the Co-operative movement and Nita Clarke co-author of ‘Engage for Success’, to share stories on the benefits of creating a workplace that was more human and more productive. All agreed that this would only happen if we increased levels of inclusion, changed how decisions are made and provided more people with a greater share in the ownership of firms. A challenge we said  that would certainly require a far more courageous kind of leadership.

Which brings me back to the reason I am writing this blog. In my first note on shared enterprise I outlined how Grant Thornton was stepping into this challenge, not as experts but as experimentalists, trusting in the wisdom of the wider organisation, realising that increasing involvement would lead to an evolution of different ideas about how we could grow together as a business.

We have decided to share our experiences and be as transparent as possible. Not to show how perfect we are, rather to show that we are not , and that we are learning by doing, simply getting on with things, and hoping that in the process this will encourage others. Our pilots at Gatwick and Southampton and other locations around the UK have taken place. Over 400 people have taken part, over1,000 ideas linked to our strategy have been surfaced and over 100 facilitators from around the firm have been trained at events in Leeds and London. Over this three week process we have been learning how to help people bring the best of their ideas to life.

We have done this by providing a simple framework ; a single question linked to the firms strategy, a supportive environment in which people can explore ideas together, a few ‘thinking tools’ which help people to hone in on the ideas that can move the business forward, and great facilitation that can help to refine the questions and clarify ideas so that people can see the wood for the tree’s. To run these sessions, each facilitator has been provided with a ‘Kit in a box’ , with the ideas, tools and materials they will need to run a session. Yet despite this our facilitators have been concerned. Could they really run such ‘open’ sessions? Could they steer groups without directing the discussions? We have found that our facilitators have needed exposure to at least two of the sessions, the first to understand the nuts and bolts of how a session runs, the second to get a feel of how such open discussions really flow and to build everyone’s confidence.

This however hasn’t been our only worry of recent weeks. The sheer logistics involved in capturing, processing and acting on people’s ideas in an organisation of 5,000 people has given several of us major headaches. Having opened up ideas sharing on line as well as through facilitated groups. The real question it turns out, is not producing the ideas, but where do those ideas go, will anything actually happen to them when they get there, and how will the ideas all be aligned with the firms strategy.

The risk, put simply, is that despite our best efforts will our actions only confirm people’s worst fears if we fail to quickly get back to people and show that we were acting on their input? What we have realised is that Shared Enterprise can’t operate like a suggestion scheme, where people submit their ideas but have no real sense of ownership about whether anything happens with them. We have to ensure that everyone has the tools, encouragement and space to challenge each other at a local peer group level. This would then ensure that less-practical ideas could be culled early, whilst ideas that could be executed locally were given the freedom to proceed without further oversight or delay.

Another real concern that has emerged in the first few weeks are both about and from managers. Some managers fear that this dynamic bottom up process will be bypass them completely and that they will no longer know what is going on in their units others are unclear about the role they need to play. We know our thinking here needs a good deal more consideration. We are looking to create something that is not bureaucratic, yet we must include everyone, particularly those who see it as their role to co-ordinate communications. To help this along  we are tagging and tracking all ideas on a firm wide basis and will produce regular reports that everyone can see. However getting visibility isn’t the same as taking accountability, so we are now embedding responsibility for fostering shared enterprise engagement in objectives across our leadership teams. As we manage through transition to new ways of working, striking a balance between inclusion and freedom on one hand and alignment and focus on the other, we are going to test all of our thinking and collaborative skills.

At the end of July 2015, this is where we are. We have decided we know enough to proceed, to move from a pilot phase to a full deployment across the organisation and to continue up our rapid learning curve. We have a really strong team in place helping to bring all this to life.

What is certain however is that there will be many more and varied challenges ahead.

 Postscript :

The Volvo factory at Kalmar produced cars for over 30 years, finally closing in 1994.

What is also interesting about this purpose built site is the way it was constructed. Organised around a series of interlocking hexagons it was a major departure from the long narrow production plant design that had been the norm for car manufacturing sites up to that point. The design was built to reflect the interconnected nature of the activities and to create the right space in which people could operate more humanely with one another.

Hexagons are of course the building blocks of Graphine, (the strongest, most flexible ,fastest  conducting substance) – and a model for how we are starting to think about our organisation.

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