Monday, 2 May 2011

"Computer says NO"

In the last few years I've had dealings with Barclays bank in the UK. Their model of staff development and promotion depends on moving staff around constantly and upgrading them accordingly. The idea seems to be to familiarise everyone with different aspects of the business. If you happen to enjoy dealing with the public and don't want to become a back office manager, then your pay may be restricted and your work not so highly valued, because you choose to stay where you are. I imagine that head office regard the few who choose to stick to a particular frontline job as 'barnacle' managers and think that they slow the ship in its progress.

Instead of training staff in detail, information is made available through a centralised database. This is fine in theory yet seems to ignore how human beings actually function. I know that some people read the manual from cover to cover and learn everything there is to understand about a machine or system. Many people ignore the manual until they need something specific, at which time they drill down through the information as far as they need to make something work. That's OK if you're running a computer, but not so great if a client has come to ask you about a specific product or wants to make a change in their account. If it takes half an hour to access the information and apply it satisfactorily, then you're likely to lose all credibility with the customer and try their patience to the limit.

At Barclays, while waiting to see a particular 'barnacle' manager, I observed many times the same pattern. The young movers and shakers would approach the older 'barnacle' who could explain what they needed in 5 minutes, rather than leaving them to struggle (in front of their customer) for half an hour. What I could see and head office couldn't was that the 'barnacle' was the lynchpin of the branch, ensuring that the wheel didn't come off the bus.

Nonaka and Takeuchi have studied how organisations manage knowledge, in particular the tricky bits that come from experience known as tacit knowledge.

Much of what is really important exists informally in people's heads and they are typically not conscious of what they know. Nonaka and Takeuchi looked at how to make tacit local knowledge explicit and available to others using 4 processes:

1 Socialisation - encouraging teams to share tacit experiences and mental models through observations and imitation

2 Externalisation - expressing explicit knowledge by repeated exchanges so that its meaning is clarified

3 Combination - standardising knowledge and combining new ideas with existing knowledge

4 Internalisation - reframing implicit understanding to take account of new knowledge and enrich tacit knowledge

I'm not sure that Barclays head office is clear about tacit knowledge, but certainly tries to share information by externalising it in a computer database. The local lynchpin encourages socialisation and shares his tacit knowledge, to the benefit of young colleagues.

If the lynchpin is away, staff rely on the slower route to serving customers and there seems little encouragement to share and record or internalise what they've learnt, as they're likely to move on to another job before that happens.

I found the lynchpin manager via a trusted member of a business network. If I hadn't found this person who could help me solve a lot of problems quickly and easily, I'd probably have moved everything to a different bank.

Moving staff around, enabling them to learn every aspect of the business is worthwhile. It may help to prevent silos developing and encourage staff to think of the business as a whole. There's also value in recognising the achievement of lynchpins who hold the structure together, so that other colleagues can move around and progress.

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