Organisations think empowering people is the route to success (but only a few act)

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Nearly 90 percent of organisations say their success depends on empowering frontline employees to make decisions in real, but only 7 percent offer people the tools they need, according to a new report from  Harvard Business Review Analytic Services, sponsored by ThoughtSpot. The report, The New Decision Makers: Equipping Frontline Workers For Success, analyses the sentiments of 464 business executives from 16 industry sectors in North America, Europe and Asia Pacific.  Only one-fifth of organisations say they currently have a truly empowered and digitally equipped workforce while 86 percent agree their frontline workers need better technology and more insight to be able to make good decisions in the moment.

Frontline employees stand to benefit the most from resources like communication and collaboration tools and self-service analytics, which top the list of technologies that survey respondents expect knowledge workers to be using over the next two years. Respondents across the board strongly believe that both work quality and productivity will increase as more data-based insights are made available to such workers. Specifically, 92 percent say the quality of work of frontline employees in their organisation would improve in the long term, and 73 percent say it would improve in the short term as well.

“Now more than ever we’re seeing a need for organisations to be able to adapt, evolve and pivot at pace in order to meet changing business demands. Frontline staff have become even more critical in enabling businesses to identify efficiencies and opportunities to navigate this new world, and most simply don’t have the tools they need,” said Sudheesh Nair, CEO of ThoughtSpot. What this research shows is what we see with our own customers: those that are empowering and equipping the frontlines are not only delivering better customer experiences, but breaking down the traditional business silos and structures needed for true agility and transformation.”


Technology and telecoms outperform other industries

The study also found huge discrepancies between different industries in terms of their capacity for empowering frontline staff – with technology/telecoms outperforming all other industries.

Based on collected performance data, the report was able to identify certain industries as ‘Leaders’ and ‘Laggards’ when it comes to empowering employees and equipping them with digital tools to make informed business decisions.

After telecoms, ‘Leaders’ were best represented by organisations within the financial services (20 percent) industries, whereas ‘Laggards’ were represented by organisations in manufacturing (18 percent), government and education (17 percent) and healthcare and pharmaceuticals (15 percent).

‘Leaders’ who are actively empowering frontline staff are already reaping the benefits, with 72 per cent saying productivity has increased at least moderately; 69 per cent saying they’ve increased both customer and employee engagement/satisfaction, and 67 per cent saying they’ve increased the quality of their products and services.

Leaders are also more likely to have seen increased revenue over the past year: 16 per cent have grown more than 30 per cent and another third have grown between 10 and 30 per cent.


The obstacles

When looking at the differences between ‘Leaders’ and ‘Laggard’ companies, it becomes clear that part of the empowerment issue lies in part within the culture of these businesses. For example, respondents at ‘Laggard’ companies were 10 times more likely than ‘Leaders’ to say their top management does not want frontline workers making decisions (42 percent vs. 4 percent).

Further, organisations are not able to realise the benefits of a fully empowered workforce without overcoming the barriers influencing the decision-making process. Currently, the largest hurdle to frontline worker empowerment is the lack of effective change management and adoption processes (44 percent).

Quality frontline decision-making is driving short term gains, but more drastically propelling better business in the long term

Additionally, nearly one third (31 percent) say a lack of skills to make appropriate use of technology-enabled insight is an obstacle. While almost all respondents (91 percent) say that managers and supervisors play an essential role in empowering frontline workers, over half (51 percent overall, 66 percent of ‘Laggards’) say managers and supervisors are not well equipped with the right tools, training, and knowledge to empower frontline employees appropriately.

For a fully empowered and productive and frontline, organisations can learn from the ‘Leaders’. ‘Leaders’ specifically report that a shift to a data-driven culture is critical to their corporate strategy (51 percent compared to 23 percent of ‘Laggards’). As a result, ‘Leaders’ are investing more heavily than others in digital capabilities that are designed to transform frontline working: They widely expect their organisations to adopt collaboration tools (55 percent) and self-service analytics (54 percent) over the next two years.

Industries across can also invest more deeply in training employees. Today, only two-thirds invest in programmes that teach workers how to use new technology tools and only half (46 percent) are spending on programmes that show workers how to effectively apply the insights these technologies provide.

“Quality frontline decision-making is driving short term gains, but more drastically propelling better business in the long term,” said Alex Clemente, managing director,  at Harvard Business Review Analytics Services. “The shift to an empowered workforce is causing organisations to experience significant increases in productivity and customer and employee satisfaction, however, more holistically, these efforts are also generating enhanced innovation, top-line growth, market position and profitability. To enable this growth, we expect top management to first prioritise building a culture and team that supports data-based decision-making.”

Image by Gerd Altmann