New e-commerce food chain breaks employee/employer bond

Among the many new rules of e-business are the ones surrounding the employer/employee relationship and the relationships between managers and employees.

It’s been clear for some time that the traditional employee/employer covenant is broken. The old days where companies merely exploited individuals’ skills to build wealth in a paternalistic fashion are gone. Companies and employees are now in a partnership that is based on the individual’s employability and common goals.

Worker mobility is a given, and people are more interested in what they can learn from your company than they are in forming a long-term bond.

Another new e-business rule is one that relates to where the knowledge and power live in the company. In the traditional command-and-control organization, the company’s “smarts” lived at the top of the organizational chart. Not so today – and I don’t mean that in the Dilbert sense.

Rather, in e-business organizations, corporate intelligence bubbles up from the bottom – with customers and teams of autonomous individuals who have the freedom to innovate.

In old-style organizations, the assumption was that workers were limited in their abilities. As a result, they had little input, and were given little authority.

Instead, companies built complex business processes, and stovepiped job roles. Workers were relegated to performing narrow tasks that were determined by those complex business processes.

However, in the e-business world, speed, agility and innovation are the drivers of success, and stovepiped people and companies are rigid and inflexible.

To be fast, agile, and innovative, companies need flexible boundaries – between levels of hierarchy, between functional groups, and between suppliers and customers.

If your organization operates in a command-and-control style (such as the prevailing belief that your corporate know-how lives at the top of your company and your department runs on complex business processes and stovepiped job descriptions), you will stumble on the way to e-business nirvana.

Gartner Group’s research on effective e-business teams shows that teams thrive in a customer-driven environment in which the individuals on the team have the power and the freedom to achieve a result. This holds true whether the team is made up of five people or 500 people.

How, then, must organizations change to achieve more fruitful relationships with their employees and succeed at e-business?

First, I believe they will have to employ streamlined, yet effective, business processes. The result will be complex job roles, in which individuals hold a broad collection of responsibilities (not just one component). In such an organization, teaming is a given and the teams — not the boss — have the authority.

This futuristic view is already evident when we consider complex job roles such as project manager, vendor manger, internal consultant, and others. These job roles are broadly defined, encompass a wide array of responsibilities, and bestow great authority on individuals or teams of people.

In e-enabled businesses, managers’ roles change too, and the boss is no longer the decision-maker, but rather the coach of the team. You can make this change by providing a “vision,” a high degree of moral and career support, and clearing away obstacles that might get in the way of the team’s success. So if you are a manager, spend less time managing processes, and more time coaching your people.

Breaking the command-and-control mentality is difficult, and is one of the reasons so many companies have opted for the spin-off approach when tackling e-business.

It’s easier to create this kind of culture when you are starting from scratch. However you do it, remember that functional e-business teams don’t produce under the stern eye of an overlord. Rather, they flourish under the tutelage of an advisor and coach.

In the e-business world, management’s job is not decision-making; rather, it is facilitating, coaching, and clearing the corporate hurdles so that the team can achieve results.

Barb Gomolski is a research director at Gartner Group, a Stamford, Conn.-based research firm.

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