Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Look within to pick up productivity

One of the tricks to success - in business, or in life - is to focus on the things that matter, not the things people (and hence, the media) are getting excited about this week. Of late we seem to be doing a lot of worrying about the wrong things.

For instance, our preference for bad news over good means we've been doing a lot of hand-wringing over the economic problems in Europe and the US. What's happening in China and the rest of developing Asia may be far less worrying - and hence, less interesting - but it's also far more important to the fate of our economy.

When we look at our economy, we give much more attention to the alleged two-speed economy - who's feeling hard done-by this week? - than to the truth that, with limited exceptions, the economy has been travelling well, is travelling well and is likely to continue travelling well.

As part of this, of late we've been devoting inordinate attention to the problems of the manufacturing sector (which accounts for 9 per cent of total employment), without any concern for the services sector (accounting for a mere 85 per cent of employment), even though two big service industries - tourism and education - have also been hard hit by the high dollar.

But even those of us happy to acknowledge how well our economy's travelling, thanks to high export prices and the mining construction boom, are less conscious of the sad truth that, underneath all that, the economy's productivity - output per unit of input - has stopped improving.

We're getting richer because the world is paying us a lot more for our exports and is engaged in a massive expansion of our mining industry, not because our businesses are getting more efficient at what they do.

That message is, however, getting through to big business and its various lobby groups. Only trouble is, in their search for a solution to the productivity problem they've been looking outside their firms, not inside. Perhaps if the government reformed the tax system, that would lift productivity. Or maybe going back to Work Choices would help.

It's possible that, while they come to our attention only when they're putting their oar into the public debate, most chief executives are busily engaged attending to their own, internal affairs. It's possible, but there doesn't seem much evidence of it.

That's why the most useful thing to come from last week's jobs forum in Canberra was the unveiling of a study on the leadership, culture and management practices of high-performing workplaces, sponsored by the Society for Knowledge Economics with funding from the federal government.

A team of academics from the University of NSW, the Australian National University, Macquarie University and the Copenhagen Business School examined 77 businesses in the services sector with more than 5600 employees. Most were medium size, and included law and accounting firms, advertising companies, consulting firms and employment agencies.

It's probably the most comprehensive study of workplace performance undertaken in Australia in the past 15 years. The performance of businesses was measured in six categories: profitability and productivity, innovation, employee emotions, fairness, leadership and customer orientation.

The study identified 12 high-performing workplaces and 13 low-performing workplaces, leaving most of the firms studied somewhere in the middle. So what are the characteristics of high-performing workplaces and how much better are they than the low-performing?

Well, not surprisingly, the best performers were more profitable and productive. According to the lead researcher, Dr Christina Boedker, high-performing workplaces are up to 12 per cent more productive and three times more profitable.

And it's not too surprising the best performers are better at innovation. They generate more new ideas and are better at capturing and assessing their employees' ideas. In consequence, they make more improvements to services and products, production processes, management structures and marketing methods.

But some treat-'em-mean-to-keep-'em-keen managers will be surprised that high-performing outfits do better on employee emotions. They have higher levels of job satisfaction, employee commitment and willingness to exert extra effort, and lower levels of anxiety, fear, depression and feelings of inadequacy. Part of the bottom-line consequence of this is lower rates of staff turnover.

The employees of high-performing firms tend to be more satisfied people, are being paid fairly and company policies are being implemented fairly.

High-performing firms rate better on customer experience. They try harder to understand customer needs, are better at acting on customer feedback and better at achieving their own goals for customer satisfaction.

But the study is particularly concerned with the performance and attitudes of managers, which business-types these days put under the heading of ''leadership''. In high-performing outfits, managers and supervisors devote more time to managing their people, have clear values and practise what they preach.

They welcome criticism as a learning opportunity. They foster involvement and co-operation among staff, give them opportunities to lead activities, encourage development and learning, give them recognition and acknowledgement and encourage them to think about problems in new ways.

The management practices that do best, according to the study, are being highly responsive to changes in customers' and suppliers' circumstances, encouraging high employee participation in decision-making, achieving on-the-job learning through mentoring and job rotation, making effective use of information and technology and attracting and retaining high quality people.

Of course, different managers have different cultures or styles. Some emphasise results, some their people and some coping with change. The study finds all three approaches can make a high-performance workplace. The one style that doesn't work is the ''control'' culture.

Wow. How'd you like to work for such a boss in such an enlightened business? Pity is, such firms accounted for only 15 per cent of the sample.