What’s in a Role? Another relic of the industrial age?

How should organisations manage their workforces in the post-industrial age? How should roles be described? More importantly, how does one assess whether a role is being performed adequately or not?

Think about how workforce planning is being done in your organisation. Traditionally the human resources department will sit down with senior executives to map out the types of roles and positions the organisation needs to maximise performance. These named roles will typically be accompanied by a role description. There even may be a set of named competencies attached to these named roles. Having set up the ‘template’ for the identified roles, they can then be used to recruit new staff, assess current staff, identify training and development programmes, or even compare the organisation against competency benchmarks. There are several guides and templates for doing this. Sounds very logical and rational? The problem is that this model was designed for an age when the majority of staff were engaged in repetitive industrial style work. Efficiency was achieved through standardising roles and work instructions. Feedback cycles were short with product defects, clerical errors and the like identified by other compliance checking roles. The end customer was typically several degrees of separation away from the majority of the workforce.

Wind the clock forward to today. The equivalent of a shop floor manufacturing worker or a bank clerical worker is the call centre operator or the fast food restaurant waiter or waitress. Their day-to-day interactions are not with a passive manufactured product or a paper invoice to be created and checked. They deal with end customers. People who can talk back, form opinions and make decisions that can directly impact the fortunes of your organisation. But are we still describing the needs of these key roles in the same way that we would describe the job of a factory or clerical worker of the last century? To illustrate, I have selected one of many similar examples of a template for a call centre operator, found on the Internet. I have underlined the job tasks that I really care about as a prospective ‘customer’ of these services:

Inbound Call Center Job Description
General Purpose

Answer incoming calls from customers to take orders, answer inquiries and questions, handle complaints, troubleshoot problems and provide information.

 Main Job Tasks and Responsibilities

  • answer calls and respond to emails
  • handle customer inquiries both telephonically and by email
  • research required information using available resources
  • manage and resolve customer complaints
  • provide customers with product and service information
  • enter new customer information into system
  • update existing customer information
  • process orders, forms and applications
  • identify and escalate priority issues
  • route calls to appropriate resource
  • follow up customer calls where necessary
  • document all call information according to standard operating procedures
  • complete call logs
  • produce call reports

 Key Competencies

  • verbal and written communication skills
  • listening skills
  • problem analysis and problem solving
  • customer service orientation
  • organizational skills
  • attention to detail
  • judgment
  • adaptability
  • team work
  • stress tolerance
  • resilience

Outbound Call Center Job Description
General Purpose

Interact by phone with outside parties to solicit orders for goods or services, request donations, make appointments, collect information or conduct follow-up.

 Main Job Tasks and Responsibilities

  • contact businesses or private individuals by phone
  • deliver prepared sales scripts to persuade potential customers to purchase a product or service or make a donation
  • describe products and services
  • respond to questions
  • identify and overcome objections
  • take the customer through the sales process
  • obtain customer information
  • obtain possible customer leads
  • maintain customer/potential customer data bases
  • follow up on initial contacts
  • complete records of telephonic interactions, orders and accounts

 Key Competencies

  • communication skills
  • persuasiveness
  • problem solving
  • adaptability
  • tenacious
  • negotiation skills
  • stress tolerance
  • high energy level

Now if you do the same you may not be as harsh as I have by selecting just one of the tasks/responsibilities for each of the inbound and outbound roles, but I suggest you would be hard pressed to find many more. So why is this so? Why are call centre operators being selected on their ability to become 21st century factory or clerical workers? Following processes, filling data bases, even delivering pre-prepared ‘would you like fries with that’ scripts!

A key issue is how performance is assessed against job tasks. In the industrial age, performance was largely measured by output alone. How many widgets were produced; how many invoices were processed etc.. Quality issues could be identified by ‘inspector’ roles and corrected in short order. Unfortunately the same model is being applied to call centre operators. The ‘production’ metric is number of calls made or serviced. While we get the ‘this call is being monitored for…..’, one suspects that only a very small proportion of these calls are actually ‘inspected’. A dissatisfied customer or prospect is largely invisible to the organisation. A ‘compliance check’ of a call centre operator against the job description could come up positive when they are failing on the key customer engagement dimensions and visa versa. Role descriptions from the industrial age do not translate well to our service centric economy.

Interestingly, when you look at the identified ‘Key Competencies’ for each role they appear to be directed at the job tasks that I as the ‘customer’ has identified, more so than the process centred tasks. So the designers of this job description do have a sense of what is required to be successful in the role. But how they describe the role is last century industrial.

So what’s Missing and what can be done?

engineering seredipityFirstly we need to appreciate that work is social. This was the case in the industrial age, but amplified now as the majority of jobs today require interactions with other staff to get the work done. A McKinsey study found that some 70% of staff roles require tacit knowledge and interactions. The archetype call centre operator is shown as someone sitting in their cubicle on the phone to their clients, with little scope to converse with their fellow operators or other staff. In fact if they were caught in dialogue with their fellow staff this may be seen as time taken away from the main task of taking calls. Reading the job descriptions there is little reference to interacting with anyone other than a customer and a database.  Strict compliance to these job descriptions leaves no scope for learning from more experienced staff, understanding the human aspects of escalating or re-routing customer calls etc.. In fact I would suggest that those deemed as being excellent call centre operators would probably fail a strict compliance check against the stated job role.

The problem is that job designers are still looking to prescribe job roles and processes as if they were designing a factory. The majority of staff are now ‘knowledge workers’ who need to interact with their fellow workers to effectively do their work. Knowledge workers need to be supported in building their expertise through interacting with their fellow knowledge workers, rather than forcing this activity underground. An anthological study of photocopying repair staff at Xerox identified the socialisation processes that were essentially conducted outside of normal work, yet were critical for building the technical competence required. Despite the existence of copious technical reference material, sharing stories about repair experiences provided the ‘social learning’ that contributed most to repair technician competency. We therefore need to allow the socialisation activities to be brought to the surface and be subject to inspection, analysis and improvement in the same way that business processes and work instructions are.

Making Roles Interactions Visible

The traditional role description will specify required interactions only at an aggregated level e.g. “work with marketing to…..”; “discussing needs with clients….”; “making pitches to ….”, etc.. Contrast this to the granularity of the job role specifications for the call centre operators that are processes centred: “enter new customer information into system”; “complete record of telephonic interactions, orders and accounts”.  We can easily assess whether the call centre operator is fulfilling these aspects of the job by reviewing the data base entries. But what can we do to assess whether the important interaction requirements are being fulfilled?

We have been conducting SNA studies for some 15 years now, but for the first time, through the use of an interactive web based mapping tool we have been able to facilitate explorative sessions where the clients can follow paths of enquiry that spark their interest and inquisitiveness the most.  Interestingly we have found that clients want to focus on job roles the most. They have become keenly interested into how people really do their jobs. For the first time they can look at how different people playing the same roles interact with their stakeholders. The interactions are exposed at the individual level i.e. a high resolution picture of how individual roles interact with each other.  For example, we mapped the interaction patterns of two “Account Director” roles for one client:
AD Map - Whats in a Role

At first glance it is clear that Account Director 2 is much more connected with many more links to external clients (blue dots) than Account Director 1. It’s worth noting that for Account Director 1, two of the three customer connections are shared with another staff member. For Account Director 2 the majority of customers are unique and not connected with other staff. So which is the best pattern of interaction? The fact that we could be having this conversation and doing this type of analysis at the granularity we were, is unique in itself. The conversation moved to one of “what is an ideal interaction pattern for the account director role?”

Not only are the Executive now able to think in more detail about how their knowledge workers should be interacting in some detail, they can also identify how these patterns should evolve over time. For the individuals themselves they are able to compare their own networking patterns against other peer workers. They are now able to have business improvement discussions by comparing networking patterns in the same way that a Six Sigma process might be used to assess a business process run chart.

Coming back to the question of “what is an ideal interaction pattern for position X?”, creates a whole new level of conversation, debate and analysis about job roles requiring interaction (with is now 70%+). As indicated earlier, traditional job descriptions would have phrases like “work with….”; “pass on to…”; “obtain from…” as if these were simply mechanical tasks. In reality many of these tasks may require significant negotiation backward and forth. If we think about the Account Director role, some fundamental activities could be described with terms like “Co-ordinate”; “Represent”; “Broker”; “Gatekeep”; “Liaise”; “Consult” etc.. Social Network Analysis researchers have for some time been working on identifying these types of roles that people may be playing, independent of the organisational labels that they are given. The importance of this is that job roles can be aligned with how people naturally prefer to operate. If someone is a natural broker, why not allocate him or her a formal role that plays to his or her strengths?

Looking at the Account Director (AD) role again we can identify different ways with which the role could be executed simply by analysing the networking patterns:

BP Maps-whats in a role

On the left we can see the role played as a gatekeeper i.e. all contact has to flow through the AD role like a funnel from internal to external. In the middle, the connections are the same but this time they are two-way or reciprocated. This would indicate more than a ‘handover’ is being performed and more of an active co-ordination is happening, but still the AD is central to the activity. On the right we have a situation that relationships have been built directly between the external and internal stakeholders. While the AD may have instigated the connection, ongoing interaction can continue independent of the AD, leaving the AD time to create new connections and broker new relationships. Which behaviour would you like to see in your Account Directors? Perhaps some behaviours are context dependent as the first case showed, where maturity of the market dictated how the role should be played. The important point is that we can start to have business improvement discussions that were not possible without the relationship data being collected.

Closing Thoughts

It would be naïve to think that executives are not intuitively aware of the challenges faced by many of the job roles that are demanding more effective collaboration today. This is evidenced by the mismatch in the job descriptions and competency requirements illustrated in the call centre operator example. Process centric job descriptions are potentially constraining the ability of senior executives to effectively build, monitor and enhance workforces where collaboration is replacing process as the key value driver.

The workplace is becoming more ‘socialised’. Its not only social networking, social media, or even flatter organisations. Industrial style workforce planning now needs to be adapted to meet the changing needs of businesses to be more adaptive and reactive to customers needs. The days when only the thin layer of sales staff were the only ones who interacted with clients is well and truly gone. Organisations need to identify and develop leaders at all levels and functions within the organisation. The science of Social Network Analysis has been with us for over 80 years now. It is now time to bring the practice into the mainstream for developing and managing our workforces.