I read a post over at Social Media Today about the “Opportunity Economy.” It’s a terrific post and raised some real interesting thoughts about marketing to today’s consumer in this ever-changing post recession economy.
But the one thing that I’m a bit unsure of is its premise that, for businesses to take advantage of these opportunities, they will have to “empower employees” to react at a moment’s notice.
Most of us probably remember empowerment. It was a big business catchword in the 90’s. The idea was to empower employees to make their own decisions as long as they benefited the customer. Most companies heralded it as a customer service savior that would put decision-making in the hands of front line staff. All to the delight of their patrons while freeing up management for, um . . . well . . . let’s just say more important things.
A classic example of how empowerment works would go like this: guest stays in a big fancy hotel. At checkout, the guest notices that they had been charged $4 for a Snickers from the minibar. Guest tells front desk clerk they didn’t eat a Snickers and the clerk, without requiring approval from management, would take the $4 charge off the account. Guest leaves happy to return often and repeatedly.
Sounds good in theory. But, if you ever studied it, so did the concept of communism. The fundamental principle of communism was that everyone provided equally for each other and benefited equally from everyone else’s labor. Everybody was equal and nobody went without (unless everyone else did). In a perfect world, who among us wouldn’t aspire to that level of equality? But I think we all begin to recognize the problem. Some individuals became “more equal” than others.
It’s the same with empowerment. The original concept required ongoing review of line employee decisions, analysis of the results of their decision-making, and frequent direct communication to guide staff in future empowerment situations. Most “not-quite-perfect” companies that adopted empowerment fully embraced the parts that dealt with front-line decision making and the freeing up management. But the review-analysis-communication part was forgone for, um . . . well . . . let’s just say more important things.
Just as basic human attributes doomed the lofty ideals of communism, corporate demands sealed the fate of empowerment. When line staff made good empowerment decisions, layers of management were eliminated to save costs (after all, what did they need them for?). And when line staff made poor decisions, they were performance managed and the “empowerment project” was called a failure. At that point, senior management calculated all the costs associated with empowerment and asked whose harebrained idea it was in the first place.
There are many things that sound great in principle or look good on a piece of paper. But, when we try to apply them on a large scale across human or corporate cultures, they gain little traction or just fail miserably. Will the opportunity economy be one of them? I don’t know. Only an open and honest evaluation of a company’s culture and capabilities will determine if a practice will be successful or just another costly and soon-to-be-forgotten management fad.
Image courtesy of Jon’s pics