Business Week‘s Rachael King, in a piece titled “Workers of the World, Innovate,” leads with a story of how the Pitney Bowes corporation, makers of office equipment, improved its customer service call-in operations:
Yet rather than ask managers to come up with a fix, Pitney Bowes . . . executives put the challenge to the workforce. Within days, employees proffered a solution that the company then implemented. “It goes far beyond management deciding to change and to innovate, and there are so many good ideas that could be acted on that are with the people who are right there every day, dealing with customers,” says Pitney Bowes Chief Executive Officer Murray Martin. A measurable increase in customer satisfaction was “almost immediate.”
Pitney Bowes and other companies are using “collective intelligence” software programs to solicit employee input and recommendations on specific problems ard challenges. The article reports that sales of these software programs are increasing significantly.
Peter Drucker likely would approve
The late Peter Drucker, management guru and author, likely would approve of these practices. In his book Managing for the Future (1992), he extolled the virtues of employee input and participation in problem solving.
Early 20th century industrial theory, he noted, believed in “the wisdom of the expert” and regarded mid-level managers and rank-and-file workers as a bunch of “dumb oxen.” World War II changed that philosophy, however, for when all the experts were in uniform, “we had to ask the workers.” Companies quickly learned that input from workers could increase productivity and improve quality.
The lesson, Drucker concluded, is that “partnership with the responsible worker is the only way” to succeed in today’s knowledge and service economy.
Listen, implement, and reward
Of course, it’s not enough simply to mine the best of employee suggestions for the benefit of the company. It’s also absolutely essential to reward the workers who provided the ideas.
Insecure organizations and leaders quietly implement the suggestions of others and don’t provide proper recognition; it’s called stealing credit. Confident organizations and leaders, however, eagerly bestow appropriate accolades and compensation and build a culture of genuine participation.
The Drucker passage above was adapted from my 1998 law review article, “Voices from the Cubicle: Protecting and Encouraging Private Employee Speech in the Post-Industrial Workplace,” Berkeley Journal of Employment and Labor Law, available as a free download here.