Meant to raise questions and serving as a learning opportunity for graduate students in academic program around the globe, this case study lifts the corporate curtain a bit to show how innovation through intrapreneuring really happens and decision points along the way.
The newly appointed director of Innovation Management & Strategy at Boehringer Ingelheim, a German-based multinational pharmaceutical company, is finding his way forward in his firm’s new, first-of-its-kind role, which is central to the company’s growth rejuvenation strategy. His job has a threefold mandate: to build internal networks, to establish internal structures and to leverage internal ideas. His biggest challenge, however, may be transforming the organization’s DNA. The blockbuster business model that has characterized the company for decades is no longer appropriate. Instead, the firm needs to develop healthcare products available to end users over the counter. This shift in strategy requires innovative changes in distribution, delivery and customer focus. To accomplish this goal, he needs to institutionalize innovation so that it becomes sustainable. But in doing so, he must also identify the metrics for assessing progress. The case provides an opportunity for students to step into the shoes of an innovation leader, to develop an innovation roadmap for the organization in the face of uncertainty and to understand how to engage in innovation leadership at various levels of a global enterprise.
This case has two key objectives. First, this case provides students an opportunity to grapple with the difficult decisions associated with innovation in an uncertain environment. Second, this case highlights that anyone has the ability to cultivate an entrepreneurial mindset and to lead innovation. The case divides the attributes of an innovation leader into five components: observing, questioning, experimenting, networking and associating. It shows the real-life experiences of a manager doing seemingly routine activities, who evolved into a leader who transformed the DNA of a global enterprise. The case also provides a template of the tasks, responsibilities and value-added changes as an individual moves progressively within an enterprise from an operations manager to a senior manager to an innovation leader. This case can be used either toward the beginning or toward the end of any course that addresses innovation and creative thinking in a large organization. At the beginning of a course, it illustrates the challenges of acting in the face of uncertainty in a large organization. At the end of a course, the case provides an opportunity for students to apply what they have learned about innovation, entrepreneurial thinking and innovation leadership.
The traditional world of corporate Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) is being disrupted by a new take on D&I and combining it with innovation and talent management. What some perceive as a threat to the D&I establishment may just be the next step of evolution that could invigorate and drive D&I to new heights.
Though not an entirely novel approach (see also How to create innovation culture with diversity!) the new thinking gains traction. As this could play out in different ways and only time will tell what worked, here are my thought on where we are heading.
Struggles of the Front Runner
Many traditional D&I programs, let’s call them “version 1.0” of D&I, struggle transitioning beyond a collection of affinity groups, tallying corporate demographics and competing for D&I awards to post on their webpage. In these traditional D&I programs ‘diversity’ is often understood to be reflected by more or less visible differences among individuals at the workplace while ‘inclusion’ translates to supporting defined sub-populations of employees through, for example, establishing affinity groups.
The United States is seen as the front runner of the D&I movement. D&I has been around in the U.S. corporate world for decades. For historic and demographic reasons it hones in on removing obstacles for minorities at the workplace supported also by strict legislature and execution; exercising Affirmative Action, for example.
This legacy in the U.S. lends itself to an inside focus on organizations that became the backbone of the traditional D&I programs. It comes down to the question ‘what can or should the organization do for specific groups of people’ defined by ethnicity, gender, age, sexual preference, faith, disability, war history and so on. Apparently, it still is work in progress as, for example, Silicon Valley just recently got on the public radar, which stirred up the debate afresh along the lines of D&I 1.0; see Google releases breakdown on the diversity of its workforce.
Stuck in the ‘Diversity Trap’?
The inside focus and minority messaging of D&I 1.0, however, can be limiting when D&I erodes to a process of ‘doing things right’ by pushing for quotas, ‘checking boxes’ and inflating variations of terminology perceived as ‘politically correct’. This can in fact be different from ‘doing the right thing’ for the company overall, its employees as well as the affinity groups and their constituency. It should not surprise that Affinity groups can be (and often get) stigmatized and perceived as self-serving and self-centered social networks without significant and measurable business impact.
Under this paradigm these D&I 1.0 programs struggle to get serious attention, support and funding from executives beyond operating on a minor level to ‘keep the lights on’ more for public image purposes than business drive. The fundamentals seem to get forgotten: in the end, a business exists to generate a profit, so less profitable activities are likely to be discontinued or divested. It’s a symbiosis and to say it bluntly: without healthy business there is no D&I program and no affinity groups. When this symbiosis get lopsided, D&I 1.0 gets stuck in the trap.
“Diversity” is catching on beyond the United States in Europe, for example, where many countries do not have share a highly heterogeneous demographic composition, for example. Here, companies can start with a fresh approach jumping straight to D&I 2.0 – and many do! It reminds me of developing countries installing their first phone system by skipping the landlines and starting right away with mobile phones.
The 2.0 internal focus corresponds to hiring workers that truly think differently and have different backgrounds and life experiences some of which overlaps with D&I 1.0 affinity roots. In addition, there is also an external focus putting the staff to work with a clear business proposition and reaching even beyond the organization. So here a candidate would be hired or employee promoted for their different thinking (2.0) rather than more visible differences (1.0).
While need remains for affinity groups to tend to their members needs within the organization, the “new” D&I 2.0 opens to shift focus to go beyond the organization. It goes along the lines of a statement President John F. Kennedy became famous for and that I tweaked as follows: “Don’t ask what the COMPANY can do for you ask what you can do for the COMPANY AND ITS CUSTOMERS.”
D&I 2.0 gears towards actively contributing and driving new business results in measurable ways for the better of the employees as well as the organization and its customers. A visible indicator for D&I 2.0 affinity groups helping their constituency beyond company walls is affinity groups identifying and seizing business opportunities specific to their constituency. They translate the opportunity and shepherd it trough the processes of the organization to bring it to fruition. For example, affinity groups are uniquely positioned to extending and leveraging their reach to relating customer segments in order to identify ‘small elephant’ business opportunities; see How to grow innovation elephants in large organizations.
The D&I 2.0 approach demonstrates sustainable business value which is why D&I 2.0 sells much easier to executives. It makes a compelling business case that contributes to new business growth, the life blood of every company.
U.S. companies stuck in D&I 1.0 are hard pressed to keep up with the D&I 2.0 developments and overcome their inner struggle and resistance. With decades of legacy, D&I 1.0 programs in many organizations lack the vision and ability to make a compelling business case, to develop a sound strategy as well as capability and skill to implement it effectively. This is the requirement, however, to truly see eye-to-eye with senior executives and get their full support. This can become a serious disadvantage in the markets relating to products and customers but also in attracting talent.
In the end, the saying holds true that “talent attracts talent” and all organizations compete over talent to compete and succeed. Therefore, a D&I 2.0 program combines business focus and talent management while tying it back to the core of diversity and inclusion: Fostering diverse thinkers and leveling the playing field for all employees. This requires a level playing field that offers the same opportunities to all employees, which is the real challenge.
How do you level the playing field effectively in a large organization? How this will be implemented becomes the differentiating success factor for companies transitioning to D&I 2.0!
Here is a example 2.0-style for a level playing filed that has its roots in the D&I affinity group space yet opened up to include the entire workforce. It empowers and actively engages employees while leveraging diversity, inclusion and talent management for innovative solutions with profitable business outcomes. It may take a minute or two to see the connection between D&I, talent and disruptive innovation but it is at work right here in the School for Intrapreneurs: Lessons from a FORTUNE Global 500 company.
Previous posts relating to innovation and employee affinity groups / employee resource groups (ERG) / business resource groups (BRG):
In times where many companies push their employees to work from home and employees request this new freedom, YAHOO’s announcement surprised putting away with it all and returning to the old 9-to-5 office hours. (WSJ, March 5, 2013)
Senior leaders like YAHOO’s new CEO, Marissa Meyer, have doubts if remote working models work – or they struggle how to make it work effectively.
Executive paragigm: Cutting cost vs. increasing productivity
When organizations move to remote work models such as “working-from-home” or variations of it, their primary objective is either
Saving fix cost by reducing their office space footprint or
Increasing the productivity of their workforce.
They cannot have both because once hard decisions have to be made, the other side falls short – and hard decision will have to be made on the way.
If the chosen approach is to increase productivity, the implementation focuses on how to enable employees to become significantly more productive in a sustainable way, even if it incurs cost lower than the productivity gains.
Open spaces for collaboration
Sadly, however, cost cutting tends to rank top on the list for large and mature organizations, which can ultimately sacrifice productivity. Reducing office space “footprint” aims to cut cost from entertaining the real-estate and work environment including everything from utilities, to furniture, to site security, to property taxes, etc.
In practice, individual (‘closed’) offices are replaced by open office environments with the goal to have more employees working in less, shared space. Setting up colorful open office environments with cubicle clusters or zones for different work purposes is often sold as boosters for creativity and innovation, which somewhat obscures the true motives.
These office setups typically mimic the environment and agility of entrepreneurial start-up companies. They suggest increased collaboration by enabling those spontaneous and valuable ‘water cooler’ talks that randomly bring together a diverse mix of employees to exchange their ideas and collaborate on a spur, which then leads to new products and creative solutions. Some offices spaces even seem inspired by “Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory” (with less edible elements): nice to look at and tempting to get close but caution is advised before taking big bites…
Why not to focus on cutting cost
While architecture and interior design can very well affect creativity and collaboration, there are many reasons why this approach tends to fall short:
The goal of cost-cutting is to have more people sharing less space, so the open office environment works best when not all employees work there at the same time, whichbecomes the end-game of cutting cost. The approach consequently requires some employees to work remotely, typically from home as ‘tele-commuters’, which effectively leads to creating virtual teams.
Thus, not all employees are physically present at the same time to start off with, which defeats the idea of spontaneous meetings around the water-cooler or pulling teams together spontaneously as needed.
Size does matter: start-ups take their energy and agility from everyone collaborating in the same space at the same time, which is the opposite scenario of large companies trying to reduce this footprint and, subsequently, ending up moving towards remote working models.
The start-up model does not scale for large, mature companies. This is one of the reasons why large companies often break the monolithic organization at some point to form more agile hence competitive entities. A lesson learned perhaps from Charles Darwin’s “survival of the fittest.”
Since cost cutting has priority, typically, the workforce was trimmed down, so the remaining staff carries more work on less shoulders. Not only does this leave less time for the remaining office staff to hang out next to the water-cooler for a random chat, but there is less staff to meet and hang out with in the first place.
Little to no attention is given on how to make the remaining workforce more productive to manage the increased workload and invest accordingly, as here these ‘hard decisions’ come in and cost cutting is given priority.
Now, this does not mean there are no more water-cooler talks – they do happen and can be extremely valuable. But they happen less frequent and with a smaller pool of people you could possible bump into randomly. Since this “water-cooler innovation” model does not scale under the cost-saving paradigm, it effectively reduces the innovation potential resulting from random meetings overall.
What does your workplace look like, does this sound familiar at all?
Paying the price for cutting cost: Virtual Teams
Under a cost-cutting paradigm, the need for working remotely leads to the formation of more virtual teams throughout the organization. We already find 66% of virtual teams in Global 500 Enterprises include members from at least three time zones and 48% including external business partners (Harvard Business Review study of Project Management Best Practices in Global 500 Enterprises).
When ‘cost-cutting’ has priority, the performance of virtual teams still comes second. Faced with the increasing need to enable communication for a distributed workforce, for ‘cost-cutting’ organizations here comes the next challenge: how to facilitate collaboration and information flow on a budget?
This is one of the hardest decisions management is confronted with.
With tight budgets in mind, the focus turns to ‘enabling technology’ and often leads to implementing a better phone or teleconferencing system. However, cost-saving and -consequently- company-wide standards lead to compromises and mediocre features due to (what else could it be?) cost saving considerations.
What is the cost of ‘rich’ communication?
Face-to-face communication remains the ‘gold standard’ (more about the why follows in part 2 of this blog post.)
Typically, information-rich channels such as latest ‘tele-presence’ systems are disregarded for their ‘expensive’ price tag. They allow communicating in the broadest possible (virtual) way peer-to-peer.
If they are purchased at all, they often remain restricted for privileged use by executives; so there is an implied business case for rich communication channels.
Unfortunately, these are far less frequently shared with their staff lower in the organizational hierarchy. Regular employees and middle management are often enough left alone with more limiting conferencing systems and other technology to figure out how to make ‘virtual teams’ work.
Interestingly, I have never heard serious consideration given to quantify the opportunity cost, i.e. what the costs are of not implementing a tele-communication system that gets as close to face-to-face conversations as possible. It would be interesting to find out if the actual cost to buy a more expensive system is offset by the gains for its users and businesses across the organization, don’t you think?
Though this would be coming from the less popular approach to increase productivity…
Composing effective teams
Also the mix of the team members should be considered and lots more can be said about this aspect alone, so let’s just pick a few that that tend to be less on people’s minds:
Another soft factor that remains stubbornly neglected is the team composition of introverts and extroverts complementing each other for better results. Extroverts seem favored by hiring managers over introverts, but extroverts don’t necessarily make good team mates as recent UCLA studies show:
Introverts are often perceived anxious or neurotic, which feeds into the stigma of volatility and negativity that can drag on the team, when in fact they tend to work very hard so not to let their team mates down.
In contrast, extroverts appear to be the better team players yet in their core personality its all about being in the center of attention. Extroverts are good at building relationships and getting themselves noticed; this self-presentation may leave a good first impression but the self-centric core proves rather disruptive in collaborative situations, so the researchers concluded.
Also little attention is given to whom needs to work together and should be closer connected or even collocated; this approach of looking at network and workflow is usually sacrificed by enforcing cost-control top-down. Established departmental silos and cost-centers effectively become barriers for collaboration rather than by following the internal workflow and connections throughout the lower levels of the hierarchical pyramid that often remain hidden from the executive view down from the pyramid’s tip.
Why to Invest in communication and collaboration
A study on communications ROI by Towers Watson finds a 47% higher total returns to shareholders by companies that are highly effective communicators. (Capitalizing on Effective Communications, ROI Study, 2010)
Even more reason to focus on enabling collaboration and productivity – and to invest into enabling communication and relating technology accordingly.
Let’s leave the misery of why virtual teams fail here – check back soon for part 2 on How to make virtual teams work!
The increasing diversity of employees at the workplace led to employees gathering along affinity dimensions like birds-of-a-feather to form networking groups within organizations. The next step goes beyond affinity and establishes employee resource groups (ERGs) strategically as a business resource and powerful driver for measurable business impact and strategic innovation bottom-up.
Let’s start with what it takes to found a successful ERG on a high level and then drill down to real-life examples and practical advice. What you cannot go without is a strategy that creates a business need before you drum up people, which creates a buzz!
While many companiesdemand creativity and innovation from their staff few companies seem to know how to make it work. – Is your organization among those hiring new staff all the time to innovate? The hire-to-innovate practice alone is not a sustainable strategy and backfires easily.
Strategic innovation hands-on: Who hasn’t heard of successful organizations that pride their innovation culture? But the real question is what successful innovators do differently to sharpen their innovative edge over and over again – and how your organization can get there!
What every new employee resource group (ERG) requires most are people: the life-blood for ideas and activities! But how do you reach out to employees, help them understand the value of the ERG and get them involved to engage actively?
What do Generation Y (GenY) oriented Employee Resource Groups (ERG) share with the military? – More than you expect! A constant supply of active members is the life-blood for any ERG to put plans to action and prevent established activists from burning out. The U.S. Army faces a similar challenge every year: how to attract and recruit the youngest adult generation? Next-generation ERGs listen up: Let the U.S. Army work for you and learn some practical lessons!
It’s a long list to describe Generation Y with a commonly unfavorable preconception. This youngest generation at the workworkplacern after 1980, also called Millennial) is said to be: lazy, impatient, needy, entitled, taking up too much of my time, expecting work to be fun, seeking instant gratifications, hop from company to company, want promotions right away, give their opinion all the time and so on. But is it really that easy to characterize a new generation?Don’t miss my Top 10 Innovation posts and Top 10 posts for Intrapreneurs!
Organizations often find themselves struggling with a dilemma: The need for employees working remotely, often from home, is at rise for many business reasons that include cost savings and the competition over attracting and retaining top talent.
On the other hand, many managers have a hard time allowing their staff to work outside their proximity and direct supervision. Their reasons often include the fear of change introducing the unknown but also a certain cluelessness of how to effectively manage a remote workforce and moving beyond their personal comfort zone.
These conflicting drivers open a tension field that organizations tend to struggle with. – Does this sound familiar to you?
No silver bullet Unfortunately, there is no ‘silver bullet’, i.e. a one-size-fits-all solution that works for everyone and in every environment. Too much depends on the nature of the work, necessary interactions and communication between team members as well as the jobs and personalities involved. It takes a close look at the individual organization to craft a remote working program that fits an organization, maximizes collaboration at a measurable performance level.
Telecommuters show increased commitment to their organization and experience more work-life satisfaction over the non-telecommuters group. No differences between both groups though on job satisfaction and turnover intent, i.e. how likely employees are to leave the company.
On a side note, the latter two findings are quite different from my own professional studies and experience, where employees working remotely reported a 57% increase in work-life balance. Increasing workplace flexibility including remote working, i.e. giving the employee more control over their schedule and location, became a driver also for employee attraction and retention.
– What are your experiences? Do you see remote work influencing job satisfaction and employee retention? Please comment.
Interestingly, the study explored also ‘personalities’ and found that more extroverts tend to be telecommuters, so people with a higher drive for social interaction and communication rather than the quiet ones.
This appears conclusive in the light of the simple finding that (a) telecommuting in many companies is not implemented consequently but rather as an “idiosyncratic deal” between individual supervisors and employees. (b) These supervisors prefer granting permission to telecommute to high-performers. This can explain a pre-selection of extroverts over introverts, who may not show up on the supervisor’s radar as much and therefore tend to receive less remote working opportunities.
Generally, teleworkers commute from farther away. They find commuting more stressful and want to avoid rush-hour traffic.
Less surprising, telecommuters were interrupted more by family members given their physical presence at their off-site work location.
This seems to suggest that working-from-home could be less effective than working in the office given more family interruptions. My own observations are quite different and based on a controlled pilot project which showed that the workers in the office feel distracted by their colleagues stopping by randomly; the workers preferred working from home when they needed focus and want to avoid distractions calling this their most productive work time.
Disruptions occur at home as well as in the office. It is the employee’s responsibility and best interest to ensure a professional work environment at their home-office so not to jeopardize their work results. Consequently, also performance needs to be measured by results and not physical presence. This levels the playing field and allows for fair comparison between all workers independent of their working location and distractions.
In the triangle of telecommuters, supervisors and Human Resources (HR) practices the telecommuters generally view the organization differently from non-telecommuters. Most telecommuters perceive technology training is available to them and that the organizational reward system as well as their supervisors was supporting telecommuting. Telecommuters also believe that there is an underlying business requirement that drives working remotely.
Once again we see that a level playing field is viewed as an important success factor for effective teleworking. Technology serves as enabler that makes teleworking possible in the first place and connects coworkers across remote locations. Offering remote working not only becomes a business necessity but also addresses increased expectations of the modern work force to telework powered by ever improving communication and collaboration technology.
Now, the telecommuters in the study seem to understand the changed business environment that pushes organizations to open up to flexible work arrangements for competitive reasons including cost savings as well as employee productivity and retention – the supervisors ‑apparently‑ did not ‘get it’.
For most of us the times are over where workers came to the factory or office only because the resources needed to accomplishing the work were concentrated in a specific location and could not be distributed (think early typewriters, heavy production equipment, incoming mail and so on). For a growing services industry these limitations no longer exist – yet this out-dated paradigm remained present in the minds of many. People tend to have a certain picture in mind what work ‘looks like’ and where it has to happen which comes down to an office with everyone present from 9am to 5pm.
From the supervisors’ perspective things look different than for telecommuters. Over 50% of the supervisors of telecommuter believe “that employees have to be high performers”. This view is shared by only 37% of the non-telecommuting supervisors. This brings us to a most critical component and success factor for making remote working work…
Management attitudes – the make or break The MTI study phrases this barrier kindly as “challenges and obstacles emanating from attitudes of individuals in the organization”. The obstacles to implementing an effective telecommuting model often originate from management itself or even the Human Resources department tasked to make a policy. The reasons for resistance can be multifold and include a lack of better knowledge, fear of change such as losing perceived control, lazy avoidance to probe outdated beliefs or taking a one-size-fits-all approach without evaluating the specific environment.
I even experienced the paradox of managers believing they can work from home just as effective as from their office desk and making use of this flexibility at their convenience while not trusting that their staff could be similarly effective or was trustworthy enough just as much. They see remote working being a ‘perk’ for their staff reserved for ‘top performers’ who deserve it – a double standard is being applied which is often enough based on murky or questionable criteria (if at all). These managers show a sense of entitlement while ignoring that (as the MTI study confirms) remote working increases employee satisfaction and commitment which tends to increase also performance; as an example, performance increased by 30% in the department I manage.
Some managers fear they may lose ‘control’ and that their staff may abuse the newly acquired freedom to control their schedule and work location. This ‘control’ is often based on the deceptive perception that staff works ‘better’ and is ‘under control’ when confined to an office location and ‘eye-balled’ by the supervisor.
More effective is the consistent application of measurable and pre-defined goals that demonstrate unambiguously, transparently and quantifiable whether an employee met the goal or not – independent from their schedule or work location. In practice, managing-by-performance showed more effective to distinguish effective performers from under-performers than a manager looking around the office space and hoping the staff is performing just by their mere presence.
What it takes to make remote working work Implementing remote working is not exactly rocket science but takes an honest and diligent approach based on trust and clear expectations. From a practical perspective, a viable model includes:
Put away with the ‘telecommuting-is-a-perk’ attitude
Closely look at which jobs have remote working potential together with the affected employee
Identify the employee’s team, i.e. the people who need to cooperate closely even across departmental boundaries (organizational, geographic, etc.)
Include employees to model how remote working could work in their team, try it out and be flexible to improve the model
Strictly rate all employees by their performance based on measurable and tangible results that are clearly defined
Apply transparent standards for all employees consistently
Treat remote and non-remote workers similarly including equal opportunities treatment and rewards
Provide effective communication technology and adequate training
Address manager concerns and prepare management with adequate training and guidance.
It is true that managing a remote working environment provides new challenges. They include in particular:
Strictly managing-by-performance by setting clear expectations and exercising transparency.
Overcoming ‘old thinking’. Questioning ones habits and beliefs to approach with an open-mind new or different ways of working. Include your staff to come up with ideas on how to make it work.
Diversifying and mastering the spectrum of communication channels. Choosing and using the media preferred by the staff to communicate effectively and efficiently with employees.
If this includes peer-to-peer video, instant messaging or texting (SMS) then learn to master these technologies. Limit face-time for confidential or sensitive topics that should better not be communicated electronically; don’t abuse face-time for routine communication.
Most of all, mutual trust is the key component in the critical relationship between manager and employee. This can be the hardest to build. For managers, taking some temporary measures can prove helpful to establish a trustful working relationship with their staff; for example, start with documenting and reviewing weekly performance plans together with the employee until the manager develops more trust and is comfortable with exercising less timely supervision.
In general, if an organization lacks trust then remote working will hardly be implemented effectively, consistently or to its full potential – but then, remote working may not be the biggest problem this organization faces…
Yammer.com is a micro-blogging platform which allowed our NxGen ERG to reach out to employees and engage them in a new way for our company.
Here is what we did and how it worked for us. – Note that my good friend and co-founder of our NxGen ERG, Dr. David Thompson, wrote this article when he was invited to guest blog on Yammer.com directly!
The proposed business model for ERGs forms a foundation for continued innovation, strategic alignment and measurable results. It turns an ERG into a true and sustainable business resource for its members as well as the hosting organization.
Summary – The increasing diversity of employees at the workplace led to employees gathering along affinity dimensions like birds-of-a-feather to form networking groups within organizations. The next step goes beyond affinity and establishes employee resource groups (ERGs) strategically as a business resource and powerful driver for measurable business impact and strategic innovation bottom-up.
Limited to social?
Employee resource groups (ERGs) emerge for various reasons. They tend to start with a social underpinning that naturally unites and organizes like-minded employees. ERGs come in different flavors mostly along the traditional lines of diversity characteristics such as ethnicity, skin color, age, gender, physical (dis)ability, sexual orientation, military veterans, etc.
For ERGs, a ‘social stickiness’ is important and can be the key integrating factor of employee populations within organizations. It may also influence the choices of ERG goals and activities to a large extent. This may result, however, in possibly limiting the ERG and its members to be seen as a ‘social club’ of sorts by others. Management, in particular, may not see the direct (or even indirect) positive business impact that an ERG can have.
This is where ERGs can fall short: when they fail to tie a strong business-focused bond that ensures continued support by leadership that in return ensures the ERG can sustain and proper for the better of its members as well as the hosting organization.
Becoming a business resource
From a management perspective, ERGs can provide social ties within the workforce that are mostly seen favorable ‑ at least as long as it does not affect the employee performance; whether perceived or real.
Better off is the ERG that demonstrates an unambiguous contribution to the bottom line. A clear business value proposition sets a solid foundation that makes it easy to communicate with and convince executives securing their continued support. The company benefits from positive business outcomes as a direct result of the ERG activities, while it engages employees broader and deeper. This uses more of the employees’ true potential to ‘maximize the human capital’ as an important element also of employee engagement, development and retention.
This approach serves not only the company but has advantages also for its employees and the ERG in return. The ERG members benefit directly in many ways such as by interesting work outside the immediate scope of their job, by developing new skills and by increasing their visibility within the organization and continued ‘employability’, i.e. their personal market value as an employee.
So what is the key to success, how do you ‘build’ an innovation-driven and business-focused ERG?
A ‘business model’ for ERGs
My proposal is to establish the ERG as a self-propelling and sustainable system, an ongoing process that continues functioning quite independently from changes in the ERG leadership and consistently delivers innovations. Individual leaders are important for operations and make valuable contributions, but the ERG must be able to continue functioning even if key players become unavailable and replaced.
The following dimensions are generic and apply to any organization. Here, we use them to describe a general business model for the ERG:
To illustrate the model and making it more tangible I use a generic example. It is based on NxGen (for Next Generation at the Workplace), a generational-oriented and business-focused ERG that I founded. NxGen was recognized in early 2010 as a best-practices approach by the National Affinity Leadership Congress (NALC).
The strategy brings to the point the ERG’s goal and objectives. A well-thought-out value proposition is the foundation for the ERG.
For example, NxGen is a forum to develop leadership skills, networking and problem-solving that aims to open up cross-functional/cross-disciplinary opportunities for its active members through strategic business projects with measurable results. As a goal, NxGen aims to become a sounding board for management as a valued business resource.
2. People practices
People, active volunteers, are the life-blood of every ERG. Staffing and selection are crucial and continued activities to induce fresh ideas and prevent burn-out of established ERG members. What you are looking for are active volunteers who are passionate and energetic. You want members who become active change agents, role models, within the organization. Value a diverse set of backgrounds and capabilities that can complement another.
Rather than trying to recruit new members, focus on how to attract new members to engage and actively participate (in contrast to the ones signing up to receive email updates or a periodic newsletter, which is a passive form of membership). NxGen membership is open to all employees.
There is a broad range of benefits for active ERG members that can include (but are definitely not limited to):
Insight and work in other business functions and departments
Members lead a relevant project possibly in another business function
Experiment and learn in a safe and nurturing environment
Develop and apply skills like leadership, consulting, problem-solving
Build an open and supportive network with members coaching each other
Increased visibility within the organization
Potential to open new career opportunities
Making a measurable change in the organization here and now.
At NxGen, we see that younger employees (primarily Generation Y also called Millennial, born after 1980) tend to drive the ERG activities most. The explanations I offer is that GenY’ers, in particular, enter the workplace as well-educated professionals, optimistic and motivated to make a difference. GenY was brought up to believe they can achieve anything and are interested to explore lateral career moves. They are used to collaborating in teams to overcome obstacles and network while leveraging technology effectively to this end. At the workplace, GenY typically is not (yet) part of the decision-making bodies due to their junior positions ‑ but they do want to be heard (and should be listed to given their increasing numbers in the demographic shift of the population that has reached the workforce).
The ERG acts through business-relevant projects. At NxGen, the member ‘grass-roots’ identify otherwise un-addressed or under-served business needs that the ERG chooses to pursue. Based on a clear value proposition (return-on-investment, ROI) for the organization the ERG seeks executive sponsorship for each project. The executive sponsor ensures strategic alignment with the organization’s goal, expertise in the functional area, political support and funding for the project (since the ERG has no funds of its own).
The project scope often lays outside of the immediate job description of the ERG-appointed project leader allowing for broader hands-on learning opportunities. Applying professional project management methods to all projects ensures the projects deliver the specified deliverables.
The ERG core team steers and administrates the ERG project portfolio which is documented in an annual business plan and shared publicly. As resources are limited, not all imaginable projects can be conducted at once but are staged. Projects can build upon and leverage each other while making use of synergies whenever possible.
In the beginning, it might be challenging to find meaningful projects that make the best use of the ERG’s resources and capabilities with favorable business impact. It takes time and persistence to develop a trustful relationship with executive management and to gain credibility as an ERG to attracts more complex and important projects from management in return.
NxGen works and communicates openly, it acts transparently and leverages (social) media to inform and connect with its members and non-members displaying operations and result of the ERG’s work.
The NxGen ERG operates within a general framework set by a company’s office to ensure all ERGs abide the company policies. This office also provides an organizational home for ERGs within the company. It generally coordinates and supports the different activities across ERGs and ensures each ERG has a distinguished executive sponsor to connect the ERG with senior management.
A charter defines basic roles and processes of the NxGen ERG in more detail and is posted publicly. A core team of active members guides the ERG activities and ensures ERG operability. The core team is lead by the ERG’s elected chair and co-chair(s); it further comprises the project leaders, distinguished role-holders, and liaisons to key functions in the organization. The core team members support and advise each other. The ERG provides a safe and social environment that relies on trust among the members to connect, to build relationships, to network and to run projects.
NxGen actively reaches out to other ERGs, innovative groups within the organization but also other operating units and companies to cooperate, share, benchmark and collaborate on common goals.
5. Metrics and rewards system
How do you measure success, i.e. the effectiveness of an ERG? An annual business plan covers the portfolio of ERG projects. It serves as an instrument to measure the ERG performance across all ERG activities that the ERG chair is held accountable for.
What are the rewards for active ERG members? Besides the benefits listed in above section ‘People’, accountability and success for individual members derive from their projects or their input to other ERG activities that all have clear objectives and a success metrics attached. Driving the change and making a difference is a reward in itself.
NxGen and individual members received several awards and recognition for their work inside and outside the company which the ERG celebrates in public. Some members list their ERG involvement and experience proudly on their résumé which is an indicator that the ERG’s value proposition is effective for its members, i.e. the members value the ERG membership, projects, recognition and awards as means of their ‘employability’.
Building the ERG as an innovation incubator
The business model positions the ERG clearly as a powerful business resource for the organization but it can be even more. The ERG can serve as an ‘innovation incubator’ by combining an attractive system with creative space in an effective governance framework. The processes create measurable value for the individual and the organization that can significantly contribute to process innovation and also drives product innovation.
In an empowering bottom-up movement, the ERG directly connects its active members from any level of hierarchy with the decision-makers high up. This bears the potential to cut right through established or perceived boundaries such as hierarchy, bureaucracy, and red-tape or functional silos that may severely limit the effectiveness and innovative effectiveness of other units that were created top-down within the organization.
Herein lays the deeper potential of ERGs as a true business resource and going beyond possible self-inflicted limitation to social affinity. ERGs can well be the means that contribute to driving the future success of an organization for an organization that understands and value how ERGs open opportunities to tap into its workforce and unleashes hidden potential.