Empowered Organizations, Empowering Leaders

By Carr, Clay | Training & Development, March 1994 | Go to article overview
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Empowered Organizations, Empowering Leaders

Carr, Clay, Training & Development


What are the differences between "empowered" organizations and traditional ones? And how do their leaders differ?

One answer is that empowered organizations value autonomy as an end in itself--an end that contributes to personal fulfillment and advances democratic ideas in organizations. But the real reasons for the popularity of empowerment in organizations are business reasons. Companies are recognizing that empowerment and autonomy can help them respond effectively to rapid changes in the business environment.

Empowered organizations respond to change on six dimensions:

Efficiency versus effectiveness.

"Efficiency" measures the resources that an organization uses to deliver its products and services. "Effectiveness" is the degree to which an organization's products and services meet the needs of its customers.

In the past, organizations tended to focus more on efficiency or cost control than on effectiveness or quality. But in today's competitive business environment, many companies are finding it necessary to emphasize effectiveness.

Internal standards versus external standards.

Traditional organizations tended to judge performance by each work unit's internal standards. For example, did the HR department follow company rules in filling a job position? Customer requirements were considered secondary, if they were considered at all. Today, organizations are trying to implement standards that take into account customer needs and perceptions.

Control versus support.

In traditional organizations, layers of managers and other employees controlled what happened rather than supported the people who could make things happen. Service activities, such as HR and purchasing, were considered to be functions that required control through company policies and monitoring. Today, many organizations are empowering frontline workers to make business decisions.

Controlled versus free access to information.

Traditional organizations tended to control information in two ways: through the entry of information into the organization and through the flow of information within the organization.

In traditional organizations, a key to power was access to and control of information. But empowered organizations look for ways to get information from outside, through a variety of channels, and try to make information widely available within the company.

"Insulation from" versus "permeability to" the environment.

Traditional organizations tended to isolate themselves from the outside world. Consequently, any information that would change the way people did things had difficulty even gaining entry into the organization. Empowered companies are more open, and they respond more quickly to changes in the general business environment.

Stability versus flexibility.

Traditional organizations emphasized the stability of internal processes and external markets. That emphasis often led to rigidity and a resistance to change, even in the face of changing conditions. Now, empowered organizations are more flexible and responsive to change.

A battleship becomes a fleet

As organizations move away from traditional models, their basic structures change. They are shedding the practice of making carefully orchestrated responses in favor of making quick responses to markets and customers. Frontline workers make decisions and take actions that once had to be initiated or approved by people who were several levels up. Previously monolithic organizations have been transformed into pluralistic organizations with multiple centers of power. And with that transformation, the nature of leadership has changed.

Suppose that for many years you were the captain of a battleship, commanding thousands of people. Your job was to get crew members to work together to operate the giant vessel.

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