The Responsive Organisation: Re-Engineering New Patterns of Work

By Coulson-Thomas, Colin | Management Services, July 1996 | Go to article overview

The Responsive Organisation: Re-Engineering New Patterns of Work


Coulson-Thomas, Colin, Management Services


The following article is the text of the inaugural lecture by Colin Coulson-Thomas, recently appointed Willmott Dixon Professor of Corporate Transformation and Dean of the Faculty of Management, at the University of Luton

Business process re-engineering (BPR), corporate transformation and corporate restructuring are viewed by many senior managers as essential for corporate survival. However, the initiatives that result from them are often dreaded by most of the people who work throughout these same organisations. Must BPR inevitably be regarded as a threat? How might the 'image' of BPR be improved? More importantly, what needs to be done for people to feel, and become, the beneficiaries rather than the victims of BPR?

Organisations should exist to access, develop, harness and apply the collective capabilities and potential of people in pursuit of such goals as profitably identifying and delivering whatever represents value to customers. In terms of rationale and purpose a particular form of organisation ought to be a means to an end, and yet too often organisations appear to develop a life of their own. Keeping an organisation afloat becomes an end in itself, and one that may demand extraordinary levels of sacrifice and denial as the speed of corporate treadmills inexorably increases.

Management teams across Europe are working long hours to keep alive structures and operations that may no longer have any compelling rationale or distinctive purpose. If they ceased to exist, what would the world actually lose? Often very little would be lost. People would just go around the corner and buy something similar from someone else.

Into this world of struggling and dying organisations and insecure, sweating people, has burst the new management terminology of restructuring, delayering, outsourcing and re-engineering. Much hyped and promoted with evangelical fervour, their propagandists use the rhetoric of revolution and promise radical improvements in performance and productivity. Yet all around us what is happening appears as more of the same. Costs are cut and people seem to be working ever harder rather than more effectively.

Are the new techniques and approaches mere fads, or simply excuses to sell a new generation of consultancy services? Could their application actually enable people to `work smarter' rather than just harder? Could we use them to create new businesses rather than merely slim down old ones?

While people struggle to keep up with an unending flow of corporate initiatives, there are also various emerging technologies such as EDI, multimedia, virtual reality and interactive television to consider. How could they enable us to operate more effectively? Do they necessarily favour the large enterprise over the smaller business?

To answer these and other questions, the European Commission asked a team of over 20 experts to examine what is happening across Europe with the actual application of BPR, emerging technologies and other means of corporate restructuring. The results of the year long COBRA project - it stands for Constraints and Opportunities in Business Restructuring: an Analysis has been published by Policy Publications as `The Responsive Organisation: Re-engineering new patterns of work'.* and The Competitive Network*

The COBRA team examined more than 100 examples of European re-engineering projects and `The Responsive Organisation' presents a holistic methodology and tools framework that synthesises the experience and lessons for re-engineering practice and new ways of working, along with 21 detailed case studies and various briefings, including notes on 101 specific tools and techniques.

So what did the COBRA team find? Overall, most applications of BPR are concerned with the improvement of existing processes and relatively short term savings of cost and time. They do tend to involve layoffs and `headcount reductions'. It is little wonder therefore that a growing number of organisations are seeking to avoid the use of the term BPR in view of its negative connotations. …

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