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Does the C-suite fear frontline empowerment?

According to a new report, business success depends on empowering frontline employees to make real-time decisions. Yet while 90% of organisations surveyed by Harvard Business Review Analytic Services, sponsored by ThoughtSpot, agreed this was the case, only 7% are fully equipping their teams with the analytic tools and resources needed to drive decision-making and autonomy.

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If data literacy is to increase and the democratisation of data to be realised, this gap between theory and practice needs to be closed. Spencer Tuttle, vice-president EMEA, ThoughtSpot, explained to DataIQ what issues the research has flushed out and how they can be resolved.

 

DataIQ (DIQ): Firstly, at the top level, did the research findings align with what you expected, or were there surprises?

 

Spencer Tuttle (ST): A strong connection between empowering frontline workers and business performance is something we expected. We’ve seen this with customers of ours, such as Nationwide Building Society, BT, Walmart, Hulu and Verizon.

 

However, the scale of disparity between Laggards and Leaders did present a surprise. In particular, the fact that those that were categorised as Leaders were found to have 1.5-2x more benefits in key business metrics, such as customer satisfaction, productivity, employee engagement and service quality.

 

What also stood out in the results was the difference in how Leaders and Laggards approach the idea of empowering the frontlines. Executives at Laggards were 10x more likely to say employees on the frontlines shouldn’t be empowered - that’s clearly a problem as the market becomes more competitive as data analytics is adopted more widely.

 

Laggards were 10x more likely to say employees shouldn’t be empowered.

 

DIQ: Some sectors are clearly Leaders in empowering front-line staff. Does this reflect an inherent customer orientation, or even legacies such as operating call centres/customer service centres which Laggards have perhaps never had in place?

 

ST: There’s definitely the issue of both business model orientation and technical debt. The trends we’ve seen over the last decade indicate that the shift towards empowering the frontline has accelerated. This has been especially true with customers that expect more personalised experiences and those with increased digital interactions with customers.

 

But this is also a change we’re seeing broadly in every sector, as the report displays. Even industries that have been Laggards will be required to adapt if they want to remain competitive and serve the needs of modern consumers.

 

DIQ: What do you see as underpinning the apparent fear factor senior executives seem to have towards empowerment? Does it relate to a loss of power or control? What can be done to mitigate this?

 

ST: There is an inherent fear factor from some senior executives that boils down to two key reasons: loss of control and, in some cases, fear for their own job security. Executives are ultimately responsible for the actions of their teams. When these teams are at the frontlines, empowering them to make their own decisions inherently means taking a step back from standardised guidelines or policies and giving up some control on how those decisions are made.

 

Executives have to trust those on the frontlines to make the right decisions. A way to build this trust, as Harvard highlights, is to both equip frontline staff with the ability to find data-driven insights and to empower them with the education and training to effectively apply them.

 

Executives have to trust those on the frontlines to make the right decisions.

 

We have also found that some executives fear that distributed decision-making dilutes the importance of their own role and experience. If your job security is built on being the only one with access to an answer, how much value can you really deliver? What’s clear from my experience working with executives at Leaders is the value of their experience when paired with empowered frontlines.

 

DIQ: If the expected improvements in productivity and performance are not being seen, does this relate to the inability of frontline staff to make changes to processes or policies? In other words, is providing the tools only the first step in real change?

 

ST: Empowering frontline workers with business analytics is a process rather than a quick fix. Providing tools is the first important step to achieve this. For employees truly to deliver benefits, they must be both equipped with the right data tools and technology, and empowered with training and to enable the ability to apply those insights within the context of the wider business.

 

There’s a massive disconnect between the skills being taught and the skills required by businesses.

 

DIQ: Skills are clearly an issue - to what extent is this generational? What role should the technology providers themselves play in helping all employees to up-skill?

 

ST: The skills gap is somewhat generational, but when looking at the pipeline for students in university learning data skills, there’s a massive disconnect between the skills being taught and the skills required by businesses. It’s incumbent on organisations to take some ownership of training their teams and helping them build data fluency, meaning they can understand, discuss, and apply data to meet the individual business’s needs.

 

One key element for this is lowering the technology literacy needed to engage with the data. Asking a merchandising manager or supply chain expert on the frontlines to become a coding expert and learn data fundamentals is a tall order. Vendors have a responsibility to make their technology easier to use for business users, not just technology experts.

 

DIQ: Looking at these findings and the limited inroads made by digital transformation, is there a risk the data revolution could run out of steam if organisations can’t show a link to productivity/performance improvement from their investments?

 

ST: I do believe organisations need to have a true vision of what they are trying to achieve in their digital transformation. Tracking and understanding the performance realisation of these investments will only help these organisations optimise and quicken the journey over the coming years. However, I only see this revolution accelerating. The benefits of digital transformation are simply too overwhelming to be denied. What is already happening is the fact that companies who find the barriers to digital transformation too great will fall behind. They simply won’t be able to compete.

 

The full report, "The new decision makers: Equipping front-line workers for success," is available here.

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