Companies are increasingly recognising that empowering frontline staff with digital and analytical tools to make "on the spot" decisions will make them far more successful, yet only one-fifth say they work in this way.
That is according to new research from Harvard Business Review Analytic Services, sponsored by search and AI-driven analytics specialist ThoughtSpot, which illustrates a link between customer-facing employees - like retail merchandisers and banking relationship managers - and organisational performance.
The report, "The New Decision Makers: Equipping Frontline Workers For Success", analyses the sentiments of nearly 500 business executives from 16 industries in Europe, North America and Asia Pacific.
It found that while the overwhelming majority (86%) agree their frontline workers need better technology and more insight to be able to make good decisions in the moment, few have implemented such procedures.
Respondents strongly believe that both work quality and productivity will increase as more data-based insights are made available to such workers. Specifically, 92% say the quality of work of frontline employees in their organisation would improve in the long term, and 73% say it would improve in the short term as well.
ThoughtSpot chief executive Sudheesh Nair said: "Now more than ever we’re seeing a need for organisations to be able to adapt, evolve and pivot at pace in order to meet changing business demands. Frontline staff have become even more critical in enabling businesses to identify efficiencies and opportunities to navigate this new world, and most simply don’t have the tools they need.
"What this research shows is what we see with our own customers: those who are empowering and equipping the frontlines are not only delivering better customer experiences, but breaking down the traditional business silos and structures needed for true agility and transformation."
The study also found huge discrepancies between different industries when it comes to their capacity for empowering frontline staff - with technology/telecoms outperforming all other sectors.
Based on collected performance data, the report was able to identify certain industries as ’Leaders’ and ’Laggards’ in terms of empowering employees and equipping them with digital tools to make informed business decisions.
After telecoms, ’Leaders’ were best represented by organisations within the financial services (20%) industries, whereas ’Laggards’ were represented by organisations in manufacturing (18%), government and education (17%) and healthcare and pharmaceuticals (15%).
’Leaders’ who are actively empowering frontline staff are already reaping the benefits, with 72% saying productivity has increased at least moderately; 69% saying they have increased both customer and employee engagement/satisfaction, and 67% saying they have increased the quality of their products and services.
Leaders are also more likely to have seen increased revenue over the past year: 16% have grown more than 30% and another third have grown between 10% and 30%.
When looking at the differences between ’Leaders’ and ’Laggard’ companies, it becomes clear that part of the empowerment issue lies in part within the culture of these businesses, the report states. For example, respondents at ’Laggard’ companies were ten times more likely than ’Leaders’ to say their top management does not want frontline workers making decisions (42% vs 4%).
Furthermore, organisations are not able to realise the benefits of a fully empowered workforce without overcoming the barriers influencing the decision-making process. Currently, the largest hurdle to frontline worker empowerment is the lack of effective change management and adoption processes (44%).
Additionally, nearly one third (31%) say a lack of skills to make appropriate use of technology-enabled insight is an obstacle. While almost all respondents (91%) say that managers and supervisors play an essential role in empowering frontline workers, over half (51% overall, 66% of ’Laggards’) say managers and supervisors are not well equipped with the right tools, training, and knowledge to empower frontline employees appropriately.
For a fully empowered and productive and frontline, organisations can learn from the ’Leaders’, who report that a shift to a data-driven culture is critical to their corporate strategy (51% compared to 23% of ’Laggards’). As a result, ’Leaders’ are investing more heavily than others in digital capabilities that are designed to transform frontline working: They widely expect their organisations to adopt collaboration tools (55%) and self-service analytics (54%) over the next two years.
Industries across can also invest more deeply in training employees. Today, only two-thirds invest in programmes that teach workers how to use new technology tools and only half (46%) are spending on programmes that show workers how to effectively apply the insights these technologies provide.
Harvard Business Review Analytics Services managing director Alex Clemente said: "Quality frontline decision-making is driving short term gains, but more drastically propelling better business in the long term.
"The shift to an empowered workforce is causing organisations to experience significant increases in productivity and customer and employee satisfaction, however, more holistically, these efforts are also generating enhanced innovation, top-line growth, market position and profitability.
"To enable this growth, we expect top management to first prioritise building a culture and team that supports data-based decision-making."
Related article: Spencer Tuttle of ThoughtSpot tells DataIQ why the C-suite might fear employee empowerment