Today’s business environment is becoming more and more competitive. The onslaught of the global market place has raised the stakes for U.S. businesses. If today’s companies are to be competitive they must be more agile and inventive in their quest to lower costs and increase value to the customer. A key method companies are using to tackle these daunting tasks is unleashing their most powerful weapon, their employees. By empowering teams of employees, companies are using their greatest asset to its highest potential and, in return, are becoming more competitive in the emerging global economy.
When Xerox Corporation’s dominance in the photocopier market was challenged by Japanese competitors more than 15 years ago, Xerox responded by harnessing the full power of its work force. A change in the management style of the employees that allowed them to participate in management decisions was the key to Xerox’s comeback. Since Xerox has implemented policies of employee empowerment, they have posted impressive results. In 1989, Xerox won the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award; and, from 1993 until 1994, their return on assets rose 3.5 points (Profile: Xerox Corporation Ohio Consumer Business Unit, Training & Development, 1996).
It is vital to have a work force with potential, but how do you get your employees to perform at their highest ability? A work environment consisting of empowerment will help keep top employees and will attract new, high quality employees. Empowering employees can be the key in turning an average employee into an exceptional one. Empowered employees are usually happier; and, therefore, more likely to stay (Blanchard, O’Connor & Ballard (2003).
“… The difference between mediocre and excellent [employees] depends on how the employee is managed” (Blanchard, et. al. (2003). The job of an empowering manager is more similar to that of a coach than that of a traditional manager. The manager’s mission is to unlock the potential of every person within the organization. Motivated, empowered employees are more productive. They are able to use their own innovation to streamline inefficient processes and policies, saving both you and your customers’ money.
While employee empowerment is a relatively new topic in management, the emphasis on teams is by no means unique. Historical roots for this movement can be traced to the school of human relations in the early 1930s. As mentioned in the article “Beyond Teams and Empowerment: A Counterpoint to Two Common Precepts in TQM” by Karukonda, Watson, & Rajkamur (1999), the authors made a key argument advanced by Mary Parker Follet that man can overcome his physical, biological and environmental limitations through a system of cooperation, rather than competition. Empowered teams involve a particular configuration of work structures, practices and processes. Companies organize workflow around key business processes and often create teams to carry out those processes. The emphasis of this system is on a horizontal organization with strong customer orientation. Therefore, its basic premise is to create “an internal environment that supports customer needs and expectations” (Varma, Beatty, Schneier & Ulrich, 1999, p.29).
In the 1950’s, Eric Trist of the Tavistock Institute made several attempts to implement this idea; one result of his work was the emergence of autonomous work groups (Karukonda, et. al., 1999). However, the first experiment with empowered teams was when Colgate-Palmolive opened its Cambridge, Ohio, plant in 1988. This type of management style deals with two basic concepts: the concept of teams and the concept of employee empowerment. There are three different types of teamwork. The first type is based on the assumption that non-managerial employees can make important contributions to organizations when they have the power and necessary preparation. The second type is teamwork among functions, which is based on the notion that organizations as systems cannot be effective if individual people emphasize their own outcomes over those of others. Finally, teamwork between customers and suppliers is based on the perceived benefits of a partnership between the two organizations. The concept of employee empowerment also has three aspects. First, is the instrumental aspect that empowerment involves providing better information, better skills and delegating authority to the non-managerial employees. Next, is the equally important question of do you have employee self-control as opposed to management control? Lastly, is the assumption that empowerment must result in employee satisfaction which is needed to provide customer satisfaction and continuous improvement. This kind of system can be implemented in any company, but it is important to remember that the implementation depends on the environment and characteristics of each company.