Hopefully, I’m wrong when I detect that my Oxford Saïd EMBA programme is speeding up. Usually we have two courses per module. Last week we had three: Marketing; Operations and Technology; and Behavioural Strategy. “Alignment” was one of many common themes running through these courses.
Privileging alignment as a unit of organisational focus is, of course, almost a cliché in business schools. McKinsey’s classic business administration shortcut managed to sum the idea up as an organisation’s seven S’s all pulling together and humming along to the same hymn or rather strategy sheet – the three hard S’s: strategy, structure, systems; and the four soft S’s: skills, style, staff, and shared values, which must together be harmonised in successful and profitable organisations.
In Marketing our jumping-off point as well as our end point was the idea that “marketing is everywhere [in an organisation – whether you like it or not!!!]”.
When the expectation of customers and their experience of an organisation’s products is misaligned, dissatisfaction with a brand undercuts the sustainability of that brand’s financial performance. Part of the solution to brand devaluation situations is to align better what marketing is communicating about a product, with how customers actually perceive the product. To do this, Marketing needs a place at the top table in the executive suite and in every other part of the organisation right down (and across) to the sales and design divisions, as well as on the assembly line.
The Operations and Technology component of the module divided us into groups for some of the class. We were set a rather difficult task. In real time, state-of-the-art computerised techniques were used to monitor how we achieved our goal of maximising profit. Each group was responsible for a specific complex task on an assembly line. The quality of each group’s output impacted directly on the performance of the group which had to transform that output (its input) into its output and so onwards in an assembly line like chain. The assembly line spanned the entire lifecycle of a product from the customer’s ordering of the customised product to the delivery of the final product to the customer’s quality assurance team.
At every moment during this “game” each group was using computerised devices to report on the status of its execution of its specific task. Such reporting enabled our teacher, Alastair Nicholson, to monitor and analyse, in real time, each group’s precise contribution to the profit and loss of the firm we were all a part of. At several points, we were ordered to stop, analyse our procedures both internal to the group and among the groups. Then, having instituted changes to address problems thereby identified, we would get going again. The idea was to break down the entire assembly line’s components contribution to the profit and loss deriving ultimately from a final product accepted as of sufficient quality by the customer. The computers enabled us to see at any moment in time where we collectively were in terms of profit and loss.
Well, one of the many learning outcomes was an illustration of just how difficult it can be to see that there are problems when you’re just inside one group. As part of a group you may feel you individually are performing well; that your group itself is performing excellently; and even that improvements you make to your own group’s working practices must be helping to improve the overall performance of the firm.
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