Information digest – Research on tap


An employee is diagnosed with cancer or loses a family member unexpectedly. An earthquake destroys an entire section of a city, leaving hundreds dead, injured, or homeless. At times like these, managerial handbooks fail us. After all, leaders can’t eliminate personal suffering, nor can they ask employees who are dealing with these crises to check their emotions at the door. But compassionate leadership can facilitate personal as well as organisational healing.

Based on research the authors have conducted at the University of Michigan and the University of British Columbia’s CompassionLab, this article describes what leaders can do to foster organisational compassion in times of trauma.

They recount real-world examples, including a story of personal tragedy at Newsweek, natural disasters that affected Macy’s and Malden Mills, and the events of 11 September, 2001.

During times of collective pain and confusion, compassionate leaders take some form of public action, however small, that is intended to ease people’s pain and inspire others to act. By openly demonstrating their own humanity, executives can unleash a compassionate response throughout the whole company, increasing bonds among employees and attachments to the organisation.

The authors say compassionate leaders uniformly provide two things: a “context for meaning” – creating an environment in which people can freely express and discuss how they feel; and a “context for action” – creating an environment in which those who experience or witness pain can find ways to alleviate their own and others’ suffering.

A leader’s competence in demonstrating and fostering compassion is vital, the authors conclude, to nourishing the very humanity that can make people – and organisations – great.

Harvard Business Review

Once a business performs a complex activity well, the parent organisation often wants to replicate that success. But doing that is surprisingly difficult, and businesses nearly always fail when they try to reproduce a best practice.

The reason? People approaching best-practice replication are overly optimistic and overconfident. They try to perfect an operation that’s running nearly flawlessly, or they try to piece together different practices to create the perfect hybrid. Getting it right the second time (and all the times after that) involves adjusting for overconfidence in your own abilities and imposing strict discipline on the process and the organisation.

The authors studied numerous business settings to find out how organisational routines were successfully reproduced, and they identified five steps for successful replication.

First, make sure you’ve got something that can be copied and that’s worth copying. Some processes don’t lend themselves to duplication; others can be copied but maybe shouldn’t be. Second, work from a single template. It provides proof of success, performance measurements, a tactical approach, and a reference for when problems arise. Third, copy the example exactly, and fourth, make changes only after you achieve acceptable results. The people who developed the template have probably already encountered many of the problems you want to “fix,” so it’s best to create a working system before you introduce changes. Fifth, don’t throw away the template. If your copy doesn’t work, you can use the template to identify and solve problems.

Best-practice replication, while less glamorous than pure innovation, contributes enormously to the bottom line of most companies. The article’s examples – Banc One, Rank Xerox, Intel, Starbucks, and Re/Max Israel – prove that exact copying is a non-trivial, challenging accomplishment.

Harvard Business Review

When Robert Herbold came to Microsoft from Procter & Gamble in 1994, he saw firsthand why Bill Gates had hired him as chief operating officer: While certain practices promoted the company’s innovative culture and ability to turn on a dime, others created chaos rather than creativity and actually impeded quick course corrections. The operational mess (which exasperated Gates, as a number of anecdotes reveal) resulted from divergent practices and incompatible systems.

Herbold’s mission was to bring discipline to the organisation without undermining the very characteristics that had made Microsoft successful. Drawing on his experience at highly structured Procter & Gamble and his background in IT, Herbold created central systems that gave managers instant access to standardised data on each business and geographical unit. Imposing this operational discipline not only slashed operating costs as a percentage of revenue but, somewhat counter-intuitively, also made the company more flexible and more responsive to business changes.

Herbold describes the operational problems and their solutions in a number of areas, including finance, procurement, human resources, sales, and strategic planning. The article contains useful lessons for any large company attempting to improve profitability by balancing centralised discipline and individual innovation. These lessons include advice on overcoming resistance to centralised initiatives from geographical and unit managers and specific tips on maximising an organisation’s central information systems.

In trying to bring about e-business transformation, companies have paid too much attention to technology – as if adding the right software or hardware could, on its own, bring about miracles.

But systems do not work in a vacuum, and senior managers would do well to recognise the complementary nature of technology, business processes and e-business readiness throughout the value chain, from their suppliers to their customers. By taking a more holistic view, executives can turn these facets of a company’s operations into the drivers of e-business excellence.

Authors Anitesh Barua, Prabhudev Konana, Andrew B Whinston and Fang Yin of the University of Texas at Austin’s McCombs School of Business have developed a research-backed model of e-business value creation. Its premise is deceptively simple: that proper development of e-business drivers will lead to operational excellence, which will, in turn, generate improved financial performance.

Sloan Management Review

Information technology is fundamental to corporate success and IT decisions, like all other business decisions, need to be made on the basis of value contribution. A solid, sound business case for IT investments requires mature IT and business judgement. Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts to developing maturity or judgement – both take time and experience. There is only one way to gain traction in these circumstances and that is to apply the collective experience of both IT and business people to the pursuit and execution of a single corporate strategy: the integrated whole is definitely much greater than the sum of the two parts.

Successful IT/business alignment means developing and sustaining a mutually symbiotic relationship between IT and business – a relationship that benefits both parties. This requires that IT executives be recognized as essential to the development of credible business strategies and operations and non-IT executives be considered equally essential to the development of credible IT strategies and operations.

CIO Magazine

People with complaints about companies’ products or services now have many online alternatives to the old-fashioned “suggestion box” to make themselves heard. In fact, several websites devoted specifically to consumer venting have sprung up, including, and

Experts say such organised, moderated venues provide valuable forums through which consumers can learn from one another and collectively make their voices heard. The key to these sites’ effectiveness, however, is to ensure that companies can react to complaints that affect many people, rather than spending time responding to individual, personal crusades.

“Savvy companies have people monitoring these sites,” Gartner CRM analyst Adam Sarner told This is not to intimidate or strong-arm people, but to bring to company leaders’ attention problems they might not otherwise have known about.

Venting sites serve a purpose by putting large numbers of comments in one place, so companies can identify frequent concerns that need to be addressed, form a game plan to assuage hostility that might be brewing, and take steps to generate goodwill in the long term. “It actually becomes something useful – more than just a complaint section,” Sarner says.

Experts say companies must strike a balance between responding to everything that is said about them and selectively responding to issues that affect their business. Businesses that hide from criticism are doing themselves no favours.

For companies to effectively respond to complaints, they need a degree of control over how and where they are posted. Analyst Erin Kinikin, vice president of Giga Information Group, says that some businesses prefer to handle complaints solely through in-house measures, via features on their website. For example, Kinikin says, some companies process feedback with software that tracks which customers are most interested in a product or service and sends them e-mail updates when new features or solutions to problems are available. In this way, the company can be proactive.

“Unmanaged public feedback can be a disaster,” Kinikin says. “It’s the threat of a Planetfeedback type offering – losing control of your brand – that’s going to help keep companies honest about soliciting and acting on customer feedback. “Most customers complain publicly because they don’t think anyone at the company is really listening,” Kinikin adds.

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