The company delivers positive results and has high growth rates. But the support functions feel pressured and say they are having difficulty keeping up. It is important to listen and take action to reverse this trend, because otherwise it will have consequences for business and the results expected over the long term. An initial approach is often to look into additional resources and new systems. But the solution might be completely different.
By: Jane Wenzel Østergaard, Specialist in transformation and change & CEO DecisionMaking ApS
A classic conflict
The task of support functions is to advise core business in areas such as in finance, quality, IT, HR, or regulatory compliance. The employees are highly skilled and eager to get core business to do more, such as to comply with new requirements. Core business is focused on generating results by producing, selling, or developing products, and new requirements can be perceived as an obstacle to achieving these results. Support functions are often perceived as lacking business understanding. Thus, both support functions and core business are helping to create the classic conflict.
As managers, we must pay attention when business mentions lack of product approvals or complicated and resource-intensive processes. If support functions lack resources at the same time, and absence due to illness or employee turnover are on the rise, then it's time to act before this makes a measurable impact on company profits.
In many growth companies, the preconditions of fulfilling a support function have changed. New business strategies lead core business to demand different advice, and new legislation means that it has become more complex to obtain approvals, share data, or change the organisation (hire/dismiss employees). It is therefore important to integrate the company's strategies and initiatives across departments so that a plan to build a new factory can be executed at the same time that local requirements are being implemented, or new markets can be developed despite more stringent requirements for product approvals.
When there is extensive absence due to illness or increasing employee turnover, there is a risk of losing know-how and over the long term ending up in a situation where the "licence to operate" is in danger. It is possible to lose 60-80% of a support function in just a few months, and an understaffed support function can have serious consequences for core business. The risk for loss of employees must be assessed very thoroughly, because in some fields the demand for employees is significantly higher than the supply. Naturally there are global differences that can help in this situation. As the coronavirus pandemic has shown us, it is possible to work together digitally with less dependence on immediate physical proximity.
The demand for a high level of professional skill in support functions can mean that the most highly skilled specialist becomes a manager. But this also might mean that both the skilled specialist and employees lose energy, drive, and interest. We have seen many solid examples of how it is possible in support areas for there to be managers, specialists and project managers without expanding the organisation in terms of headcount.
Developing the best version
Employees in support functions are specialists and therefore naturally prone to assume a high level of professional responsibility in the company. Management of support functions therefore requires a solid knowledge of core business and a robust manager who is able to connect the needs of core business with professional requirements, such as from regulatory authorities, and to create a balance. It is the manager's task to advance, support, direct, and prioritise while the organisation and individuals are developing at the same time.
Many employees in this type of organisation are motivated by managing themselves and demotivated by being controlled. This can lead some to believe they do not need management. But they do in fact have a high level of need for management- only one adapted to their needs.
It is therefore important that the manager/management focus on the strategic development of both the team and the individual, and that they are able to shift mindsets in themselves, employees, and within the company as a whole. For just as core business has a product (development of products, production of products, or sales of products), the support organisation also has a product. This output may be product approvals, monthly financial reporting, getting through an audit or completion of training. By working with the professional product as an operational task, and, for example, reporting on results, planning, and prioritising, a new energy and recognition are created.
So a game changer for the support organisation that is stretched too thin and asking for more resources and new systems could be to focus management on developing the organisation into the best version of itself, one that delivers a product recognised for optimally supporting core business.
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