Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Abiding Myth of the “Frontline”

In these days of soundbites and the pervasive creep of vacuous management speak into news and the media generally we have become familiar with the use of the expression “frontline services” as a way of making a distinction between those deemed important and the also rans. I have always said that this expression is a divisive falsehood and the recent débâcle at Natwest is very much testament to that.

At its heart the notion of “frontline services” seeks to draw a distinction about the relative importance and centrality of particular functions within an organisation, generally seeking to pretend that there will be no impact if we decimate the “back office”. It seeks to assign differing value to functions and to create the impressions that the individual parts of the organisation exist in isolation and can easily exist without one another. This is a foolish and simplistic notion of how organisations are constituted and operate, but is popular because, if we accept it, then it makes it both possible and acceptable to outsource, downsize and sideline components and treat organisations like machines rather than a much more complex body. As someone once remarked you cannot divide a horse in the way you can a machine – you just get a bloody mess.

The term “frontline” has a militaristic tone but in that context it simply describes where the edges of the conflict exist. Sensible generals have understood that wars cannot be won at the front line alone. It wasn't for nothing that Napoleon reputedly said an army marches on its stomach or that dig for victory has such enduring resonance.

In a business context the perpetuation of this notion of relative value has corrosive and dangerous possibilities with functions being variously described as “operational” “administrative” “non-core” and other euphemisms that permit them to be ignored, downgraded and generally de motivated.

I distinctly remember discussing with the partner of a professional services firm their head count and his casual unthinking reference to “people”, meaning fee earners and a class of “non-people” meaning everyone else.

Drawing these false distinctions is fundamentally unwise, and wholly inappropriate in a social business. A social business recognises that each element has an integral role to play, and requires a voice. Interestingly the balance and mutual dependence of elements in an organisation are embodied in frameworks like 7s, its is just sad that these are often used to divide rather than unite.

This does not mean that every section or department or division is the same. Nor does it mean that they all require the same depth of skills or that the expertise and competence required in each is the same or as easily replaced.

But it does point up that organisations are not simplistic machines easily divided or neglected without unpredictable and damaging outcomes. The experience of RBS and Natwest underline the centrality of what would often be described as “non frontline” services and how neglecting and side lining these can have catastrophic consequences.