Sept 11 lesson in high performance models

The tragic events of 11 September provided a sombre backdrop for many
speakers and delegates at the recent CIPD conference. It showed that HR
professionals have to be at the forefront of the practical as well as emotional
response within organisations.

Yet despite this, none of the gurus on show took the opportunity to draw on
one of the deeper lessons to emerge from the tragedy. While Osama bin Laden may
seem to be no more than a fanatic based in a cave somewhere in southern
Afghanistan, the devastating effectiveness of his Al-Qaeda terrorist network
demonstrates beyond measure the power of the high performance organisational
model.

Schooled in management theory and economics, Bin Laden has taken into
account all the key principles of high performance working. Al-Qaeda is a flat,
non-hierarchical organisation comprising dozens of highly trained
semi-autonomous teams. The global network revolves around its shared mission,
vision and values. And Bin Laden acts more like the guiding conductor of an
orchestra than a controlling military commander. In return his deadly ensemble
display commitment well beyond the call of duty.

Bin Laden has, of course, adopted this model to pursue the objective of mass
murder rather than mass customisation. But the sad irony is that Al-Qaeda seems
more attuned than many UK firms to high performance practice.

Bosses familiar with traditional command and control structures fail to
"walk the talk" of high performance. Those that want to match
rhetoric with action, meanwhile, struggle to develop the right kinds of
organisational architecture. Research relayed at Harrogate by Richard
Whittington of Oxford’s influential Said Business School shows that successful
organisations must adhere to a mutually reinforcing trinity of change.

Improvements in strategy, technology and people management will achieve few,
if any, positive results unless they gel within a coherent structure.

This makes all the more worrying the fact that when trying to climb
mountains organisations often leave their people stranded at base camp. As
Marcus Buckingham, Gallup’s global practice leader, told CIPD conference
delegates, fewer than one in five UK employees feels fully engaged by their
employers. The resulting motivational deficit hits productivity, raises labour
turnover and costs business over £40bn a year. Buckingham’s assertion is in
keeping with the general message of Harrogate 2001, that the amount and quality
of people management must be continually raised.

If terrorist leaders can appreciate the need for high performance working,
those at the top of decent law-abiding organisations ought to as well.

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