Embracing the competing dynamics of structure and agility

Read Suresh Sidhu’s (CEO of edotco Group) thought leadership article on ‘Economies of Skill’, as featured in The New Straits Times.

Leading an asset-centric business, my focus is mainly to ensure that our offerings are sustainable in the long term.

Faced with new industry pressures, asset heavy businesses will immediately address them by scaling up while the true nature of change occurring around us may be misunderstood.

Companies across all industries, whether asset heavy or light, are today vulnerable to multiple new forces simultaneously. Coming in the form of technological, political, economic, societal and environmental changes, the pace of these changes is so rapid that businesses may find the earth has shifted before they can act.

These necessitate them to be highly adaptable and responsive. Coupled with disruptive trends like digitalisation and automation, they must look beyond traditional methods to build an advantage.

The only natural fortification against the stiff headwind will be the people. They must be capable of thinking on their feet, and at the same time supported with the right tools and organisational context to perform at their best. The buzzword here is often “agility” – but at edotco, we believe in marrying hard structural initiatives with agile ones.

This means we have to move from the traditional practice of economies of scale and begin embracing the concept of economies of skill. While the former refers to benefits gained from increased production, economies of skills refers to unlocking the value from an engaged, enabled and skilled workforce.

At its core is the imperative for organisations to embrace two competing dynamics – structure and agility.

Structure may seem at odds with the requirement to move fast and be nimble. However, it gives everyone the contextual understanding and mandates for execution. Streamlining organisation charts, collaborative platforms, business automations initiatives and limits of authorities are just some of the ways we establish structure within our organisation. Establishing clear guidelines and processes also enable operations to be replicated across the organisation effectively and efficiently.

To achieve agility, we need to empower employees with decision-making and problem-solving capabilities by implementing self-learning programmes, shared key performance indicators to drive collaboration, idea generation platforms and data-mining systems accessible to them at any time.

This is achievable with the right tools, processes and analytics capabilities to allow for fluidity in movement and responses. A critical component is to tie this all in with a modern and flexible reward system.

The trick is to ensure a high degree of standardisation but at the same time allow room for innovation to thrive. How can this work in practice?

Drawing parallels to the Roman, Moghul and British empires, they demonstrated how a team of agile and adaptable people can conquer the world despite being few in numbers. At its peak, the Roman empire was governed by only 160 administrators.

The Moghul empire reached its zenith as much from its inclusive alliance-based approach under Prince Akbar as it did wielding its military might. Between World War 1 and World War 2, the British empire, which covered 35 million square kilometres, 24 percent of the earth’s total land area, were administered by a mere 4,000 civil servants through only four main offices.

Even without modern communications, these administrators displayed a high degree of agility and responsiveness due to a strong common value, contextual understanding, and systems, rather than emphasising on origin.

At edotco, a good example of how we applied economies of skill is when we built 200 towards in a short space of time in Cambodia. Being the first-build programme in Cambodia, we lacked the skills on the group, so we mobilised resources from Bangladesh.

As everything else was common – organisation, job, structure – they were able to hit the ground running. With consistent work context, they could engage their full attention to the core problem of rolling out in a new country with completely different supply chains and building practices.

We also employ structured systems to collect and collate near real-time data to support employees in decision-making.

For example, following the cyclones in Bangladesh, we sieved through our data and developed critical new analytics which inform upgrades and investment plans to mitigate erratic climate challenges, all with the goal of delivering better uptime to customers. Currently, we are working towards more agile analytics, taking the massive unstructured data and formulating methods to present implications in real-time.

In recent years, these best practices have led to a truly efficient and effective workforce that is essential to strengthen our operations.

By getting every layer of the company involved via transparent information sharing, inclusive approaches to diversity and development, we are also giving them a stake in the sustainability of the business.

I strongly believe that adopting the economics of skill will be the winds behind our sails.

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