Touch: Five Factors to Growing and Leading a Human Organization

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By Alan McEwen

At first glance, it might seem unusual that two specialists in digital marketing, Todd Maffin and Mark Blevis, would write a book stressing the importance of returning a more human touch to all our daily activities. However, as emerges in Touch: Five Factors to Growing and Leading a Human Organization, the apparent contradiction is nowhere near as great as it might first appear.

Both Maffin and Blevis have a keen sense of marketing and know that human relationships are the foundation of all economic activity. Despite the commonly used term B2B—business-to-business—the authors point out that companies don’t buy from other companies; in the end, it’s always people who make economic decisions, including human resources decisions.

Despite the fact that much of Touch is only indirectly related to HR issues, the work contains a strong statement of the authors’ own views on the best way to manage employees.

Command and Control vs. Trust and Engagement
The authors describe the majority of existing employee management practices as a form of ‘command and control’, wherein money spent on employees is viewed as an expense to be minimized and close and constant supervision is needed to ensure the extraction of maximum productivity.

By contrast, the authors’ own preference is for what they describe as a more human approach to employee management: one that emphasizes trust and engagement. In their view, employers should establish goals and objectives focused on clear outcomes – i.e. the difference the organization seeks to make in the world.

Time Wasted vs. Healthy Activism
To give one example, the authors cite how these two different approaches to employee management treat social media. The traditional ‘command and control’ approach is to limit employee access to social media during working hours. In this view, employee access to social media is just an invitation to waste time.

By contrast, the authors emphasize how smart and properly trained employees can become social media activists on behalf of the employer. A requirement for this training is the development and communication of ultra-short mission statements—the authors use the term mantra and quote author Guy Kawasaki’s recommendation that Wendy’s mantra be: ‘healthy fast food’. The authors hold, that given this training, employees can be trusted to properly represent their employers on social media.

‘Local’ Content and Practical Recommendations
A pleasant surprise in reading this book was the generous sprinkling of Canadian references. Early in the book the authors reference Dan Pontefract, author of Flat Army: Creating a Connected and Engaged Organization. Pontefract works for a Telus subsidiary, Telus Transformation Office, a consultancy specializing in organizational culture change management. This is but one reference among many that are in effect a substantial reading list for further study, much of which is Canadian.

Touch also contains a number of practical suggestions. One is the concept of periodically evaluating your HR, workforce management or human capital management system the same way employers give employees annual performance reviews. In other words, employers should proactively assess the benefits received from these systems, rather than waiting for a crisis to develop.

The Humane Art of the Apology
The authors emphasize the importance of both clarity and simplicity in all forms of employer communications. They point to one oft-used phrase as something to particularly avoid—the tendency for people to say ‘I want to apologize for …’ or ‘let me apologize for …’

In their view, neither is as effective as the unqualified ‘I apologize for …’ Moreover, the ‘for’ should regard the behaviour in question, not the reaction to this behaviour. In other words, it’s never as effective to apologize for upsetting people with your behaviour, as it is to apologize for the behaviour itself.

One disconcerting aspect of this book is the authors’ use of the term ‘human’, as in a ‘human organization’ when they clearly mean ‘humane’, as in an emphasis on empathy and respect. By definition all forms of corporate organization are ‘human’, as in human beings, but not all are run on ‘humane’ principles.

Anecdotes, Odd Ideas and Overall Value
While I’m very clearly sympathetic to their point of view, much of authors’ argument in Touch is anecdotal, drawn on their own or others’ experiences. There’s very little in the way of reference to analytics or other forms of evidence-based research to support their arguments.

I would also quibble with what might be described as some of the authors more unusual ideas. One is to suggest the use of scents as a possible means to increase workplace productivity. The other is an encouragement to add ‘gut feelings’ to the mix when selecting HR or other IT systems.

Years ago, I partnered with an IBM subsidiary to market my own Canadian payroll software into local governments. My strong impression was that the people making the actual purchase decisions did so primarily based on the strength of their relationship with the salesperson concerned. To this day, I believe organizations benefit from a continuous struggle to maintain objectivity in software and systems selections.

Well Worth Touching On
All in all I found this book to be a worthwhile read. It should be of interest to anyone concerned with their corporate culture. And, as a follow-up, I will be sampling the other works mentioned in Touch.

Alan McEwen is a Vancouver Island-based HRIS/Payroll consultant and freelance writer with over 20 years’ experience in all aspects of the payroll industry. He can be reached at armcewen@shaw.ca, 250.228-5280 or visit www.alanrmcewen.com for more information.

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