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Staying agile while growing big – what large businesses can learn from fast growing SMEs

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Walking home from the recent @ResponsiveOrg Unconference, following all the debate about organisations needing to adapt to avoid disruption, cater to the networked world etc a friend asked the question “when does a company become too big to change?” That may be like “how long is a piece of string?” but SMEs and large organisations face many similar communication and collaboration challenges – and yet smaller businesses are able to improve ways of working much faster. I know this is true because I’m currently working with some massive companies, and some smaller ones (approx 500 person) and you can guess where it’s easiest to make things happen.

Is change easier when you’re smaller?

The solutions available today are very similar, irrespective of your organisation’s size, so if the same technology and implementation methodologies apply, then why does it take so much longer in large organisations? The obvious answer is that more people = more time, but I really don’t think that needs to be the case. Particularly when the bigger you are, the more you probably need to change these days.

The beauty, of course, of making things happen in SMEs is that gaining cross-functional alignment and senior leader buy-in to something can be achieved in hours and days, rather than months and years. Ownership really does come from the very top, and the senior leadership team are much closer and more involved from the outset in transformational projects, everything from platform selection to prioritising ‘use cases’. And they are therefore better equipped to lead the way, encourage and support people working in exciting new ways. People can therefore learn very quickly how this ties in to the greater good of the company, and everyone’s a winner.

So what can larger organisations learn from how SMEs are transforming internal communication and collaboration?

Smaller organisations share common challenges

SME’s all have something in common. They all need to retain the speed of execution and family feel at the same time as they grow incredibly fast. Each week there are new faces in the corridors, new names cc’d on inefficient email trails. But at their heart they can still remember where they came from, what got them off the ground, what made them great. And they don’t want to lose it in the way that most large organisations have. Large companies talk of wishing to be more agile and connected so they can respond to disruption. This rhetoric is of course correct, but often they don’t do the fundamental things that will allow this to really happen. Maybe they just don’t know where to start, so they don’t….

Large or small, many of us are looking for the same things

Digital transformation: the common phrase we all use used to describe the context we usually find ourselves in, and it’s the internal aspects of this we naturally love to focus on at Betterworking. A lot of this revolves around connecting up employee networks so they are able to deliver to networked consumers. However in reality, despite having launched ‘social technologies’, many large businesses have just replicated previous people silos, eg with Sales in Chatter, others using social features bolted on to an LMS, and maybe some small, disconnected pockets on Yammer here and there. Whereas in smaller orgs they find it easier to simplify the tech landscape and connect everyone in less fragmented ways. Large orgs could see things in just the same way if they could just work together a little on how to collaborate across business lines.

Bringing the customer inside: Customer centricity is something large organisations always claim to be focusing on, but we are working with a fast growing UK SME that really is connecting up its field sales guys (in John Lewis and elsewhere), with their contact centre people, new product development and marketing teams, operating in vertical (product) internal communities where information flows at lightspeed, helping what customers say in-store impact the products of the future. No need for focus groups any more, this is all happening live.

Increased productivity: Less time wasted in email inboxes / bad email behaviour etc etc. In SME’s, with easier access to the entire leadership team, we can help them understand what tools should be used and when and they can actually make this happen. We have a client at the moment where the CEO, CFO, CIO, HRD, and a few other senior leaders have (enthusiastically) agreed how they will use email, their Jive platform, and other collaborative tools, giving real clarity to their colleagues as to what to use and when. Hallelujah! But why is it so much harder for large orgs to make this happen? Their need is even greater! Again surely it needn’t actually be any harder.

Better strategic and operational internal comms: We’re currently working with an SME where each leader owns a strategic ‘pillar’ and is actively, passionately blogging about progress, thoughts etc. No IC team involved, and not quite the same as some larger organisations where they want to force the CEO/leadership team to commit to a monthly blog that they don’t want to write and that suffers from poor readership as a result.

Breaking down silos: Important cross functional projects in SMEs tend to have some senior leaders involved who can help show the way in terms of using the new tools and working more collaboratively. It’s considerably harder to get traction for tools and new behaviours in larger organisations where the senior guys are further from these kind of projects, and feel they don’t need to get involved as their reports are brought to them. But do they realise the impact this is having? Pick a couple of key initiatives (use cases), roll up your sleeves and get stuck in.

In short, the fundamentals that SMEs are able to get right are the same fundamentals large organisations need to apply.

If large organisations really want to do all these things, and are looking to connect their people up using technology and the web, they need to take it as seriously at a leadership level as they do in smaller companies. The need to identify and lead their key use cases, whilst leaving the door open for company wide adoption is summarised well in this useful blog post by Claire Flanagan. Too often we are seeing companies fail for the usual reasons of not taking it seriously, lack of leadership, and piloting in the traditional IT sense, giving programmes no chance of reaching critical mass.

Look and learn, embrace new ways of working and connect your people, or you will simply be overtaken.

I read an article recently saying that the ‘disruption’ word was massively overused. That’s definitely true, but it doesn’t mean it’s not happening. It most definitely is (great summary here from Sameer Patel). Having worked with some of the world’s biggest insurance companies recently and talked about this threat, and not always felt we’ve been taken seriously, you only have to look at the excellent and somewhat amusing www.heyguevara.com to see how very real this all is (if that’s not enough evidence, here’s more from John M. Cusano via HBR).

Just because you’re big, doesn’t mean you don’t have a lot to learn from your smaller counterparts. Indeed maybe there is no better way to rejuvenate than to spend a little more time watching what these upstarts are up to, lest we become old and out of touch.

Author: Nick Crawford @nick_crawford

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