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Task alignment in the wake of coronavirus lockdown

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Added 7th April 2020 04:02 PM

In the corporate world, managers must focus on the central competitive challenge as the means for motivating change and developing new behaviours and skills

In the corporate world, managers must focus on the central competitive challenge as the means for motivating change and developing new behaviours and skills

By Julius Warren Kule (PhD)

As countries ramp up measures and support to contain the spread of coronavirus (COVID 19), it appears that saving certain businesses might be a tall order. Coronavirus is wrecking havoc in all spheres of life. Businesses in both the developed and developing world are no exception. Until now, nobody knows where this will end. Governments across the global have passed both social and business stimulus packages. The question remains, how sustainable will the business inducement packages be?

Amidst the COVID19 challenges and global lockdown, businesses and employees must think beyond the building, revitalise their operations if they are to survive. Remember, thinking beyond the box is just not enough. It is no assumption to believe that, business owners and managers are burning their fingers to keep their businesses afloat. It is also likely that, previously saved company stock of cash might be running out already as businesses pay employees. Paying creditors for now, may not be on the payment plan for most businesses. It is however true, that creditors might appear in postponed payments. This adds to the pile of miseries facing Management and business owners.

Although a familiar concept, corporate revitalisation is difficult to undertake. In the corporate world, managers must focus on the central competitive challenge as the means for motivating change and developing new behaviours and skills. As part of the revitalisation initiative, task alignment comes in just handy. Although revitalisation attempts to change the entire business architecture or structure, task alignment does not. It helps to build capabilities and behaviours needed for transformation.

Task alignment means redefining work roles, responsibilities, and relationships within units, in a way that will enhance the coordination that is required to accomplish critical tasks. With the lockdown, how do businesses accomplish their central tasks? Businesses must realign how people and departments work in order to pull their products and services through the value chain. Under-current circumstances, pushing the product through the value chain might be very costly.

Managers should note that, for alignment to occur, they must be able to articulate strategy, allocate resources and develop policies that will guide processes. The overall purpose of task alignment is not to manage costs as most business entities plan to do, but rather, change how people work together around core tasks without changing the organizational architecture or shading off jobs. To happen, management must be willing to let go certain idiosyncrasies on control and authority. Organizations should be able to redefine the concepts of power and authority. For this article, I will assume that power and authority refer to the territory to decide and act on assigned responsibilities.

In Uganda, the 2010/11 census of business establishments report revealed that there were 458,106 registered businesses, with 61% of the businesses in the trade sector. The 458,106 businesses employ 1,074,000 people (UBOS, 2010/11). Classified by employment size, businesses that employ 1-4 people were 93.5% of the 458.106, while 5-9 employees account for 4.1% and greater than 10 employees account for 2.4%. interesting to note, is the fact that in the period, 2010/11, the average number of employees per business reduced from 3 in the previous period 2009/2010 to 2(2010/11). This may not suggest that the economy shrunk. A deeper analysis of other variables and statistics may give a better picture. This is not my focus.

If there was a decline in the number of persons employed per business in 2009/10 without any lockdown, what do we envisage now? Although these figures may not reflect the real economic situation in Uganda, they speak to how risky the effects of COVID19 on business failure and jobs might be.

Therefore, it might be agile and not the strongest that will survive. Businesses should redefine how tasks are performed with one goal, keep businesses improve task performance, and keep employment. What form of alignment should businesses undertake?

A go-to-market task alignment. With relatively low internet costs (compared to many African countries), thanks to stimulus offers from telecommunication companies in Uganda, employees should each re-engineer how they access particular audiences/clientele (social group, church group etc) to popularise the company's products or services. This role, traditionally performed by the marketing department or CEO's office can easily be performed by all employees at the comfort of their living rooms. Instead of the head of marketing feeling isolated in performing the role, all members of the organization should begin to take up the role. This way, since all feel the heat of possible job losses, they might passionately perform the task better than if the task was left to be performed by the concerned department. Each member will feel responsible for achieving specific targets. This is not to suggest that the marketing department or the concerned department will cease to perform its role. Instead, the concerned department's role will transform from leading at the front, but offering coordination and training to the ‘new' members (existing employees) of the marketing team.  Depending on how customers receive the message, a new role sets in.

Supply and value chain reconfiguration. If previously, employees felt responsible for achieving specific departmental goals, now is the time to change. With the lockdown, keeping the organization afloat is every member of the organization's goal. If employees are able to make a number of calls, thanks to their social marketing abilities, ensuring that orders are closed and fulfilled becomes the next role. The same employee now becomes responsible for following up the order with the delivery department. This ensures reliability and delivery of the right order. A new form of working relationship emerges between the field employees (under lockdown) and those in charge of delivering (a near Jumia model is applicable here).

Most businesses in Uganda follow, "a come to our premises approach". The current state of events has proved this as a fatal approach, not near the requirements of an organization desirous of survival. Take an example of a small business that sells ‘matooke'. As per government guidelines, such businesses are allowed to open since they are in the category of selling food. However, there is a catch 24. If the businessman/woman delivers the matooke from say Kasese to Kampala, how will the ‘matooke' be taken off the truck? The boys in Kampala are underlock down. The options: the business person may hire a forklift to offload the matooke and minimize the risks of people contracting coronavirus through contact. The forklift is not a good machine for the job(offloading ‘matooke'). Suitable for goods on pallets or in a container. The boys at Katwe will charge 100.000 per day excluding transport. The other available option is to have the loaders in Kasese seat on the truck, drive to Kampala, offload the ‘matooke' and drive them back. This way, no contact with anyone. However, the option is equally expensive. With this option, some people may lose their jobs. The ‘matooke' seller should think of adding value in the value chain to keep and create employment.

Instead of transporting bunches of ‘matooke', peeling the ‘matooke' at the source offers an income to the peelers. Packing ‘makooke fingers' in smaller boxes is another option.  A new player, the box maker(for packing the peeled ‘matooke' or ‘matooke' fingers) comes into play. Also, the manufacturer of preservatives comes into play as well. On an efficiency front, the truck will carry more ‘matooke' in boxes than carrying whole bunches. On arrival at the destination, since the ‘matooke' is packaged in portable boxes, off-loading will be a much easier task and cheaper. The Kampala off-loaders can be used to deliver to customers(I am assuming that young people are taking advantage of government stimulus funds which can be used to buy a tuk-tuk). On the other hand, Kampala Capital City Authority will channel the amount spent on cleaning up ‘matooke' peelings in Kampala to other priority areas such as; health, street lighting and security etc. The peelings at the source can be used as manure or used as source of clean energy. I want to believe that, there are multiple opportunities in the value chain. With COVID 19, we should revitalise our thought processes, and act smart. This approach should be used for all other businesses including beef or chicken sellers. Demand in the city is not motivated by customers seeing live animals, but rather the efficiency with which they receive/access the product.

To achieve task alignment in the above areas, processes owners and business people should lead the discussion to decide who needs to work together on what tasks/processes to solve value chain challenges facing businesses. As earlier mentioned, task alignment does not alter an organization's structure, but rather focuses on working ad hoc structures such as project team task forces etc to achieve efficiency, and survival. By ensuring that all are in the loop, new interaction patterns emerge, resistance is reduced and the opportunity for people to develop necessary skills and motivation will be enhanced. Prof. Balunywa has written and talked extensively about people involvement in the process of change. In the long run, changes may eventually in the business structure  follow such changes in ad hoc structures as a way of firming up and institutionalising renewal, but by then, new competences to run the new architecture will already be in place. For government, this is equally an opportunity to create employment by encouraging business task alignment/process restructuring.

Generating and maintaining sufficient energy for alignment. To perform this essential task, businesses or managers must confront the reality of business performance and engage everyone in the organization. Management must make the case for alignment. Lewin(1950) model of change offers some insights. The notion of business, as usual, should be extinguished. I have come to agree with Edward Deminings' views on how organizations can get out of a crisis. Demings argues that, organizational change is most accelerated if an organization experiences a crisis. Managers should be able to identify and allocate resources to signal the new direction. For the ‘matooke' seller, allocating resources in manufacturing boxes or training his staff or network in quality signals a change in direction. This equally signals a raise in performance and changes in expectations. My view is that at business or organizational level, this change stretches employees out of their comfort zones into unknown and not tested approaches. Employees should understand that it is very risky to remain in comfort zones. A slight change at one point in the value or supply chain will trigger multiple changes in the processes.  Since some new approaches are new and untested, management must support initiatives and trials. Failure should in some way be rewarded. Failure is an attempt to try. With the current circumstances, leadership tasks are necessary to generate the energy at all levels to allow the business leapfrog into the post-coronavirus phase. As earlier said, a business as usual mentality is fatal. All must contribute. To succeed, the environment for initiative must be established by management and team leaders.

Problem analysis. Usually a task performed by management, employees can use this time to think through the challenges the organization is currently facing, inhibiting its growth. This should be initiated by a star employee(see Bale's model of group processes) and management should be willing to move forward with ideas that will feed into the change architecture, rather focusing on why employees said what they said. This approach will elicit suggestions on how to improve coordination, functions and overall organizational management. New ideas will emerge and at the end, will result into new models of doing business. An honest discussion and analysis of current organizational problems will result into positive attitudes about their work, since employees will feel optimistic that management will use their ideas to change. This redefined role, responsibility and relationship will result into improved coordination and communication among different departments and units. Since organizational survival is the major goal, employees will establish networks to solve certain lingering problems related to quality, delivery and maybe complaints management. This will be made possible because alignment efforts will produce behaviours, motivation, and skills needed to compete more effectively.

Coordination alignment. Leading business change requires touching all coordination levers. Management must implement a robust education process to implement an alignment program. As mentioned earlier in the problem analysis, management must be able to set up online listening posts to ensure timely feedback needed to transform tasks and processes or fill in missing pieces. A free range approach to communication should be avoided. Otherwise, your customers and employees will be eaten up by the ‘mongoose'. Clear communication will help in clarifying and reinforcing the alignment process in a clear manner.  Arm-chair management style does not fit in the coordination realignment mechanism. Businesses or management should ensure that process dialogue within the architecture should be encouraged to bring all constituencies to one thinking table. This approach, partly explains how fast the US was able to launch a coronavirus testing kit that produces results in a record 15 minutes. Interestingly, other than reading complaints about the effect of the lockdown on businesses, why are we not reading about decisions from a meeting(online) held by certain businesses on new ways of coordinating activities? For example, I expected the tourism sector players to quickly discuss options available to keep the sector afloat. Is e-tourism not on the cards? It again appears that, the government is driving every piece of the economy. Our good CEOs and business owners have handed their destiny to government, the usual word…"Govumenti etuyambe"(Government should help).

Task alignment is a painful process. It demands changes in traditional attitudes and behaviours. Task alignment takes employees out of their comfort zones. This, employees often find it threatening. The task aligned organization challenges the power structure and archaic management styles or business processes. Alignment is fast and meaningful if employees feel threatened (losing their jobs). All energies are devoted to saving the organization by doing things better and ensuring that the organization maintains momentum in functions.

As earlier mentioned, meaningful task alignment can be achieved if an organization configures its ad hoc structure with its critical business problem. For successful outcomes, task alignment begins with shared beliefs and agreement on the need for employees to confront the business problem. Employees need to believe that organizational change will improve not only the business, but also their own well-being (save their jobs).

Importantly, this is an opportunity to weed-out laidback employees (salary is the most important thing) from employees who are passionate about the organization and its survival. Such hard changes and decisions have to be made.

The writer is a senior lecturer of Business Administration at the Faculty of Commerce at the University of Eswatini (Swaziland)

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