Last year, Harvard Business School professor Ranjay Gulati met with the marketing department of a large American corporation and posed a seemingly simple question: What do marketing people actually do?
"I got this nervous laughter," says Gulati, an expert on leadership and organizational behavior whose work includes corporate consulting. "And I thought, did I ask an awkward question? So I asked again, 'How do you add value to your organization?' I got more nervous laughter."
“If you're tied down by your job description, you restrain your impact. It's self-limiting behavior. It becomes a vicious, self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Perplexed, he posed the same question to employees from the human resources department of another corporation, and then again to the corporate finance department of yet another firm. Again and again he received the same response—which is to say, he got essentially no response at all. Clearly, these employees were unsure of their roles. Since then, Gulati has seen similar uncertainty abound in other "support function" departments, such as legal and information technology.
So what's with the widespread identity crisis?
According to Gulati, the problem starts with corporate growing pains. When businesses are small, they organize themselves into clear functional units, tapping experts in each respective function to make sure each unit excels. But as they grow, these businesses tend to reorganize toward a model of corporate accountability. Focused tightly on the bottom line, these companies don't know how to quantify the value of legacy functions, which often evolve into jobs that simply support those departments that drive the bottom line, such as sales. And without definite metrics or deliverables, these support function employees don't know how to quantify their own value, either.
This induces a situation in which employees in support functions are saddled—or saddle themselves—with limiting labels such as "support staff" or, worse, "costs" and "overhead."
"Most organizations tend to underutilize these functions," Gulati says. "For years there have been arguments regarding whether they should be centralized or decentralized, but the larger issue is, how do you leverage these people to maximize their impact?"
Proving Their Worth
Paradoxically, seeing themselves as overhead often causes support function employees to go on the defensive, attempting to prove their worth by becoming corporate bureaucrats who enforce sometimes meaningless rules in an attempt to affect the bottom line. This unfortunately leads them to regress into three successive pathologies: rule makers, naysayers, and innovation blockers.
Rather than try to contribute ideas, these employees create rules, regulations, and spreadsheets that enable them to prove that they play a role in the company's bottom line. But too often this basically means that they say no a lot, fixatedly nixing new initiatives, new equipment, or anything novel that would require significant expenditures.
This, of course, brings about hard feelings among employees in other departments that do consider themselves as business results drivers. They begin to view the support departments as detrimental and try to avoid them.
"They become overhead," Gulati says of support departments. "And so this pathology continues. They escalate the number of requirements that businesses have to conform to—which they are now the custodians of—to justify their own existence, and they fall into the role of adversarial custodians."
More often than not, support staffers are unhappy about this role. They would rather identify themselves as necessary and important, not as innovation blockers.
But when Gulati asks managers in finance, HR, and marketing departments whether they've tried to foster innovation, they sometimes go into a victim routine. "They say, 'Oh, they don't listen to me. I don't have a seat at the table. When I try they tell me to get out of here, so I regress to my role as a little bureaucratic turtle guy who throws orders at them.' It goes from a collaborative to an adversarial situation, and it's just a lost opportunity."
A Call To Arms
So how can business managers make better use of a company's support departments? They need to keep in mind three issues: securing identity, fostering collaboration, and recognizing the link between identity and collaboration.
Gulati tackled the identity issue when he helped General Electric revamp its marketing department, a process described in the October 2010 Harvard Business Review article Unleashing the Power of Marketing, in which Gulati and two GE marketing executives describe four fundamental roles-dubbed "a marketer's DNA"-that are necessary to convert marketing from a support function to a strategic one. These four roles include the instigator (someone willing to shove change forward), the innovator (the idea person), the integrator (who helps to bridge the functions of multiple departments), and the implementer (who executes ideas).
While the roles were mapped out with marketing in mind, they could serve to empower others corporate departments; any of the four roles would be more effective, attractive, and full of potential than the aforementioned role of adversarial custodian.
"This is a story about identity," Gulati says. "Ultimately we all have a sense of work identity. We talked about it in terms of DNA, but it's really about helping people redefine their identity in a broader, proactive, impactful, result-oriented way. If you're tied down by your job description, you restrain your impact. It's self-limiting behavior. It becomes a vicious, self-fulfilling prophecy."
Gulati sees this task as a call to arms for both department managers and their staff.
"There are many ways to attack it," he says. "You have to look for how you hire, you have to look for how you develop, you have to look for how you promote. For the heads of these functions, all the cues you give and all the metrics you put out for them should be aligned around these four [roles.] For the rest of the people in the functions, it means you can embrace these ideas without waiting for the bosses to give you the magic wand saying you should be allowed to do this."
GE, for its part, has transformed from a company that used to view marketing as a support function to a company that now requires all its chief marketing officers to summon their teams for an annual self-evaluation. They appraise themselves not on P&L but on a set of 35 skills—a process that lets them measure strengths and weaknesses thoroughly, proving to CEO Jeff Immelt (HBS MBA '82) that they are responding to his mandate that marketing be a key operating function at GE. Securing the identity of these employees will help them realize the potential to do more than just support other departments; they can collaborate with them, too.
"The biggest issue is this cross-functional collaboration," says Gulati, adding that this includes collaboration with both P&L departments and other departments traditionally focused on support functions. (He elaborates on the subject of cross-silo collaboration in his recent book, Reorganize for Resilience: Putting Customers at the Center of Your Business.)
"What we often see across functions is not collaboration but rather antagonistic, non-trusting, and sometimes counterproductive behavior," he says. "And yet these functions can play such a key role toward success. It's not just the responsibility of the leader of the function. It's also the responsibility of the people who are running the P&Ls, the people in the sales organization. They have to ask themselves, how do you build a collaborative organization where there is cross-silo collaboration across functions? The stronger one identifies with one's function, the harder it is to collaborate with others."
While the world's major corporations won't overhaul their support function definitions overnight, Gulati says he sees hope for change in corporate job title trends—namely, that many traditional job titles now have a defining adjective such as "strategic" tacked on to them.
"They use the term 'strategic' liberally now," Gulati says. "It's a way to try and engage. I think that rhetorical spin is a good early indicator. But now you've actually got to enact it."