Managing the Support Staff Identity Crisis

Employees not connected directly to profit and loss can suffer from a collective "I-am-not-strategic" identity crisis. Professor Ranjay Gulati suggests that business managers allow so-called support function employees to become catalysts for change.
by Carmen Nobel

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."

About the Author

Carmen Nobel is the senior editor of Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.

Post A Comment

In order to be published, comments must be on-topic and civil in tone, with no name calling or personal attacks. Your comment may be edited for clarity and length.
    • Jill Malleck
    • OD Consultant, Epiphany at Work
    Companies can value all parts of the organization when they see themselves as a dynamical system - inter-connected and inter-related. Human systems are organisms, and like our own body, we must value all parts for their contribution even if they are invisible to us (and the customer) or if their function seems less significant. Consider how we take breathing for granted except when we have a stuffed up nose!
    To add to the mix: Another group I see that are often in an identity-crisis are the administrative assistants - where even in support departments they are supporting the supporters. This group can feel unempowered and unimportant to the larger mandate, and in Canada they have the added burden of a mostly female demographic. This is where I have seen the response of adding regulations, processes and spreadsheets and saying "no" a lot - taking on the role of naysayer and policing the status quo. When we broaden their identity to be the instigators and the cross-department facilitators we can elevate their self-esteem.
    • Robert Liley
    • Managing Director, The Signal Group
    I am astounded that marketing people don't view themselves as strategic. Certainly, in my ten years with General Foods, they viewed themselves as strategic. More than that, they thought the fate of the company rested with them, with marketing being seen as the prime route to top management. I've been working hard to get organizations to view their IT resources as strategic, with mixed success. Clearly, with the explosion in business capabilities afforded by the new advances in information technology, IT is becoming increasingly strategic. Are they ready for this? We'll see.
    • Wendy Hersh
    Those that manage the support and frontline workers(customer service, for instance) are the ones you describe in your piece, but I think it goes even deeper.

    Often those that are support or front-line are not included in any decision-making or strategic planning. Not only is this demoralizing, but for those who have different (and perhaps closer) perspectives on the client experience, it seems damned short-sighted.

    Decisions make in the upper floors of the towers in the silos, are not well-researched ones. They not only don't make use of the knowledge already existing within the company, but this kind of decision-making sends the message to a fair share of employees that they have nothing to contribute...
    • Anonymous
    If you have functions or departments who feel themselves to be "outsiders" to the company's self-image, a manager should work on finding out why that's the case. In my experience, the sales department, for instance may not have high regards for the marketing department, but there are probably a few people in the marketing department that are "go to" people when you want something done. Why are those people valued more than the others? Do their skills fit better? Are they more conveniently located for interaction? Do they have better interpersonal skills? Same thing for sales versus programming. It may be that you need different or higher level skills for the department with low status to be valued. It's not enough to say that they "should" be valued or to pass around titles with strategic and other silly adjectives. Our IT department knows which of the salesmen always deliver clients who u
    nderstand the products and are easy to work with and those sales staff who aren't so thorough. Guess which ones have higher status? It tells me which sales people need to be culled or retrained.
    • David White
    • Principal, Ontology Consulting
    Having studied -- and been a part of -- HR functions for many years at companies like Microsoft, Lotus, and several internet startups, I submit that issues of identity run deep and are at the core of the occupational cultures of these functions. For example, the HR function occupationally is steeped in paradigms of service and helping. These are shared mental models that shape the way HR professionals derive meaning for their own work and careers. But the issue, for HR at least, is that a service and helping model often goes against the grain of what it means to add tangible value to the business. Thus, while I applaud Professor Gulati's isolation of identity as a key issue in support staff effectiveness -- this is a step in the right direction -- I submit the remedy he espouses is too simple. A lasting remedy will involve more than simply positing new identities such as "instigator" and "innovator". Unless thes
    e new identities are closely aligned to and embedded in new ways in which these functions conceptualize work, roles, and missions, and as a result can become subsumed into the ways in which professionals achieve results and derive meaning, the change Professor Gulati proposes will be hard to enact.
    • David White
    • Principal, Ontology Consulting
    Having studied -- and been a part of -- HR functions for many years at companies like Microsoft, Lotus, and several internet startups, I submit that issues of identity run deep and are at the core of the occupational cultures of these functions. For example, the HR function occupationally is steeped in paradigms of service and helping. These are shared mental models that shape the way HR professionals derive meaning for their own work and careers. But the issue, for HR at least, is that a service and helping model often goes against the grain of what it means to add tangible value to the business. Thus, while I applaud Professor Gulati's isolation of identity as a key issue in support staff effectiveness -- this is a step in the right direction -- I submit the remedy he espouses is too simple. A lasting remedy will involve more than simply positing new identities such as "instigator" and "innovator". Unless thes
    e new identities are closely aligned to and embedded in new ways in which these functions conceptualize work, roles, and missions, and as a result can become subsumed into the ways in which professionals achieve results and derive meaning, the change Professor Gulati proposes will be hard to enact.
    • Anonymous
    As someone who worked in HR and leadership (now talent) functions my whole career, I have experienced both high impact and no impact support functions. The differentiating factor mostly was whether or not the actions of the function could readily answer yes to the question of "am I adding value to the bottom line of the business by my activity and by the time I am asking the line to make for my work?" Even when the work was mostly playing gatekeeper, if the reason for that was to keep the company out of legal trouble, then the answer to the first question is still yes. My contention is with that as the underlying agenda, any support function has relevance and value.
    • Anonymous
    It's a sad state of affairs that many organisations fail to put both marketing and HR professionals at the top table for strategic planning and decision making when often it is the people who will make the difference and the marketers who will sell the difference. Marketers need to exploit the skill they have around persuasion and turn it around to focus on understanding their own internal brand. If they are worth their salt they can use what they know around persuading external clients to focus on internal buyers. HR can help through people development that embraces educating the non-support functions to understand the strengths they bring from the left brain and how when you combine both sides of the brain together through Marketing and HR, you can deliver a compelling proposition to your clients. Take away the marketing and HR functions in a professional services firm and what have you got? Great practitioners who haven't g
    ot a clue how to sell their wares.
    • K M Mathew
    • Aera Manager, Avery India Limited
    The thoughts expressed are all relevent and true. Whilst there is identy crisis amonst support staff, there are many organisations who do not have or do not even recognise the need for a marketing department. We are a typical example of this.

    It is probably like this - when we have one we dont value it. When we dont have it we desparately want to have it.
    • Farhan Khalid
    • Sr. Manager Administration, Ufone, Pakistan
    I couldn't agree more with Gulati in identifying the distinct behavior and response approach of support departments. It seems like a pretty good model that could help change default response, thus, eyeing both departmental and organization improvement simultaneously. However, we can not underestimate the importance of how support departments are perceived in adding value to an organization's bottom line. Without any doubt in my mind, every individual and every job function is equally important to achieve overall success. In addition to applying Gulati's model, there should also be emphasis on how to change the trite perception about the support departments, especially Administration. What I am suggesting is to use Gulati's model alongside perception improvement drive of all support departments. An eye is an eye even if it is "BLUE"!
    • Anonymous
    To tackle these issues, one must acknowledge that a significant fraction of staff self-select into support functions because they don't want to be accountable for creating value or adapting to market conditions. Often, they're not even answerable to their internal customers, i.e. employees in profit centers. The predominately bad support staff either demotivate or scare off the good ones. If a CEO wants to change this dynamic, (s)he should (1) require significant numbers of ambitious, high performers (from customer-facing departments) to rotate through support functions and (2) have meaningful performance metrics so they don't jeopardize their career trajectories. If the very best performers are exempt from rotating, the other high-performers will balk, and the rotation program will fail due to adverse selection.
    • Vijay Menon
    • Marketing Consultant,
    My experience has largely been with midsized IT services companies in India and I haven't seen the angst mentioned here among marketing staff. One reason could be that most companies of that size use a balanced score card approach to monitor KRAs and are small enough for managers and staff to have a fair idea about why they do what they do.

    Another reason is that the prevailing culture in Indian companies is to question all functions and query them for value! So most marketing folks -- specially in the downturn -- are pretty good at articulating their value to the company.

    PS. Of course, the old problem remains -- functional managers are happy to talk efficiency metrics (how many campaigns did I run) while CEOs want to talk effectiveness metrics (how much did we sell). But that problem is as old as the hills in marketing...
    • Vijaya Bhaskar Danda
    • Chief Internal Auditor, G.P.Zachariades(Overseas) Ltd
    You may easily compare the supporting staff services with the mother's services in a family where father only earning.
    As long as mother taking care of their children, the children
    may not realise the value of mother,perhaps mother also.In the same way supporting functions also.
    If you extend this example little more...If mother can groom her children with better values and education this will have a long term positive value and impact to the family and even to the society in general.In the same way if the supporting staff also contributes like mother of a family, definetely they will become very good assets to the company.No need to have inferior feeling that they are not adding value....Core functions may provide short term measurable profits...but needless to say, supporting functions will provide long term benifits which may not be some extent.Therefore my conclusion is, the author may be right if the supporting staff follows the core in the above example.
    • Bill McKenney
    • President, IZAC Inc.
    As I read this I reflected on a presentation I saw recently from RSA by Dan Pink on motivating people at work. According to his review of numerous studies, the three motivating factors for cognitive work are Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose. All three of these are missing when employees don't know how they're adding value or their role in the organization. It would be a very demotivating environment for these individuals.
    Mr.Gulati is quite right and his study is more relevant and significant when the executives are not ready to share the credit for any success and in case of failure they want to pass the buck to supporting staff .line staff can not understand the problems of staff .
    • Vijaya Ramam
    • consultant, Hospital Management
    Organisations are built/sustained with an on going efforts made by its employees in every sphere of its activity , big or small. Very seldom the ones in the background ( normally the support staff) get into the oblivion as rightly observed by Prof.Gulati & his team.It is the responsibility of top management to ensure that the efforts of every department is recognised.
    Being in the field of Hospital Management over the past 23 years, & heading the operations for about 18years, it was quite an ordeal for me to impress upon the medical fraternity the importance of support services , without whom, they will not be able to do justice to a patient.Over the years they also realised the value of such services,& make it a point to give them a pat as & when needed.
    I would say that such practices should become a part of the culture of an organisation.
    • Geoff Barbaro
    • Director, Corporate Growing Pains Pty Ltd
    A wonderful description of one of the signs of corporate growing pains, and I think the proposed cure can be very effective as well.

    As with everything, balance is important. Support staff are usually located with the CEO and senior management and have representation at those levels.

    As a result, the core business operations can be overwhelmed and interfered with by the support services constantly asking for innovation, integration and implementation without focusing on delighting the customers.

    Support services are also often removed from customers, a gap that should be minimised as far as possible to give their work real meaning.

    All the best, geoff
    • Kathy Murray
    • Owner, McMorran Strategists, LLC
    Great topic. Having led large support staffs at two firms, my advice includes coaching staff "to just get over not feeling valued...the more one worries about this, the less their energy is focused on creating value for the business...and then, being valued!" (And having led large sales teams, they also never felt "valued" so it is just a basic human need.)
    • Jude Obiekwe U.
    • Principal Consultant, Catchline Consulting Group Nig
    Firstly, i want to thank Mr. Gulati for this article. This has revealed a fundamental issue that militate against team playing in most organizations and businesses in the world. Since some of the major incentives for employees which are Motivation, Evaluation, Promotion and Praise are all determined by bottom-line results. Out of default the employees who manage these bottom-line are often at the line-light to collect the rewards but with this Gulati view points, the rest of the team can understand and support those at that level. In the same spirit the bottom-line managers should also know that the incentives are for them and all the other team members and ensure that they acknowledge them always. This should also reflect in other aspects of reward and recognition.
    • Anonymous
    Marketing departments are, I think, difficult subjects for this type of research. Marketing typically includes Product Management, which is typically understood to be line, and Marketing Communications, which is typically understood to be staff. Line employees typically think of themselves as being strategic and integral to the organization. It's the staff employees that may consider themselves non-strategic and perhaps unimportant.

    This could be due to an under-emphasis on tactical execution. Strategy is meaningful only to the extent that it's put into practice. An effective MarCom employee makes real an organization strategy through tactical implementations of the overall strategy across various media. So does an HR employee, so does a finance employee.

    Paraphrasing Edison, Innovation (corporate success) one percent inspiration (strategy) and 99% perspiration (tactical execution).
    • Gopala Krishnan
    • Learning & Development Associates, PGKRISH & ASSOCIATES
    A very interesting and valid finding of how organizations are run and managed. Having been in various support functions such as QA, Safety and HR, it is normal to hear the grouses from the sales and operations department how the support departments are bringing down the revenue and profit. The issue here is that the organizations has failed to integrate all these departments into one common cause. The common cause here is to meet the customer needs. Organizations need to work along a common theme of continuously improving systems and processes in order to meet customer requirements. It is the responsibility of the Senior Management of the organization to ensure that each departments are aligned to the team. An addition to these should be the cross functional teams that is formed to crystallize the theme. With this in place, we can expect the departments to discard the silo mentality

    Gopala Krishnan
    • Carol H Tucker
    • Loan Servicing, PBS LLC
    The way that any organization differenctiates itself is in execution -- which means the Operations/Support areas are invaluable. And yet I can tell you from personal experience that many CEOs, who mostly hire from the sales force, do not listen to their support staff. Instead we are relegated to the role of "housework" and only noticed when things are not done....

    The cost in lost initiatives, failures to collect tacit knowledge and valuable employees is incalculable -- and ongoing.
    • Yuvarajah
    • HR
    Great insights.

    I find it rather odd on the storyline of how Gulati came to conclude that "support departments" live with uncertainty over their roles and in articulating how they add value to the organisation.

    If employees cannot respond to a simple question on what they do, then something is seriously wrong with the leadership of that organisation. And, topping the list could be Incompetency or disorientation. Of course, we can delve deeper into the culture, pathologies, DNA code, maturity, identity crisis, etc.

    The other lesson is the underlying belief to System Thinking. If you view the JD as a document meant to limit the scope of job dynamism and career growth, then you might as not have one !.

    This reminds me of the story of the body organs arguing who is the most important part?. I am curious, "is there a there a standard or commonly accepted criteria to discerning what separates the "support" from "front-line" functions. Amusingly, I recall the debate between the Sales Director and Production guy why his people should get more bonus!". In the end, there was no agreement -they were both Engineers!.

    No matter how you look at it, this is a problem created by Business corporations. You do not find this sort of adversarial relationship in the military or NGOs. There is a deep sense of selfless culture and leadership embedded in those organisations that whoever comes into contact thinks and acts so - for the larger interest of ALL. There is no "I" specialist, rather the entire people think as one - TEAM. Teamwork supersedes "individualism". Unfortunately in the business environment, people are subjected to myopia - to focus on the short term bottomline results without thoughts to long term implicit effects.

    Finally, (I hope so), more and more are seeing the reality of business landscape and how leaders have leveraged the value of value of employee trust. Of course, the "support functions" will continue to be at the forefront victim of any efficiency efforts. But, until it happens, it is incumbent upon leadership to ensure a "dichotomy" of disconnect and disengagement prevails to the point of driving "support functions" into a state of learned helplessness.

    If you think you can or think you can't, you are right - Henry Ford.

    PS: I disagree to accept that "Finance" falls under the Support function. They are, unlike HR, a pillar of strength, due to their creative accounting abilities, to the CEO. Do you ever hear them having to earn their place at the C suite?.
    • chandan
    • Assitant Manager Logistics, Madura Coats Pvt Ltd
    I suppose these circumstances are in most of the support function, where in the contribution can not be assessed from single person, rather it is coming out of a team. I suppose it is essential that the team leader ensures that there is enough drive within the team , and also team leader has to be impartial on assessing the talent within his team, if a team member has a slightest notion that his team leader is favoring some one in the team, he will assume going forward, that what ever he does the team leader do not recognize him at all, so his contribution level will deteriorate, there is chances that he would be rebellion as well, and later termed as over heads.
    It is very important that each person has to be felt, that he is directly involved in the bottom line achievement.
    As support function is involved for long time corporate strategy implementation as well, it is very important that in every step each member of team has made to feel that he or she is involved directly.
    • Bill Ellerton
    • Director, Mainstay Business Services
    Professor Gulati has undoubtedly identified a very real and in my experience quite common corporate disease.

    I am not convinced however that an appropriate cure has been identified through the ensuing discussion.

    In my view the symptoms are more a demonstration of a poor corporate culture than anything else.
    A culture where Executives attempt to drive the business using nothing more than retrospective performance indicators such as P&L. Or to bring in another metaphor, driving a car through the rear vision mirror.

    We all know that in the end a company needs to make money to survive, but what really drives medium to long term sustainable performance is understanding the drivers of performance.

    The only people who actually provide revenue to an organisation are customers. And the only people who add value to customers are employees.

    So it follows that employees delivering value to customers will inevitably drive financial performance.

    The problem with most support groups, including not only HR, Finance and IT but all of those Executives with nice C level titles is that they often don't know who their customers are. The reality is that support group customers are their colleagues who face the external customers each and every day. If you are not servicing an (external) customer i.e. a revenue generating source, then the reality is that you are an unnecessary overhead and your job shouldn't exist. Or in other words you should be servicing a customer or servicing someone who is - especially if you are a Senior Executive. The best corporate cultures are those where every individual, including the Senior Executives, understand that serving customers is not something that gets in the way of doing other things, it is both a privilege and the reason any job exists.
    • Paul Nicholas
    • Adviser for Leadership Development, Herefordshire Council
    This is interesting, contentious and troubling, and the linguistic and conceptual connotations of the term "support" are often heavily loaded and sometimes damaging.

    I meet and work with support staff who are sometimes almost apologetic about their roles and importance - "I only have a support role here". This is demotivating and impairs the effectiveness of the organisation.

    I also find support staff are often referred to as "ancillary staff".

    When there is a failure on these lines - and such failure leads teams and organisations to lose some of the ethos and holism they need to optimise their function and performance - the issue usually lies with a failure of leadership. Leaders create the realities inside their organisations - and the use of an alternative language creates alternative realities.
    • Hugo Bolio
    • Technical Area
    Interesting article - agree on the analysis, appreciate the interpretation of evolution of actions, but do not necessarily agree on the "solution"

    We need to clarify first whether the concern is that people at the support function do not value/appreciate their own doing or that the people from the operations do not appreciate them.

    Whenever the "operations" believe/feel "they do not need" the support or staff functions, I am sure that "a support function with super identities" will be equally neglected by them. In fact, if staff were to assume these roles it could be seen as an additional proof of their lack of value and excess budget (spending money and resources to do something different from whatever they should be doing)

    I once read that organizations exist to fulfill recurring requests - hence an area in any organization exists because: a) there are recurring requests someone must fulfill... and b) someone at the top decided they wanted those requests to be fulfilled internally ...

    Staff exists to comply with the requests from the Top Management; hence Top Management has to decide if and why, they want a staff, and if so - their purpose, their accountabilities, their size, their empowerment, their deliverables, etc. These definitions will provide clear messages to the staff functions.

    I agree with the comments posted before mentioning the lack of leadership, directions or decisions from the Top to clarify and value the role of the staff as the main issue to solve.

    If someone in the staff believes the requests from the Top Management are not aligned with the value creation required by the company, perhaps she should be talking to them, rather than trying to create her own agenda. And do not assume I am against proactive proposals from the bottom-up or in favor of crystal towers of power, I am simply in favor of an ordered management of a company...
    • Ranjit Nilacanta Venkata
    • Student, Harvard
    This is a very interesting episode of trying to descry the responsibility and the role of an individual in a given organization. Centralization or decentralization slant need not be considered in organizations where individual departments are delineated according to the needs and the capacities.

    Every organization is comprised of a certain set of employees with specific roles assigned but the employees who are assigned those roles might not necessarily know the importance or the scope of the roles.

    While it is absolutely necessary and essential to communicate or convey the preponderance of the role to the person who is taking it up, it is also important to improve the communication etiquette at all the hierarchical levels.

    " I work for XYZ corporation as a .net programmer and I get paid to do what I am asked to. I dont care about the goal and the overall strategy of the company so long as I get paid."

    I got this from an employee of a gigantic Indian IT company which renders services to many US clients.

    This is just like following a herd of sheep.

    My proposal would be

    Flattened hierarchy (or) Better Internal Communication should solve the problem.
    • AA
    • S. Manager, Banking
    I would like to thank prof. Gulati for a very interesting article. Although I agree with the findings highlighted with regards to Support Functions in general, I can't help but get the impression that many of the interpretations and assumptions were looked at from angels other than the Support Functions them selves (academical, consultancy, business units, senior management view points, etc).

    Having privileged of working in both Support Functions as well as Business Functions in the past, I will try sharing my views from Support Staff point of view to enrich this interesting discussion.

    I personally agree with most of the findings discussed above but in addition, I believe that there are more reasons/aspects contributing to the general assumptions of Function Staff behavior. Functional Staff are generally more technical in term of processes, policies/procedures, and Operational Risk Controls (which is part of their responsibilities in many organizations). This leads them to throw questions and apply some controls which as a result interpreted by Business functions as hindering and resistant to provide "expected" support. A good example is architect vs structural engineers, architect (front line) may draw a very creative elevation of a new building that appeals to the customer but Then comes the Structural Engineer (Functional) being more technical in converting a concept into realistic/possible-to-construct project and high light a number of challenges like cost increase, time to complete the project, lack of required material, or even physical eng
    ineering constrains making such elevation difficult/risky to realize. As a result, Structural Engineers can be looked at as being similar to Support Functions in term of resistant and making things hard to show the value of their contribution to the equation.