Empowering the Frontlines Can Help Solve the UK’s Productivity Problem

Since I moved to London from the US about a year ago, a burning issue I keep reading about in the business pages is the UK’s so-called ‘productivity puzzle’. Economists are struggling to understand why the UK economy’s aggregate productivity performance has been at its lowest levels since 1860 following the global financial crisis of 2008.

First of all, what is productivity? There are lots of dry, technocratic formulae out there, but I like the simple clarity of Tony Robbins’s definition: “getting the results you want with less time and effort.” When I talk to customer executives about their business goals, this is essentially what all them want to achieve - and they know data plays a role. It’s hard to dispute that we need to deploy resources productively, with as little waste as possible, to best serve employees, companies, society, and the environment.

Fortunately, thanks to new research we carried out with Harvard Business Review Analytics Services, we now have real insights into how companies around the world can improve productivity by empowering employees like sales reps, customer service agents and procurement officers who work on the frontlines. We conducted the research before the pandemic, but the study’s findings and conclusions are even more urgent for companies facing current challenges, where time is of the essence. 

Here’s the most powerful headline: nearly 90% of organizations surveyed drew a clear line between arming frontline employees with data and being able to make informed decisions that led to successful business outcomes. The key is empowering these employees to be able to make data-driven decisions autonomously and in the moment. Roughly half the organizations leading transformations to make this happen expect to see significant increases in customer satisfaction, employee engagement and productivity, along with increased product and service quality. 

I want to stress here that empowering frontline business employees is about a lot more than investing in new technology. The research shows that organizations must tackle often deeply ingrained issues relating to organizational structure, ‘technical debt’, and company culture. Senior management must adapt their cultures. Not only do they need to arm employees on the frontlines with more business data than ever before, but also trust them to be able to act autonomously and make decisions.

The payoffs in making these big technological and culture changes are huge. Companies like Vodafone are already delivering real results by pairing new technology with a data-driven business culture. As Kerry Small, who leads global commercial and operations for Vodafone Business, said “we’re a service business. How we deliver is paramount. Our people are the face of the organization.” According to Small, engagement levels have increased tenfold among the employees who have been part of the company’s transformation efforts to date. This engagement boost has resulted in greater commitment to the business, discretionary effort, and accountability, as well.

Most people - myself included - agree that lives and priorities will have changed after the COVID-19 lockdown experience. Being more data-driven and productive will deliver benefits all around. For employees, the ability to reach goals faster means continuing to be able to spend more quality time with their families. For companies that have adapted their business models, it means being able to tap into new revenue streams, reduce costs and get products and services to market faster. Customers benefit from personalised, consistent and high-quality brand experiences across channels. Society gains from better, faster healthcare outcomes, government services and smart local council services. Even the environment benefits as companies use resources more efficiently and produce less waste.

I encourage you to read the full report today. It will take a collective effort from businesses, employees, and technology providers to bring about these positive changes, but given the great strides I’ve seen our customers make so far, I’m very confident we can make them happen.