Harness people power

Published 31 May 2012 00:08, Updated 31 May 2012 04:15

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Harness people power

Ambassadors: Nespresso makes sure all of its employees taste its coffees Wollodja Jentsch

The chief financial officer at Sirtex Medical, Darren Smith, knows more about his employer than its bottom line.

Sirtex uses small particle technology to make a liver cancer treatment but that’s not the only remarkable thing it does. It trains its entire staff about how the treatment works, from a receptionist to an accounts receivable clerk to the chief financial officer and beyond.

“It kind of puts it into perspective for us,” says Smith. “Not only are you understanding the product but you are also understanding the individuals that it goes to and what it does for them.”

While Sirtex’s approach isn’t new, it is becoming more common as companies seek to engage those they employ, deliver their products more efficiently and, ultimately, drive bigger profits.

Japanese corporations were some of the first to realise the benefits of giving all employees product training, says Australian School of Business at the University of NSW lecturer in marketing, Dean Wilkie.

“When all these academics analysed what was the secret [of world-beating Japanese companies in the 1980s], it came down to this concept of everyone within those companies having a role in delivering a product that exceeded customers’ expectations,” says Wilkie.

“Everyone has a role in making sure that the product is at its best, so therefore it’s important to educate everyone within the company of what the product is. They get trained on it, they use the product so then when someone asks them a question, they can respond.”

For biopharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca, it’s important that the company’s staff know which products it is selling and what impact they have on health, the managing director for Australia and New Zealand, Mark Fladrich, says.

The company has regular meetings for all staff. “Every time we have a meeting, we will profile one of our products and that will be at a level that the lay person, non-medically qualified, can understand,” Fladrich says.

It’s not just in the areas of health that companies take this approach.

Coffee and coffee machine company Nespresso, which is owned by consumer goods company Nestlé, has a training program that extends to all of its more than 7000 employees, some 350 of whom are in Australia. Each of them take part in the company’s “science of coffee” training course. There they learn about how Nespresso is involved in each stage of coffee production, from the raw fruit to the cup at the end. Part of the training involves tasting the 16 core flavours sold by Nespresso, which include blends from Colombia, Brazil and India.

“The course offers employees the chance to understand and appreciate Nespresso’s expertise in the selection, roasting and blending processes,” Nespresso Oceania general manager and market director, Renaud Tinel, says. The company gets positive feedback on its induction program, he says.

“[It] helps them understand where they fit in the big picture and how exactly they contribute to the overall business objectives,” Tinel says.

Training employees in what a company does is a way to bring them closer to the business, making them more involved and potentially boosting productivity, University of Sydney Business School lecturer in work and organisational studies, Rae Cooper, says.

“The more you know about what the organisation is doing then the more connected you feel to the role that you play,” says Cooper.

“Employee enjoyment of their work and a sense of ownership and loyalty have been shown in the literature to be a critical aspect of … performance and building productivity.”

That goes beyond visible employees, it’s also important to make those in the background feel a part of what’s going on, says Cooper.

“Every job in an organisation contributes in some way to what the business is doing, so it’s about trying to … build a sense of pride and ownership in the work that people do from the mail clerk through to the CEO.”

A better trained and more involved workforce can improve efficiency, experts say. For Sirtex, that efficiency is critical as its supply chain has very specific needs. Given the liver cancer treatment the company produces is radioactive, there is only a small window in which it can be used to help a patient – something that everyone in the company well understands.

“It makes you aware of the technical nature of the product … you need to be very responsive to the needs of your operations,” says Smith.

The approach of product-training all staff reflects new thinking about marketing – it isn’t just seen as the job of the marketing department any more.

Companies expect employees to market their businesses in many of their interactions with others, from barbecues on a Sunday to their various social media presences.

“Our wish is for all our employees to become passionate ambassadors and brand advocates,” Nespresso’s Tinel says.

But while there are potential benefits from getting staff behind a brand, it’s easier for some companies and people in certain jobs than others, UNSW’s Cooper says.

“If the mission of the organisation is about doing something that’s going to fix something, or change someone’s life, or make them healthier, or make their life experience better, often that can translate easier in terms of employee engagement than if you are in another type of business,” she warns.

“It’s probably a little trickier for people working in back office, or for people working for instance in big financial services organisations.”

To try and harness those minds in the support of the company, Cooper suggests looking within, and finding a way in which there is a meaning that people can believe in.

“Training is one aspect of it and it’s actually about trying to build some organisational culture which is about the meaning of what you are doing,” Cooper says.

“So trying to find some points of connections and to really humanise some of the activities that we do in organisations.”

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