How to align support areas with the business?

There is a tradition of enmity between support and business areas. But it does not necessarily have to be this way. Here, a series of guidelines to ensure that line and staff are partners in the creation of value for the business.

In its original conception, staff areas were designed to help the “line” achieve business objectives, although there is no clear agreement on what the form of this collaboration or its scope should be. In the midst of ambiguity, as they say, “the kinks will work themselves out”.

The problem is when, instead of fulfilling the purpose of helping the business, the staff areas end up being dysfunctional. As they grow in size and influence, complaints about their performance often increase as well. It is common to hear line managers accuse their functional colleagues of excessive bureaucracy and poor service.

In organizations, this tends to generate different reactions:

  1. “Agreed divorces”, where the line internalizes that function, and the staff becomes something merely operational;
  2. “Structure duplication”, where hidden resources are assigned to do those tasks;
  3. “Separatist business areas” that break away from formality by creating their own structure or hiring out that help.

Staff areas, sometimes, want to provide the maximum of their help but are not allowed to. Other times, it seems they are not really willing to serve. The truth is, there is a co-responsibility for them to be able to function well and if each one is willing to see their part (and that of the other) and try to improve on it, the achievements can be remarkable.

Let’s look at some lessons we have learned from our work with multiple organizations over the years.

The (un)timely help

When I channel the search through HR, I end up losing the best candidates because the competition hires them first.”

The materials and equipment we request from Procurements arrive very late and this causes us excessive delays in the completion of projects.”

I need to quickly analyze the impact of promotional actions, but Management Control gives me the indicators three months later.”

The line frequently complains about the slowness of support processes in resolving requests placed with them. But the line is also usually responsible for this slowness. In general, little focus is placed on the relation “anticipation – reaction”, which focuses on understanding the moment in which this process begins; when the internal process of activating help is triggered.

When the support area works as a dispatcher for orders that arrive, in a totally reactive way, in general that order arrives much later than it could have, and also with urgency due to the context. Many problems can be avoided in a proactive way, getting involved in advance with the internal client in the detection of their needs.

A timely brief can activate support decisions early on and reach their implementation in a timely manner.

What is expected of the area vs. what the business needs

In some companies there is a tradition regarding the function of certain support areas (“the mandate”) that reinforces conflicting interests to those of the business.

In extractive industries such as Mining and Oil/Gas, for example, there are supply areas with a lot of internal power. They are expected to generate cost reductions.

The logic behind the scheme is that the will to reduce costs will be a “counterweight” of the business objectives (production, sale, and delivery to the customer). And from that conflict, a balance is expected to emerge that benefits the business.

But what happens if a supply area with deep knowledge of the market (strategic suppliers, equipment, etc.) instead of being focused solely on reducing the cost per pound, can evaluate and suggest purchasing alternatives that have an impact on productivity?

It could make millions more than it saves, as long as it shifts its focus to the line. However, for this to be possible, it is necessary to give new meaning to the identity of the area and change incentive schemes.

Context versus “commands”

The “Decision Quality” model, developed in the 1980s at Stanford University, points out the 6 key factors that impact the quality of a decision. The first of them is the diagnosis of the opportunity, which involves presenting the decision situation under the appropriate framing.

When we met, they told us they needed someone for the commercial area with 3 years of experience and the 3 candidates met that requirement. How could I have guessed they wanted someone with analytical skills to do business management analysis?”

In complex procedures, it is necessary for the support area to understand the purposes behind the request to ensure that aligned decisions are made, and even provide suggestions regarding the approach to it. A tool that can help in this instance is the, “What for and how”. When faced with a request, the support area may ask 2 or 3 times “what for”, coming to understand different levels of objectives behind the request and then going on to generate and propose the “how”, which will be the solution alternatives.

Trust and roles

Initially, it is essential to understand the two types of activities, with marked differences between them, carried out by the support areas: control and service.

In control activities, the support area is expected to act as guardian of certain policies and procedures that were created to gain efficiency and/or control at scale levels in operations. Here, its role will be that of an “endorser” of the decisions based on measuring and exposing certain specific risks of its functional perspective. For example, from Safety and Environment you might warn about possible risk scenarios or non-compliance with regulations and their possible impacts.

In service activities, on the other hand, the trust of the business areas with the support areas is more at stake. If there is no trust, any suggestion or query from the functionals could be perceived by the line as a challenge to their knowledge and not as a collaboration in the process. This is aggravated because, at the base, there is a lack of trust in the ability of the staff areas to know the business.

There are three common roles that staff areas could play in a business decision: executor, informant and/or recommender.

In a case of maximum trust, the staff area can provide a lot of value as a recommender, suggesting different approaches and readings. In case the trust is a little lower, the staff could be an informant, that is, provide certain information that will be considered by the business. For example, entrusting the marketing area with market research, but without involving it in the conclusions and suggestions. Finally, in cases of even lower trust, the support area can be limited to executing. They will get a closed order and the staff will work on executing it.

In short, there is a tradition of animosity and conflict between support and business areas. But it does not need to be this way. For this, it is necessary to understand the link between business and support decisions as a concatenated circuit. By reviewing the decision-making processes that connect them, the causes for which the expected support does not arrive effectively can be identified, and there are tools to tackle that.

This will make it possible to achieve a greater perceived value in the service of the support area, as well as internal customer loyalty. No more divorces, no cheating, or separatists.

Federico Esseiva
Partner at Tandem.

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