‘What energy and focus could an improved culture liberate from your disparate tribes?’

Picture your last budget meeting. Imagine a colleague had said: “You can create more value for us all than me from spending this £5 million. You spend it!” If such behaviour is normal in your organisation, congratulations. You’re lucky to work in such an enlightened culture – and you may even be leading a good asset management organisation 

Fear of strangers or the “other” is endemic in our world. Competition and even confrontation occurs between nations, races, sports teams or, indeed, social media echo chambers. I am increasingly seeing professions in the same light. Their identity arises from pride in expertise or a small community, but such differentiation can also cause defensiveness and unproductive, territorial behaviour. 

Whether or not I’m right, it is well known that internecine warfare is more fun than inclusive and well-behaved collaboration towards common goals. The popularity of so many cartoons emphasises how pervasive and common such behaviour and experience is. 

Terms like “stovepipes” or “silos” may be used to describe unhelpful division between departments, functions or other communities within an organisation. Interfaces are usually where customer service and other processes break down, but I have yet to find a director of interfaces. The risks and losses engendered by interfaces between groups are, I would argue, a rich area for better management theory and techniques. In engineering terms, this is called systems engineering. But I want to address culture and leadership rather than process. 

Asset management, as set out in ISO 55000, is essentially about achieving your goals as certainly as possible at minimum cost over time. It is a philosophy of avoiding short-termism and of using structured thinking to help overcome silos and create value. Savings come from avoiding the losses and friction between functional groups, and behaviours such as “lobbing over the wall” that can occur, for example, between completing capital projects and starting to use them. 

The knowledge, techniques and standards developed over the last 20 years or so are being translated into education, training and qualifications. We are now deliberately “professionalising the discipline” and working with universities to help not only graduates but top managers understand the potential value and benefits they can gain. This is being applied to government, public and private companies in most sectors. 

Actually, what we are really doing is integrating the contributions of a variety of professions within an organisation. By creating a framework that facilitates collaboration and getting the best value from each professional, the overall result is improved. Part of this requires translating the language and aims of functional professionals into a better holistic process. Collaboration is easier when you understand the real messages in language you recognise. Many years ago, I told engineers I mentored to learn the language of business – money. 

This is not about utopia or beautiful people being nice to each other. This is hard-nosed business sense. Leaders need to create the conditions for the right behaviours and implement processes that cross the organisation, directly linking the organisation’s purpose to all activities – the line of sight. 

Can you pass the sandwich test? When did you last ask someone from a wholly different community in your organisation to lunch with you?  Nothing complex or expensive; just ask: “How could our department help you more?” Try it. 

What energy and focus could an improved culture liberate from your disparate tribes? Many employees long for this. You probably know how to do it. Is it an opportunity for you? Worth a little investigation, don’t you think? 

BY DAVID McKEOWN, chief executive of IAM – The Institute of Asset Management

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