A motivated workforce willing to look beyond the narrow silos it works in is key to an enterprise’s success in reaching out to its customers in this era of globalization, writes Ranjay Gulati, a Jaime and Josefina Chua Tiampo professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, in his new book (Re) (Organize) for Resilience. This is the only way in which your employees can adapt quickly to changing customer needs, says this strategy and organizational behaviour expert. Edited excerpts from an interview:

(Re) (Organize) for Resilience: By Ranjay Gulati, Harvard Business Press, 270 pages, Rs895.

I started work on this book in 1999, at the time of the earlier recession, and have studied over 500 companies, including Cisco (Systems Inc.) and GE (General Electric Co.), etc. All these businesses are major players in India as well. I wanted to look at patterns across a lot of companies who were talking of becoming customer-centric. I always thought companies are anyway customer-centric to begin with. Then why were they saying they want to become customer centric? It means they were doing something else before that. I realized that when companies are thinking of being customer-centric, they have a very nuanced way of looking at it. It was not simply saying do market research. Because market research makes you look at the customer through the lens of your product.

One way of becoming customer-friendly, you write, is by breaking the internal

silos in an organization.

Companies need to align their internal silos. Most of our companies are structured to solve 20th century problems. The customer idea is lost somewhere in the middle. Because of the silos that exist, as they get bigger there is a disconnect with the customer. So size clearly drives this disconnect with the customer. The idea of silo management is a huge issue with our businesses today.

That is where the employee as a player too comes in?

The key to success is not about breaking silos. It is about bridging silos. You need to find ways to connect all the silos in your organization. This would involve task forces and working groups. Companies need to bridge all the silos through their employees. You cannot mandate it. If you want to reach somewhere with it, how you give incentives to your employees, how you reward them, etc., becomes extremely important. Today, companies must understand that they need people who are less turf oriented.

Businesses must ensure that their people in various units have access to knowledge about the customers they are catering to and have opportunities to use that knowledge to better serve the marketplace. That is why I say coordination is such an important lever. It provides employees with an ability to cross-pollinate an enterprise. At the same time, motivation is very important. Even the most elegant mechanisms for customer-focused coordination will fail if your people are not motivated to cooperate with one another. Your employees must be encouraged to bust through silos when necessary and should be rewarded for collaborations that produce successful customer solutions.

Should it always permeate from the top?

It need not be top down only. When you are doing it top down, you need to ensure that you are not creating only specials tracks in your organization. You look for more generalists who can cut across and understand the topology of the customer landscape. You cannot keep them narrow. You need men (and women) who can create a complete package that is aligned for the customer. The idea of collaborating outside the narrow definition of your job description must be implemented. We need to get over our ideas of turf intrusion. We have a huge collaboration gap.

But would incentives alone do the trick?

Incentives are a powerful vehicle for promoting targeted cooperation between units. We need to change cultures and values too. Employees of resilient organizations must expand their identity to include the enterprise as a whole. Customer-centric corporate culture and values cannot be bought. These must be inculcated in the company’s DNA.