It was a routine operations review with the age-old bickering between line and support. The argument from the business heads was that support departments were just not “supporting". Rounds of justifications and counter-justifications followed. And then came the “aha!" moment. One senior support leader thumped his fist on the mahogany table and pronounced: “I have a point to make. Please don’t keep calling us ‘support’. That makes us feel so second class. We are ‘business enablers’. Your comments imply it. So please call us that."

Indeed it is not just the title, though that is symptomatic, but the whole attitude that organizations take towards these business enabler functions— finance, human resources, training, quality, information technology, administration. And that is the key difference, in many cases, between good and great, average and superlative institutions.

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Nobody would deny that every nascent organization must, for initial sustenance and success, invest in its core business divisions. But when the sign reads “take off" on its corporate radar, it is critical for the investment in business enablers to kick in. Most successful growth trajectories that we see across industries, be it IT, manufacturing or retail, are due to conscious and planned investment in these “enablers", at the right inflection points. Unfortunately, this principle is not universally understood and it is only when the situation becomes critical that remedial steps are frantically undertaken.

To achieve ambitious targets, handle scale and execute with excellence, a laser focus on business enablers is critical. This means, first of all, staffing these functions with quality talent. Many times this is compromised, in no small measure due to compensation parity concerns with existing employees. Compromise candidates spell disaster, as many a singed CEO will tell you. But selection is only part of the game. A very successful corporate leader once insightfully remarked how entrenched peers can subtly “kill" new entrants if they are not assimilated strongly and given admission to cozy internal “clubs" through visible and vocal sponsorship by the highest leadership.

Enabler departments can establish their credibility only if the same rigour in quality is demanded from them as from production and client-facing departments. I am always dismayed when I come across an organization, and I have seen many in my time, where the quality department’s mandate does not extend to these business enablers, except perhaps in an initial, zealous push for a prestigious quality certification.

Business enablers serve internal customers and therefore must be held accountable with service-level agreements and internal customer satisfaction surveys aimed at assessing the quality of their service to employees and other “customer" departments. Mainstreaming these surveys along with their more famous cousins, the customer satisfaction and employee satisfaction surveys, will give organizations a holistic improvement framework and tell “enabler" functions exactly where they stand and what they need to do to meet internal customer requirements.

Importantly, they will give recognition where due and so motivate. A business enabler department that gets a great service partner award has a reputation to live up to. Healthy competition for winning the corporate sweepstakes has made many a bureaucratic service provider assiduously woo the internal customer.

Another, seldom-used great motivator, a great way to get business enablers to become more external- and market-focused, is to give them revenue-earning opportunities. Showcase to customers what your “enabler" departments are great at. They can be offered, if properly packaged, to prospects either as add-on services or as value-add, augmenting your main customer-value proposition. I have seen these become great unique selling propositions.

The high that an employee, stuck in the bowels of a business enabler function, gets when offering knowledge and expertise to an external customer has to be seen to be believed. The organization gets customer goodwill, even if not wallet share, and a positive reinforcement for great business enabler practices. And, of course, enabler functions will get a dose of much needed customer-facing skills!

Business enablers often joke that they have grown tone deaf to being termed “overheads", day in and day out, especially so in a downturn. They stand stoically as the line of first defence when budget cuts and cost containment measures reign. That, of course, comes with the terrain. But for organizations to leverage their enabling capabilities it is critical to invest in them, motivate them and at the same time hold them accountable for hard deliverables. Just don’t tie their hands and then expect them to wave the magic wand.

Hema Ravichandar is a strategic human resources consultant. She also serves as an independent director and an advisory board member for several organizations.

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