Employees as customers: from metaphor to analogy

It’s been interesting to notice the difference between concepts that I thought will be useful to keep in mind, immediately after reading a certain article, and the ones that actually proved out to be useful several months later when I find myself referencing them over and over again.

Of the three insights from Ikujiro Nonaka’s seminal paper The Knowledge-Creating Corporation I find myself using, again and again, his distinction between metaphor and analogy:

One kind of figurative language that is especially important is metaphor. It is a way for individuals grounded in different contexts and with different experiences to understand something intuitively through the use of imagination and symbols without the need for analysis or generalization.Through metaphors, people put together what they know in new ways and begin to express what they know but cannot yet say. As such, metaphor is highly effective in fostering direct commitment to the creative process in the early stages of knowledge creation…

But while metaphor triggers the knowledge-creation process, it alone is not enough to complete it. The next step is analogy. Whereas metaphor is mostly driven by intuition and links images that at first glance seem remote from each other, analogy is a more structured process of reconciling contradictions and making distinctions. Put another way, by clarifying how
the two ideas in one phrase actually are alike and not alike, the contradictions incorporated into metaphors are harmonized by analogy. In this respect, analogy is an intermediate step between pure imagination and logical
thinking.

The context in which it is most present for me right now is thinking about employees as customers, which I’d argue for many organizations is still “stuck” in the metaphor stage of knowledge creation. But before I jump to the opportunity that lies ahead of us, I want to acknowledge the celebration-worthy progress that the current stage represents.

Thinking about employees as customers is a massive step forward compared to the previous organizing metaphor: employee as resources/machines. First and foremost it acknowledges that employees are human beings and need to be treated as such. It reminded us that employees are in choice about their actions: they choose to join, they choose to stay, and they can choose to leave. It also served as a directional inspiration for how to address many employee challenges by borrowing concepts and ideas from the customer domain:

  • Lead generation/business development → Sourcing
  • Sales → Recruiting
  • Sales Marketing → Recruiting Marketing
  • Product brand → Employer brand
  • Product value proposition → Employee value proposition
  • Net Promoter Score (NPS) → employee Net Promoter Score (eNPS)
  • Customer journey/lifecycle → Employee journey/lifecycle
  • Customer onboarding → Employee onboarding
  • etc.

The metaphor continues to provide inspiration to this day, with more customer concepts making their way to the employee domain. A more recent example is recognizing specific “moments that matter” in the customer’s lifecycle, which require special design and attention, as also relevant for employees.

However, while the metaphor continues to move us forward in some ways, its drag, or downside, if you will, is also starting to become more apparent in cultural challenges such as unjustified entitlement or learned helplessness among employees which in turn make efforts to improve the shared working experience somewhere between extremely hard to impossible to execute on.

A more concrete example is the heavy reliance on surveys as the primary means of engaging with employees, a tool that was borrowed directly from the customer domain to the employee domain. Employee interaction needs to be bi-directional and iterative, and it needs to revolve not just around the present state but also around creative problem solving: what each of us can do about it. Yet surveys tend to move the conversation exactly in the opposite direction.

Nonaka’s work paints a clear path forward: moving away from metaphor and towards analogy. While the key focus in the former is around looking for similarities as sources for inspiration, the key focus in the latter is around looking for differences (distinctions) and addressing them, creating a more refined representation of reality.

At the root of most of the customer concepts that get pulled into the employee domain and end up backfiring seem to be a handful of distinctions, ways in which customers and employees are NOT alike. I suspect I’ll continue to refine these over time but here’s what I have so far:

  • The core interaction between customer and service provider has a clear division of roles: I, the customer, have a problem that I’m trying to solve, and you, the service provider, are supposed to provide me with a solution to it. Inside the organization, it’s not that clear cut: we are working to accomplish a shared mission together, and division or roles and authority is more dynamic and less absolute. We are all part of the problem and we are all part of the solution.
  • Cross-customer interaction, as it pertains to the organization, is relatively weak (mostly word-of-mouth reputation) so thinking about the way the organization interacts with each customer in isolation is a pretty accurate description of reality. Cross-employee interaction, as it pertains to the organization is very strong — tight collaboration to accomplish shared goals. So the way the organization interacts with each employee cannot be thought of in isolation.

Acknowledging these differences and designing ways of working together with them in mind is an important frontier in the future of work.

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Employees as customers: from metaphor to analogy

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