Smart Moves: The oil that lubricates the company machine

Personal feedback used to be just a chat with the boss over coffee. Soon everyone in the firm will be joining in, writes Paul Maclean
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The Independent Online
IN THE past, feedback meant an annual chat with the boss. That, or just a gossip around the coffee machine.

The desire by companies to create more open working environments, helping people communicate and work better within teams and across departments and levels of seniority, have fostered more participation and exchange of ideas and opinions. As a result, feedback has become like an oil in the new corporate engine, and if it isn't already flowing throughout your organisation, it soon will be.

A 360-degree feedback - the system where employees are not just given feedback from their manager, but also from peers and people they manage - is taking root in corporate culture. And companies are now introducing schemes such as feedback on demand, allowing individuals, teams, whole departments, or the MD, to obtain feedback whenever they feel it's needed. Desktop PCs linked to the company IT network are set to become feedback machines.

Firms such as SmithKline Beecham, Boots, WH Smith, Tesco, Northern Foods and LucasVarity, for example, are working on 360-degree feedback processes using Personal Development Planner software developed by performance management specialist Advanced Personnel Technology (APT). An electronic system, usable on stand-alone PCs, a local area network (LAN), e-mail or an intranet, it allows any number of people to contribute feedback on an individual, based on a questionnaire relating to attributes needed for that person's role. All the information gathered is analysed, creating an immediate assessment and an outline of a suggested development plan. Individuals make the request for feedback and receive the results directly, rather than having to report to their line manager. Huge stores of data are gathered via IT - some of which could be used to provide benchmarks for performance within an organisation, or across whole industry sectors.

Companies are using feedback to meet different ends. Superdrug is using 360-degree feedback to allow 250 managers to discover their own development needs. Kay Penney, of Superdrug, said: "Now feedback is available over an electronic network, we are encouraging managers to choose when they want to use it, and not wait for the annual event of a formal appraisal. The tool is used flexibly to give managers direct feedback at the end of projects, development programmes and secondments, and thereby aid further development."

At BP, 350 technical managers and professionals have been through the process in the past five years. Jim Fischer, of BP, said: "We needed a way of building interpersonal skills among what is a technically minded group of people, and in particular, to support team-working and coaching skills. Using an intranet has been ideal because it provides easy access."

When Littlewoods moved to a business unit structure, it wanted to increase self-awareness among its managers. Julie Higginbottom, of Littlewoods, said: "We used it right up to the top. Not only were 200 managers involved, the managing director and the executive team also took part."

So, how is the new feedback culture likely to affect you in your job? It is most likely to form the basis of any personal development programme and career planning, providing pointers to strengths and any areas to develop. This replaces the traditional situation where performance was based on the opinion of the boss, who might be making judgements from very personal or crude measures. You might come across feedback being used for "succession planning", in which your company uses the information to speculate on who has the right kinds of skills to move into more senior roles. Few organisations have stretched the role of feedback so far as to link it directly with pay - and it is unlikely that many will. One thing is clear: the future will bring even wider participation. A number of organisations have plans to extend the use of 360-degree feedback to all levels of staff.

Organisations using feeback systems need to be aware of a number of issues:

o They must ensure staff understand what the information will be used for, and how they benefit, emphasising the fact that people will gain from learning about how they are seen by others.

o Prepare the ground for total honesty. Severe feedback won't help, and pilot programmes should be run to demonstrate how the results are used, reassuring people that it is both safe and crucial to be honest.

o Access is the key. If staff have to spend substantial amounts of time in providing feedback then it will not become part of the culture. This is where intranet technology will be invaluable.

o Organisations should set a public example and get senior or even board- level managers to go through the process first of all.

The introduction of feedback cultures goes a long way towards de-mystifying the workplace. There is more of an understanding of what people's roles and responsibilities are, and how they fit together in teams. It helps people dispel doubts about how they are seen, providing a boost of confidence or a clear idea of how they might change.

Paul Maclean is a managing consultant with Advanced Personnel Technology, a performance improvement consultancy.

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