At the end of 19th and early 20th century organisations, mostly in heavy manufacturing industry, were overly obsessed with efficient production systems. The formula back then was to have employees complete a series of repetitive tasks in a production line, say in automobile, to get as many finished products in the shortest time possible because customers could not wait to own them. It came to be known as the production era.
Soon afterwards, around the 1920s and 1930s, there were many similar products in the market and customers were spoiled for choice; markets got saturated. A paradigm shift led corporations to focus on improving the quality of products and adding extra features that would attract buyers thus countering the saturation. Production era was thus succeeded by the product era where focus was on making better products for buyers. It worked, but not for long as markets got saturated again with more products.
A few decades later, between the 1940s and 1960s, business owners held the notion that people cannot buy enough of a company’s products unless they are compelled to do so. Thus the rise of salesmanship or the sales era, where focus was on persuading and or compelling buyers to purchase products on offer. This was regardless of whether the buyer needed the product or not. And just like the previous approaches, this too did not quite solve the problem.
With industry research and wide consultations it was later considered that a corporation is likely to sell more products if they understood buyers’ needs and produced as per those needs. This was tried and proved to work. It was the official beginning of what we know today as marketing, born out of understanding customer needs and ensuring those needs are met. Obviously marketing as a profession has advanced significantly from those early days and become quite sophisticated especially in the era of internet and digital technology. Nonetheless the basic principle remains the same; ensuring that customer needs are meet and or exceeded.
Twenty first century organisations exist in a dynamic, complex and highly unpredictable business environment than in the early and mid-20th century. Technological innovations are a major catalyst to creating products and services that far better meet increasing customer needs, demands and aspirations. This has also triggered increased competition among businesses as customers shift their interest to more exciting solutions to meet their needs. Organisation transformation has thus become indispensable in this era for any business that wishes to remain relevant and continue to achieve its purpose. The phrase ‘customer era’ could easily pass for this time in history. The customer is much more empowered, has many alternatives at their disposal, and even the law is much more in favor of customers.
Most organisations are now embracing change and organisation transformation which in and of itself is a major achievement. However, not every transformation-christened effort is actually leading to the desired success. We have many examples in Kenya from the retail business, to transport, manufacturing, and banking among others where transformation has failed. Automation, business process re-engineering, restructuring, and downsizing, are some of strategies currently being employed by organisations in an effort to transform.
All these could be and are indeed relevant to transformation, however a contingent of transformation strategies for the sake of it will do little to achieve for the organisation the desired vision of a better future. I would rather propose that organisations critically look within to first understand why it is that they need to be transformed. A quick answer to this would most certainly stop at the fact that they wish to remain in business for as long as possible. But remaining in business does actually mean first, that customer loyalty is never lost and secondly that there is growth in their customer base. Customers on the other hand will stay with a product or a set of products and services from an organisation simply because it works for them. It meets their needs, exceeds their expectations, and ignites their aspirations and life dreams. It is this very basic concept discovered about half a century ago that must be at the core of every organisation transformation. It is what should guide visioning for change and transformation…to the extent that the vision for change is expressed in the eyes of the target customer. It should be what inspires every organisation transformation journey, if change efforts are to succeed.
An organisation that deeply cares and jealously guards its customer loyalty will stop at nothing but a market driven, customer oriented organisation transformation in an era where customer needs, expectations and aspirations keep changing as they demand for more value for their hard earned money.
Dr. Antony Mburu
Organisation Development and Transformation Consultant