The option to ‘buy-in’ expertise can sometimes pose a dilemma for both small and large businesses. It tends to raise questions about the areas the business wants to or can do itself and identifies the areas it doesn’t want to or can’t handle. Sometimes ‘buy-in’ is the only option available. It could be that what’s required needs very specialised, technical or intellectual expertise and that is not within the business. It may be that the business is so lean it can’t spare people to do anything extra or different from their primary role. It could be that unexpected situations and critical deadlines mean that extra people and extraordinary effort is needed in an all-hands-to-the-pump situation. It could be that people have become stuck on an issue, have tried everything they know and yet can’t find a way forward. It may be that people have some knowledge and expertise but not quite enough to do a particular piece of work.
A question always worth considering with the ‘buy-in’ option, is whether there are ways to get more than just the immediate benefit from the exercise. I’ve found that there are some opportunities to explore.
Some ‘buy-in’ situations present learning opportunities for businesses, ones that will solve the immediate need but also equip them for the future. Imagine, for example, a small sized business with a moderate number of staff. It doesn’t have formal documented personnel policies or tools like job descriptions or performance appraisal systems. It has a number of versions of employment contracts being used and there’s some doubt as to who has what version and how particular clauses are being applied. The business doesn’t have one person responsible for developing or administering the policies instead, the owners do a piece each, when they can. The owners are a little worried about their lack in the personnel arena (complaints from staff about employment contracts, inaccurate recording of leave and incorrect payrolls) and believe they don’t have the expertise within the business to do what needs to be done. The owners are much more interested in doing their specialised, technical work.
The straight ‘buy-in’ option means someone outside the company writes the policies and procedures for the business. The business could also purchase an already developed package of personnel tools that they adjust, to suit. However, in this latter example, one learning opportunity is for the owners themselves to learn how to develop the policies and procedures, with guidance and support. This can be done by the ‘buy-in’ doing the initial draft documents, after discussions with the owners and staff. The owners can then make adjustments and finish the procedures, until both the ‘buy-in’ and the owners are satisfied. A value-added outcome is that the owners now have the personnel tools they need and they have learnt how to develop them.
Using the same example, another learning opportunity exists for the owners to be coached to implement the personnel policies and practices, once they have been developed. It’s not enough to have the tools. They have to be used appropriately and confidently. This could mean the owners or some employee having coaching in setting up and conducting job interviews. It could mean getting guidance to know which interview questions are appropriate and relevant and those to avoid; it could mean being able to conduct and participate in dummy performance appraisals, so they can be experienced first hand. Practice is important, especially so in a learning environment which tolerates mistakes, nerves and hesitancy.
Another learning opportunity exists for the owners to be shown the links between personnel policies and the whole business. This can be done through discussion for example, connecting the achievement of some of the business’es strategic goals to good personnel procedures. This is through being a good employer; through the use of good management practices; through the importance of attracting and retaining good staff; through monitoring performance; through dealing with poor performers or people unsuited to their roles. The opportunity is there to ensure policies and practices are in context with the whole business and not in splendid isolation and that both are sustainable and support one another.
There are a number of additional questions to consider then, when contemplating the ‘buy-in’ option. What learning opportunities are there for the business and staff? What can be offered through the process, that may develop and build skills and knowledge within the business? What does the business need to learn to do, to equip itself for the future and lessen its dependence on external resources? It may be appropriate to ask the ‘buy-in’ whether they are prepared to coach others while they do what needs to be done. Ask the ‘buy-in’ if there are other ways a particular piece of work can be done.
Sometimes dilemmas are opportunities in disguise. If you have become dependent on external resources, what can you begin to do to become more self reliant?
First Published in NZ Business April 2001