When the “Support” Becomes the “Supported”
In 2019, I left the security and comfort of a steady paycheck and joined my colleagues in a start up (Oplign) that has successfully created a fully integrated and relatable automated ‘labor data exchange’ (...think The Matrix for the labor market) that unlocks tremendous value for both sides of the labor curve and solves lots of labor-related problems — more on that later. As we began to sell our services, another endemic and systematic organizational problem became very evident. The more we interacted with companies, the more we saw that the support elements of a company (i.e. HR, legal, etc.) had incredibly too much control or influence within that organization. That is, the command and support relationships of these companies were cloudy and misaligned.
As a comparable example, clear command and support relationships are critical when task organizing for any military operation. US Army Field Manual 6–0, Commander and Staff Organization, states that command and support relationships establish responsibilities and authorities between “supported” and “supporting units” and that knowing what each command and support relationship allows commanders to effectively organize their forces. Examples of Supported could be those military units that have been given specific tasks to accomplish a mission whether it be a bombing sortie, an enemy camp raid, or resupply mission; while examples of Support could be the refueling tanker for the aircraft doing the bombing, close air support to special operations engaged in combat, or the care and feeding of ground troops at a forward operating base. Defining Support and Supported is a simple but effective method to clearly define everyone’s role during a military operation. Despite the explicit definitions and roles, units inevitably will be confused or misinterpret their roles. It is not necessarily about who is right or wrong; it is more about understanding and executing their roles to achieve mission success. If not clearly understood, the probability of mission success are dangerously low.
Now, overlay that structure to a business. The operational elements of a company that are actually making products, providing services, and sales can clearly be considered the Supported. Where as Finance, HR, legal are the Support. Without the operational units, the supporting functions are not needed. Unfortunately, this is an obvious observation that is often forgotten. Everyone and every resource in that organization should be absolutely focused in making sure those operational units have everything they need to succeed at their jobs — not the other way around.
How and why this command and support relationship has shifted in the wrong direction is anyone’s guess. Maybe company leadership are hedging their positions because of heightened cultural sensitivities and placing social issues ahead of operations — hence, relying on HR and legal more and more; or maybe those supporting elements have deliberated manuevered themselves in a power grab; or, perhaps, Price’s Law, that states 50% of work at a company is done by a small number of people, is naturally at play here and the leadership has lost sight on who is really doing the work. Who knows — maybe a combination of the three or more.
Whatever the case or the reason, the lack of clarity is unhealthy and puts a business in a precarious state that creates inefficiency, excessive indirect costs, and a counter-productive company culture. We recently had senior VP in an HR role at a very large, publically-traded defense contracting company tell us that “…from the CEO down to the dock worker, we would all say that [company] is an HR-driven organization.” Frankly, that is absolutely wrong; and, I’m confident that their shareholders would agree with me. In retrospect, his comment seemed rote and very likely the direct result of how the supporting elements of his company are negatively influencing the entire focus of the company whether it be deliberately or indirectly.
What ultimately ends up happening is that Supported (operations) folks will endeavor to do whatever they can to continue to make money for the company and find their support elsewhere in the form of shadow systems hidden from the rest of the company or create work-arounds to avoid the bureaucracy that the Support have created. As another example, we talked with a senior VP from a Fortune 10 software company that said, “Out of the last 10 years, I have not once hired anyone that HR has brought to me to fill my jobs. I have interviewed their candidates out of courtesy, but that’s it.”
This article is certainly not an indictment on any specific supporting element of a company. On the contrary those support functions are absolutely critical to the overall success of the company. My point is that there is an optimal achievable equilibrium between Support and Supported that allows a company to adequately manage risk while maximizing profit. To achieve this equilibrium, leadership needs to have total awareness and control of how all their resources are deployed — specifically labor. And, this is where Oplign can help.
About the Author: After a military career and many years as an executive in the defense services industry, Jeff Gibson and his colleagues have built and are currently running Oplign, LLC. Oplign is a labor data analytics company that is dedicated to changing the behavior on how individuals find jobs and companies optimize their labor force. Click here to learn more.