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From Managing Transactions to Facilitating Transformations

Today I was in a strategic planning meeting with a number of business people. At one point, we were discussing the changing nature of providing healthcare services to aging baby boomers. The VP of HR for one of the local healthcare organizations was explaining to us that they are moving to more of a concierge approach to meeting healthcare needs, with a focus on relationships and amenities, similar to what you would find in hotels. She explained that baby boomers in particular have come to expect a different quality of experience from organizations with which they interact and that is influencing how her organization thinks about its business. Then she said something that I thought was incredibly profound.

"We're trying to move our organization from being transactional to being transformational."

I wrote that down in my notes and thought about it all the way home. Since then, the implications of that idea have been swimming around in my head. Here's what I think it means for nonprofits. (Warning--very ill-formed thoughts ahead)

A transaction occurs when a customer makes a request--for a service, a product, etc. and someone responds to that request. Most of what we do on a day-to-day basis is engage in a series of transactions with various customers, both internal and external. We focus on orders, purchases, changes, additions, transfers and the recordkeeping required to keep track of those transactions. In "well-run" organizations, we are constantly trying to keep these transactions humming along. We try to reduce errors, reduce the amount of time it takes to process a particular transaction, increase the number of transactions we are able to get through in a day and so on.

When we focus on transactions, we are paying attention to particular business processes and activities and how to make them run efficiently. This is a distinctly left-brained, logical approach to the work of an organization. It's not bad to focus on making transactions go smoothly and pleasantly. But the reality is that if we are just about performing various transactions, this is work that could be done by a computer or, eventually, a robot. And it would probably be done better, faster and more accurately. It's also work that is less meaningful to most people. Who wants to do work on a daily basis that could be done just as well by a kiosk?

So what would it mean for us to move from being transactional to being transformational? If we were transformational,

  • We would be more holistic, thinking about the entire customer and their experiences with us over time, rather than their experience with us at a particular point in time.
  • We would pay more attention to emotional issues and their impact on customers experiences. When we structure transactions to emphasize only efficiency or productivity, then we lose the "human touch" that really connects with people. This isn't to say that the human touch can only occur through face-to-face interactions, though. We can be more "human" even in our use of forms, the ways we communicate on our web sites and so forth.
  • We would focus on creating particular experiences for customers, evoking new emotions and helping customers to think differently about themselves.  The VP at our meeting today explained that healthcare to this point has been about moving patients through various transactions--doctor's appointments, medical tests, treatments, etc. But now her organization is putting more of a focus on helping patients feel empowered to navigate their way through a menu of services that feel less like moving through an assembly line of healthcare and more like people taking charge of their lives. This is transformational because it helps people to see themselves differently in relation to their own healthcare and their own sense of agency in their lives.
  • We would think bigger about what we do. To think about our organizations as being in the business of transformation means that we have to re-envision what we do. We have to think about what transformations we can help people achieve and how we can go about doing that. We have to back away from the day-to-day interactions for a while and think about the larger picture of what we hope to achieve (back to mission). Then we can look at how we structure our transactions and interactions with customers to achieve transformation.

This is one of those posts where I feel like I'm writing around something, rather than straight to it. I know in this very visceral way what I'm trying to say, but I'm not sure that I'm expressing it clearly or in ways that make sense. What I know is that the idea of moving from transactions to transformations is something that really appeals to me on a lot of levels. I think it would appeal to workers, too. When we talk about transformation, we're talking about work that has meaning. I don't think that we feel the same connection and sense of impact on the world when we see our work as a series of transactions. I think that both our customers and our employees want to feel that we're doing something that transforms.

I also see this as related to my thinking lately about ROWE. A results-oriented workplace requires us to have thought carefully about the results we are seeking. We need to consider those results, though, in light of whether or not we're going to be an organization that focuses primarily on transactions or one that focuses on transformations. Interestingly, one of the reasons that Best Buy is looking to implement ROWE in their stores is because they are moving to a more customer-centric, transformational view of the results they are seeking. True ROWE may require us to think far more carefully about results in terms of transformation at least as much as we think about transactions.

Normally I would save this post in draft and let it marinate for awhile. But this time I'm posting it, raw and unformed, as I think that the only reason I end up saving some of these is because I want to polish them up and make them beautiful before I share them. Kind of stupid, though, when you consider that one of the beauties of working in the blogosphere is that other people will often help you transform that lump of coal into a diamond if you'll only let them.


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Wonderful think-piece Michele. Here's my first thought: When we are customers in a transaction, we can make a purchase, make a complaint or make a mistake in choosing that transaction. We cannot make a change because we are not in charge or in control.

When we are customers "in a transformation", we can make a difference. We are empowered to learn, refine, change and grow. We can exit our conventional role of powerless pawns submitting to expert services. We will feel served, understood and genuinely respected.


Beautifully said, Tom. Thank you.

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