The Middle Layer Conundrum

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Questions are now being raised on the usefulness of middle layer “experts”—hailed till yesterday as the “best-in-class.”


Constantly emerging external business trends/needs drive every business identity to rejig their existing organization structure leading to internal disruptions, misunderstandings etc. Quite often the sarcasm sets in. “Hi, one more circular” is a common comment at the coffee table. Intensity of impact varies from the size of the organization and the extent of changes that are being pushed through. Perceptions vary across the teams, particularly if the company is big and spread across multiple geographies. In spite of best intentions/efforts, the actual outcome or the effectiveness of these changes often fail to yield the desired results.

Depending on the position of the company in the market one may try to pioneer new solutions into the market to establish leadership, and another company may be keen to catch up quickly by pushing in competing products/services. In both scenarios, often external resources (considered as domain experts) are taken on-board either through a fixed term contract/permanent employment. New roles are created and those who occupy these roles are often projected as “change agents” who will steer business into a new horizon hitherto not ventured by the company. They are generously given huge budgets, enough authority to get things implemented across the company spread over many countries. Thus a “new layer” of organization comes into play. When more such initiatives are introduced once in a year, more people come on board with the “Experts” tag and the “middle layer” starts building up or gets bigger.

Few years down the line, a review of the business can reveal how effective was the roll out of new ideas; its success or failure as seen in the top and bottom line, and thereby, the “usefulness” of the middle layer. Did they deliver? A “No” answer will lead to critically questioning the very existence of these “experts”—hailed till yesterday as the “best-in-class.” Such scenarios are not uncommon in many companies.

Let us look at the “Why’s.”

Every “change process” faces typical challenges and no organisation is an exception.

“Culture or the DNA” of the Organisation comes in first in the bucket list of possible reasons. Frankly this can’t be brushed away. The senior leadership must keep this in mind while rolling out new initiatives. Communication process plays a critical role. The “buying in” by all stake holders in every business unit and their ability to communicate the message to their teams decides the outcome. Every business leader must convince himself/herself before lecturing to others. The conviction “I am in it” matters. That will help in instilling confidence to the team members. Simply speaking, “If I don’t believe in it, I can’t convince others”.

“I know it all” syndrome is the next one to tackle. This exists at multiple levels. Experts have this feeling and the employee at the last mile also feels the same way. Experts demand actions to be done in their own way/process. The last mile guy says he/she knows what his customer will or will not buy. How big the gap is, will decide the outcome of the implementation. Open face-to-face dialogue between the two will reduce the gaps. Mutual respect and alignment will help a lot. Remember: The soldier should be trained to fire the shot apart from the General knowing the same. The needs of country/market/sector vary. Tailoring the solutions appropriately boosts the success rate.

To overcome such issues, some companies hire “Market Specialists” and some “Product Specialists”. In my experience, “Applications engineering/knowledge” is the most important one that guarantees the success. I have faced embarrassing situation when the “Experts” from the Global HQ fail to understand the needs of the customer when facing them in the field. I recall one customer telling me, “Hi, I pay you money for your product to work in my plant and not in your laboratory.” Another customer ridiculed me, “Your company says, ‘Engineering Excellence Worldwide’. Come on guys, it has not even reached my plant which is 200 KMs from your plant.” From these I realised in a hard way that the end user customer’s needs must be satisfied by our solutions. The rest are all mere “noise”.

It’s easy to explain how to cook a dish using a PowerPoint presentation. But it’s different when one physically starts cooking the dish. There is NO substitute to “hands on” experience, field experience etc.

Thus the question arises: “Are we doing the right thing for our customers?” The search for the answer goes in all directions, including questioning the effectiveness of the structure of the organisation. Here comes the “Middle layer conundrum.”

“Do we bring in external domain experts for implementation? Or do we train the field guys on new technologies/solutions and let them implement?”

I always felt “Product knowledge + Process knowledge = Success” By the term Process, I mean the applications engineering/knowledge.

Is it easy to get the product specialists to learn the process? Or will the process guys learn the use of products faster? On whom will you put the money? In my experience I tried something unique. Our engineering products were sold to the process plants like refineries, petrochemicals plants etc. Understanding the applications in these plats is vital to make a sale. I found that we often spoke to the Plant Engineers/Maintenance Engineers to initiate a sale. Sensing this, I recruited these Plant/Maintenance Engineers to take up Sales as well as Applications Engineering roles. They picked up the product knowledge easily and related them to the various applications. This led to a huge differentiation in the market place as our Sales team spoke the “Customers’ language.” They shared their practical experiences with the customers and easily convinced them to choose our solutions. Customers felt extremely confident as one from their fraternity endorsed the product by addressing every potential issue that may have to be considered while making a decision to buy our products. Our engineer became “one amongst the Customer’s team.”

I replicated this success wherever I moved across the world to assume different roles. At one point, 100% of my Engineering team were Plant/Maintenance Engineers. Sales team had 60% of such professionals. We had a team that perfectly aligned with our customers. Some of these professionals had communication issues and also were a bit rough-and-tough as they always dealt with plant workmen etc. They were easily addressed with appropriate training. These professionals also were extremely happy as they need not have to stand and work in difficult working environment all through the day in process plants. They could enjoy working in a cosy office atmosphere, travel extensively to visit various plants, meet different people along the way and enhance their knowledge. It was a “Win-win” situation for the business, the employees, and more importantly for the customers too.

Going by such wonderful experience, I am of the opinion that parachuting external experts from somewhere and landing them into the organisation will come with a baggage of problems discussed above. I am not against bringing in “fresh air” into the team to get a different perspective. But the selection of such experts must be carefully done by critically reviewing their practical experience in implementing new initiatives and their success rate. A good blend of 80% of internal talent and 20% of external talent in my view can be a winning combination. The message is: “Don’t fatten the middle layer”. This “Conundrum” has finite, low cost, low risk and practical solutions.