The What vs. The How in an Organization

The What (Capabilities)

Organizations need to look at their overall vision, their goals and their strategy to come up with What they should do to achieve them. These Whats are known or called by many as Capabilities. Examples are Customer Relationship Management, Procurement, Product Management, Cash Management, Risk Management, Facility Operations, Process Design, Regulatory Reporting, etc. Note the noun-form usage of the names here. I liked a definition of capability that puts it as Capacity + Ability. Sometimes, these capabilities take the garb of functions, where each function does a part or whole of a specific What. If a whole What cannot be done together, due to resource deficit or otherwise, it is broken up into mini-Whats and micro-Whats depending on who does them.

Most organizations look at each of these Whats as a must-have. In other words, most capabilities of an organization are permanent. Once created, they last forever (the monkeys in a cage anecdote at play here again). No one questions why they are there nor they wonder whether they should be. In fact, the What-units keeps hiring and firing people, which causes the need for a very interesting What – the Human Resource Management.

The How (Processes)

Many interpret How in two ways – the path and the visualization of end-state. The path is when one thinks of how to get to the end state. This is the correct How. The visualization of end-state is nothing but the What. The Hows of the organization are referred to in general as Processes or Business Processes. Examples are Develop Product Strategy, Deliver Consumer Services, Manage Customers, Perform Risk Evaluation, Procure Assets, Hire Employees, Optimize Processes, etc. Note the verb-form usage in names.

I have seen and heard of organizations that look at their Whats in such awe that they do not bother to look at the How. For them, How does not matter as long as their What gets done. The excuse for this approach being –  Hows tend to change quite frequently and therefore it becomes difficult to track and control them; as long as the What is kept in mind, the Hows eventually hold their end of the bargain.

Reasons why How matters

  1. Some Whats can be interpreted differently by different people
  2. Some Whats are done differently by different people especially when performed across teams
  3. Some Whats would need to change or end depending on advancements in How
  4. Some Whats would become the How of other Whats
  5. Some Whats have to work in tandem to meet a combined objective, and this is usually driven by a How
  6. Some Whats conflict with one another without a clear How
  7. Focus on just the What makes the How uncontrolledly dynamic

Collaboration of What and How

This again needs a change in mindset at all levels of the organization, a process culture. They need to understand that capabilities and processes always go hand in hand. At a high-level the capabilities and processes are almost the same. Whether you call them Human Resources Development or Develop Human Resources is just a matter of semantics. Ultimately what is being done in HR or Payments or Procurement will depend largely on their business processes. And processes can be improved on a continuous basis. Till a time comes when the existence of the process itself can be questioned. This results in reengineering of the process, which can then either take on the new form of the same capability or the capability itself gets morphed and an entirely new process evolves.

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