What GBS leaders can learn from the Rise and Fall of Empires

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I was struck by the similarities between Global Business Services (GBS) and Empires after reading ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’ by Noah Harari. He says:

An Empire is a political order with two important characteristics. First, to qualify for that designation, you have to rule over a significant number of distinct peoples, each possessing a different cultural identity and a separate territory….Second, empires are characterized by flexible borders and a potentially unlimited appetite…

These two characteristics of an empire are uncannily similar to Global Business Service (GBS) organizations. GBS is:

  1. Multi-function. GBS organizations aim to deliver services across multiple business functions (aka distinct peoples with different identities) such as F&A, HR, IT, procurement etc. all under one organizational umbrella.
  2. Multi-geography. GBS organizations also aim to deliver its services across all regions and countries (aka flexible boundaries) that a company operates in.

The basis of the creation of Empires and GBS also has similarity. For Empires, it is about basic unity of the entire world around a central ideology. For GBS, that ideology is around standardization, collaboration, and effectiveness.

This all becomes troubling when you realize that we all have a very negative connotation around the word “Imperialism”. We tend to associate wars, brutality, coercion, oppression, and so on when we talk about imperialism.

So, is GBS also this brutal? I think it depends on what lens you view it from:

  • People lens. GBS makes total sense if you are sitting in the corporate headquarters but will be a bitter pill to swallow if you are the one who loses your job because of what you and many others consider to be some corporate mumbo jumbo and the latest consultant gimmick
  • Time lens. It feels like an achievement in hindsight but it is really challenging during set-up. Have you thought why almost everyone describes their experience of setting up a GBS as ‘war stories with battle scars to prove it’? I’ve not met anyone who has told me that the journey was smooth and they did not meet any resistance.

Bottom-line: GBS will work as long as we keep people at the core, define our outcomes and keep an eye on the future

However, I don’t think there is any value in painting GBS as black or white. Like almost everything in life, it has shades of gray. The most important question is ‘how can we make it better?’ And I think this is where GBS organizations can learn from the rise and fall of Empires.

  • Lesson #1. Focusing on developing talent is at the crux. GBS is about people and will not succeed without buy-in from people. The tone from the top helps but cannot be the only driver for sustainable success. Phil’s recent rant on this subject is spot on – too many enterprises are obsessed with achieving a scalable operational backbone centered on technology, as opposed to talent
  • Lesson #2. Make sure you know what “success” looks like. Balancing efficiency with empathy is an important concept to keep in mind. Also, there is a diminishing return to efficiency improvements and cost reductions. After a certain point of time, it really does not matter. What matters is business outcomes and for that, you need motivated talent.
  • Lesson #3. All good things come to an end. Every empire eventually falls. GBS is the concept that we are all rallying behind in recent times, but you can be pretty sure we will come up with an even better framework for organizing ourselves to deliver work in future (such as the HfS framework, the Digital OneOfficeTM). The life expectancy of ideas is coming down dramatically, as we jumpS-curves in years not decades. So it is extremely important that we keep looking out at the future. Keep testing, keep piloting, keep investigating. This is how we at HfS Research are designing our future research agenda – but more on that later!

Disclaimer: I am a firm believer in the value and concept of GBS. My sole objective of this post is to make it more human.

Posted in : gbs-shared-services-and-captives

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  1. @Saurabh – great to see the conversation moving more to talent and not just technology. As someone described to me earlier, “two minds working together is better than 50 working alone”…

    PF