I was reading a recent article about the losses Serco prison services had accrued and it got me thinking.
Putting aside any ideological preference you might have for public versus private sector provision of social services there seems be an interesting issue in relation to the language we use to explain what we do as managers and the effect such language has on reality.
The idea of adding value (cf Anderson and Narus) is an everyday business term that is wide open to interpretation and meaning. It is also a rhetorical term used to infer and draw attention to the ‘extra’ things that are provided with a product or service delivery. The term is trotted out as something that is a ‘self evident’ reason for improving solutions.
The problem of course is what we mean by value and this slippery term refers to a range of economic, perceived, experiential and contextually dependent phenomena. One persons value add might result in another persons value omission.
In the case of Serco the provision of an outsourced prison service might have added a lot of economic value through process management efficiencies however other aspects of service value might have been omitted as well.
Value add and value omission are two sides of the same value coin. Communicating the added value is however a persuasive tool used to emphasise the ‘upsides’ and background the ‘downsides’. By focussing attention on adding value the risk for managers is that they develop an unbalanced perspective on value.
Too much economic emphasis and you loose the invisible and experiential aspects of value. In the case of prison service this might be deeply held intuitions about how to successfully navigate the culture of prison life. Too much emphasis on experiential ‘warmth’ factors and being obsessively ‘customer centric’ (cf Gummesson) and you risk blowing the budget and going out of business.
So what if I introduced the idea of ‘Omissioning’ to describe the solution design process that considers both value adding and value omitting? In this way a considered view of all dimensions of value are invited. Instead of outsourcing and the implication that all will be good because ‘we’ll save money’ we think of ‘omissioning’ our services and therefore the consequences for every aspect of the value offer.
One final thought too concerns whose value are we most bothered about? Which stakeholder figures the most in our thinking? The quote by Serco CEO is
“Many challenges remain, and we have a lot of work to do, but I am confident that, in time, we can restore the company’s fortunes.”
Who is the intended audience for this remark? No comment here about providing a prison service that helps to reduce crime in society or provide a safe environment for prisoners and staff, or a reassuring sense of safety for the general public. Do I only hear the echoes of economic value dimensions in this utterance? What value has been omitted?