Joe’s Journal: Steeling Your Organization for Effective Staff Work
“Rules for staff people are just as important as rules for staff work. Don’t ever put anyone into a staff job unless he or she has successfully held a number of operating jobs, preferably in more than one functional area. For if staff people lack operating experience, they will be arrogant about operations, which always look so simple to the ‘planner.’ . . . After five to seven years on a staff job, people ought to go back into operating work and not return to a staff assignment for five years or so. Otherwise, they will soon become behind-the-scene wire pullers, ‘gray eminences,’ ‘kingmakers,’ ‘brilliant mischief-makers.’”
—Peter F. Drucker
In this era of information-based organizations and virtual teams the focus of staff work should be on areas that generate multiplier effects on operations.
For example, the mini-mill steel producer Nucor Corp. has continued to exploit the power of new technology. I visited corporate headquarters in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1999 to find a staff of about 25 legal, accounting, technology, communications and top-management people. The tiny technology group investigated new methods for producing products previously available only at relatively high prices from large integrated steel producers, such as USX.
The technology group invited people from all over the world to offer new ideas. Once the group evaluated and embraced a new technology, Nucor invested in it, sometimes heavily. This was the case with thin-slab production. After technology staffers heard a presentation from representatives of a German company on the possibility of doing thin-slab production in a mini-mill, they decided to license the technology from the firm, and invested $270 million to build a plant in Crawfordsville, Indiana, in 1987.
The plant now successfully produces thin-slab steel used to manufacture kitchen appliances and other products, creating a huge new market for the company. Nucor describes this investment as its “most famous gamble”, but one based on good staff work, which yielded multiplier effects in abundance. This is an example of how staffs should function in this era of knowledge work—to multiply and energize the work of rest of the organization.