Few organisations can claim to exercise power behind the scenes to the extent that London Electricity Services (LES) does. Part of London Electricity Group, the company owns, maintains and operates the substations (nearly 200) and hundreds of miles of cables that keep Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted airports operating. Its activities are equally vital to other significant parts of the south-east's infrastructure, including Eurostar, Docklands Light Railway and London City Airport, and it is investing about pounds 70 million in the provision of facilities for the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, still under construction.
Given that the focus of its business is largely on heavy plant and equipment, and that its contracts last between 30 and 90 years, London Electricity Services might not be expected to be light on its feet. But the adaptability of its staff and their readiness to embrace new technology and other aspects of change were key factors in gaining the company the Learning Or-ganisation award, sponsored by Cranfield School of Management.
LES was already a vibrant business that had strong relationships with a carefully targeted group of customers. These links were further reinforced through the company's policy of encouraging close co-operation between the commercial team and the technical staff, and by having LES staff on site working closely alongside customer representatives - so closely that it can be difficult to tell who works for which organisation. This approach - very much part of the culture at LES - has allowed high degrees of customer understanding and the opportunity to act immediately on feedback. In fact, the relationship is so entwined that the company declares: 'We will only succeed if the customer succeeds.'
While parent company Electricite de France has adapted its management structure in an effort to become more flexible and responsive, LES has changed radically from a year ago, becoming more focused as a result of separating the power and the network operations. It appears to have been reinvigorated by these changes and is perhaps even more ready to act on or anticipate customer needs.
The business has embarked on a rebranding exercise, an opportunity both to raise its profile among would-be customers and to enable the 100 staff to learn more about what the company stands for through a restatement of corporate values.
But the changes are not all cosmetic. LES has also worked hard to enhance its service offer, conscious that it is losing its first-mover advantage and becoming more susceptible to competition. Among the new initiatives are online monitoring of networks and the setting up of e-rooms - essentially a means of using the internet to share knowledge between employees and LES's partners and suppliers, who are spread over 12 locations. It has also instituted innovation and cultural diversity workshops, improved communications within the company and enhanced knowledge management processes.
Managers have been put in the hot seat to improve their responsiveness, thanks to two schemes that subject them to questioning by their employees.
One is 'face to face', in which a senior manager is interviewed by a member of staff and the manager's responses are posted on the company intranet; another is 'executives at the phone', in which executives take it in turn to be available to respond on any issue an employee might raise. 'It does expose the board,' says general manager Andrew MacAskill.
All the time, LES is working to ensure that it provides the best and least obtrusive service possible. Indeed, this company is a great example of an organisation that is most effective when it is least visible.