Is the operating manual obsolete in a flexible working world?
Down the years the great majority of companies have produced operating manuals for use by their employees - detailed instructions laying down working procedures and standards. These days, on the other hand, businesses of all kinds claim to inhabit a rapidly changing world in which staff must constantly be encouraged to display flexibility and initiative. In these circumstances, is there still room for manuals?
Chris Cooper, change consultant at Halifax Building Society, is in no doubt that manuals continue to have a place: 'Operating manuals remind me of the Highway Code; they tell you what you should do although you still have to perform the manoeuvres yourself.' Further they provide a basis for staff training, both during and after the event. Cooper sees this as an integral role: 'Obviously, you can sit someone next to Nellie, explain and show them what to do. After that, though, it's useful to take five minutes to read the manual and put the information that's been provided into context.'
Most of all, operating manuals bring discipline and consistency to working systems and procedures. 'That's especially important for an organisation like the Halifax, which has a large network of branches and staff. Procedures need to be the same at all of them. This means that employees can move from one branch to another and slot in more easily. And customers know they will receive the same standards of service wherever they go.'
At Direct Line Insurance, operations director Derick Leath is equally convinced that manuals have a part to play in setting uniform standards.
'Documented systems are very important in our claims department, for example, where a consistent approach is required by all staff throughout the country,' he says. Indeed the words 'consistent' and 'consistency' recur time after time when managers talk about manuals, which reflects their real value to organisations.
Nevertheless, some businesses are evidently discouraging the use of manuals.
David Ross, at Guardian Royal Exchange, identifies two major reasons as cost and communications. 'The volume of manuals needed in large businesses, the costs of producing and delivering them to staff, of reviewing and updating them and communicating revised information to employees - these make (issuing manuals) an expensive exercise.' And even if the company publishes manuals, he argues, there is no guarantee that staff will use them. 'It's often far easier to turn to a more experienced colleague and ask a question.'
Then there's the flexibility factor - or, if a manual has to be consulted, the lack of it. 'Organisations operating in a volatile environment cannot set hard-and-fast rules relating to unknown areas, or those of a non-standard nature,' says Ross. 'Employees too want a degree of flexibility and to be able to do certain things using their own initiative.'
In the end, the value of a manual depends on the particular conditions, considers Angela Baron, policy adviser at the Institute of Personnel and Development. j'There are situations where operating manuals are useful, especially in service industries where staff need to answer the telephone and handle calls in a standardised way.' But 'you don't want to create an its-not-my-job syndrome, with people working directly by the book.
The answer may be a system which gives staff some guidelines about dealing with problems in an appropriate way without stifling their common sense or initiative.' Something like the Highway Code, perhaps?