What lies beneath: SME & Employee Accountability

What lies beneath: SME & Employee Accountability

This article is co-authored by Roy Chew Han Guan and Ramesh Muthusamy

A common challenge that small medium enterprises (SME) face is the dearth of talent. In terms of remuneration packages, welfare and benefits, branding and image, they are found wanting when stacked up against the multi-national corporations MNC) or government agencies.  In the midst of the talent war, SMEs are the default underdogs and it’s no wonder they struggle. Or so we think?

“In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity” ― Albert Einstein

While SMEs may lack the glamour of MNCs they can make up for it in terms of the almost limitless potential and learning opportunities for their employees. After all, MNCs were once SMEs. If there were really no talents in SMEs, these MNCs would never come to be.

This is not meant to write off the SMEs’ hiring woes but to allude to the possibility that other deeper issues could lie hidden beneath the surface. Our discussions with SME management had revealed the lesser known talent management perspective of employee accountability. 

Who’s the Boss?

In the resource strapped SME, seldom exists the structured processes, technological infra-structures and tools or even the industrial know-how to imbue the sense of ownership and accountability that is necessary for delivering business outcomes. For instance, if two coffee shops workers were told they were responsible for serving coffee, exactly who will be held accountable for serving a bad cup of coffee and who will be rewarded for serving a perfect brew? 

Even before employee satisfaction and engagement, job ownership and employee accountability might be an important preceding enabler that needs to be considered first. How would you be able to do a good job if you don’t even feel that the job belongs to you? Much less feel happy and motivated doing it. 

Employees need to develop and feel the sense of connectedness and attachment in their jobs that they have towards their possessions, interests, familial or social relationships. They need to be aware and recognize the fact that they are indeed the bosses of what they do. 
While SMEs can invest in the whole works of performance management systems, tools and processes that MNCs have, there are two other effective options that can be considered as well.

Start with the Top

The smaller sizes and typical flat hierarchy of SMEs make them more nimble in terms of change management, communication and decision making processes. As the game of Chinese whispers demonstrates, where a message gets distorted while being passed from one person to another, the challenge of relaying a message to a global workforce of 5000 is imminently more gargantuan as compared to a team of 50 located in geographical proximity. Thus, the collective efforts of the management team to take dedicated actions to drive accountability would permeate and cascade faster and more efficiently throughout the organization. This could be as simple as clarifying role responsibilities or enquiring deeper about loss sales.

Crowdsource Employees’ Ideas

Steer as a team. When permissible, let employees have a say in business decisions, the same way management and owners do. The involvement of the employees serves double purposes. It could inculcate a bigger sense of accountability in employees and also help unearth the raw nuggets of talent with brilliant minds and leadership potential.  

This could be operationalised through typical ideation mechanisms such as brainstorming sessions, team-building activities, communication brief or the timeless feedback and suggestion forms. This crowdsourcing of strategic and business ideas from employees is arguably the easier the smaller you are which is why such strategic retreats are typically the prerogative of management in MNCs.   


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