The appliance of science

S-ray Diagnostics, a knowledge enterprise that helps organisations find strategic alignment, is supported by the scientific and management expertise of faculty members from RSM and Erasmus School of Economics. It is a classic example of knowledge valorisation in practical action.

Story by Brian Bollen



A motivated workforce is easier to manage, and is therefore more productive. This might seem to be something of a truism but even a brief conversation with RSM’s Prof. Daan van Knippenberg provides enough evidence to indicate that senior executives can easily lose sight of such a basic tenet of management.

Van Knippenberg, who is professor of organisational behaviour at RSM and chair of the school’s department of organisation and personnel management, suggests that while senior management can reasonably be expected to have a crystal-clear view of what comprises a company's business strategy, they can often make the mistake of not communicating that strategy effectively to fellow workers further down the corporate hierarchy.

If workers do not know what the overriding goals are, how they should be achieved and why they are meaningful for the company in the first place, then how can workers be expected to play an effective role in achieving the goals?

Or, to put it another way, and to use a sporting analogy, if two athletes have been entered into a three-legged race, but one of them thinks they are throwing the javelin while the other thinks they are doing the high jump, there will be negative consequences.

The European single currency project represents a more elevated large-scale politico-macroeconomic example of misalignment. As different countries had different objectives in mind when they signed up for it, it is hardly surprising that it has run into some well-documented difficulties. ‘The misalignment of goals leads to a misalignment of effort and therefore sub-optimal outcome,’ says Prof. Van Knippenberg.

Scanning for solutions

Having identified and explained the problem of misalignment, Prof. Van Knippenberg offers a solution that can be customised to meet the individual needs of companies and other institutions. S-ray Diagnostics is a joint venture limited company, with Erasmus University Rotterdam as a shareholder. It combines Prof. Van Knippenberg’s managerial expertise with that of Patrick Groenen (a professor at ESE considered a world-class statistician) and Marco de Haas, a PhD and entrepreneur who is the company's chief executive officer.

A major clue to the company's methods lies in its very name. As an X-ray shows the internal structure of the human body, so S-ray makes the internal structure of an organisation visible. Replace X with S, for strategy, and you arrive at S-ray.

‘The S-ray Scan is the tool used to tackle strategic misalignment in an organisation, enabling us to show the extent to which there is a shared understanding of strategy,’ says the professor. ‘We can see how organisational behaviour affects that shared understanding.’

‘Strategy is set at the top management level by people who have possibly discussed it for several months,’ he continues. ‘Everyone involved thinks it's agreed and understood but they don't appreciate the importance of communicating the strategy clearly to the workforce.’

The closer an employee is to the top, the more that employee will understand the strategy and align behaviour accordingly. The further down the company one is employed, the less understanding there is.

Finding alignment

The Scan consists of three distinct components. Together these provide a state-of-the-science tooling and the expertise necessary to realign the entire company. Step one helps senior management capture their company's strategy in a set of focused statements. Step two creates a clear picture of strategic alignment throughout the organisation. Step three provides the key alignment drivers to resolving strategic misalignment. Where there is alignment there will be harmony and a productive workforce.

De Haas describes S-ray's work as the appliance of science. ‘We make science work, and we make it work profitably,’ he says. He also takes great pains to stress that the company is emphatically not a strategy consultancy. ‘We make no value judgement on a client's strategy. Our focus is to measure whether or not they have achieved alignment,’ Interestingly, he adds that it is better to have an inferior strategy with a high level of alignment than a superior strategy with poor alignment.

The process works by helping to translate a company's strategy into statements setting out key strategic priorities, says Prof. Van Knippenberg. ‘We then ask people via an online portal to rank those priorities to see if they are pulling together. Their responses help us build a picture of the extent of agreement or disagreement.’

Each team is portrayed as a bubble on a radar-type of screen. The bigger the bubble, the more agreement there is within the team – the smaller the bubble, the less the agreement. Distance between bubbles has meaning too: the closer together they are, the greater the agreement between teams. In an ideal world, the bubbles would all be big and close together, centred around the bubble of the top executive team. ‘But that's not what we find,” says Prof. Van Knippenberg. ‘Especially in a baseline measurement, the bubbles are all over the place.’

‘We help by mapping out the reality of the current situation, always using the same model but tailoring it to the individual company and its strategy. We pinpoint the areas of misunderstanding and prescribe appropriate curative action, which the company can decide to implement or not. Once we can show top management what the reality is, however, they see that it makes sense.’

More information about S-ray Diagnostics can be found at www.s-raydiagnostics.com

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RSM Outlook , 2015 Winter RSM Outlook