When senior managers look for ways to make their companies more efficient, their first impulse is often to assert centralized control over the way the way things are done.  It’s a natural reaction. They may need to set up standard back-office policies across the company or organize the business to better meet new regulations. That’s easier if all their employees do things the same way.

But those centralization efforts often run up against the desires of the different units and employees within their companies. Although managers and front-line employees may understand the value of centralized processes, they want the freedom and flexibility to adapt those processes using the skills and expertise they’ve developed through years of experience. And many knowledge workers won’t hesitate to work around centralized systems if they feel it’s necessary to perform their jobs effectively.

Debates about who’s right and who’s wrong miss the point: It’s possible to set up processes that accommodate both control and autonomy. “Disciplined Autonomy: Resolving the tension between flexibility and control,” a Laserfiche white paper written in cooperation with the Economist Intelligence Unit, takes a closer look at companies that have managed this feat.

Instead of trying to force disparate parts of the company into a single centralized system, the paper suggests standardizing the way information is organized so it can flow seamlessly from one company unit to another. This allows individual departments and business units to determine the best way to collaborate within their individual groups. When it’s time to collaborate with other groups, they can use shared practices to communicate the same standardized information with each other.

IT leaders play a key role in this effort by defining the standards that add transparency and efficiency to the flow of information across the organization.

The paper shows how this approach allows companies to capture multiple benefits. It can help management teams see how knowledge and data flows throughout their companies. It can help knowledge workers understand where standard processes are most critical, and provide audit trails to minimize instances in which information falls through the cracks. It can also allow business units the flexibility to choose systems that better suit their needs.

Knowledge workers may have to give up a little control in the process. But by standardizing the foundational elements of a business, companies can help give them more flexibility and freedom.

Done well, the balance between control and freedom can lead to a motivated workforce and an organization equipped to ride out the tough times, while continuing to innovate.

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