Jon Taylor, director of consulting engineer Cameron Taylor Bedford, spent only 40 minutes perusing Explorer, the CBPP's self-assessment package, but that was long enough to change his mind about how his company did business. "Explorer will have a practical effect on the way we review our business plan," he says.
Explorer is a diagnostic tool designed to help companies assess how effectively and efficiently they are thinking and behaving. The format resembles a Cosmopolitan questionnaire (with less saucy questions). It is made up of a series of statements covering internal relations, external relations and general business processes. These three areas are each broken down into eight sections, such as whole-life costing, teamworking and partnering. The program asks the user whether a range of statements applies to their firm. The user ticks the relevant statements, then Explorer assesses whether the company is demonstrating best practice, giving it one of three ratings: "not yet", "getting there" or "yes".
If the firm has some way to go, the program goes on to display a range of publications that offer advice, and examples of companies that have achieved best practice for that section. Clive Turner, head of the service at the CBPP, describes the tool as a "think box". He says: "It has been designed for companies to dip into whenever they have the time, and it guides them as to how they might change."
The statements Taylor responded to were about his perceptions of the way his business runs. For example: "We understand our clients' individual views on value" and "We are exploring how to integrate our management and IT systems with those of our main clients". The obvious objection here is that the information sought is subjective, which means you could easily respond in a way that produced a positive result – but what would be the point of that? It is all about self-analysis.
To put Explorer to the test, Building asked three companies to consider one of the three main sections and tell us what they thought …
Jon reviewed the external relationships section of the site
“I have every intention of going through the whole Explorer program before we next sit down to review our business plan,” says Taylor. He says the detailed nature of the questions made him think in a “searching” way about his business, a 300-strong consulting engineer based in Solihull, after it failed to score a positive rating for the section on developing the company’s role as a supplier. “A question I found particularly interesting was the one that asked if there was a clear view on what makes our services special, which is probably something we don’t consider enough,” he says. “Another question made me think that maybe we need to work in a more structured way with our clients to improve our dialogue.” Taylor was less impressed with how the package processed his responses, saying Explorer’s three-part grading system should be widened in scope. “You tick the boxes and the program tells you whether you have or haven’t achieved best practice – but not a lot of companies will get best practice ratings.” Taylor would also like the program to indicate which questions carry the most weight, so that he can better focus his company’s efforts. “I would like to see the analysis tool that the program uses.” He is not convinced that the companies listed as exponents of best practice would be able to assist him. “I and most other directors don’t have time to visit other companies to see how they do things. But on the whole, Explorer is a good attempt to explain the principles of best practice.”
Danny looked at the company processes section
“For me, the most interesting things were the questions about the use of IT in the company,” says Chalkley. He was particularly struck by a question about whether his Middlesbrough-based company, which has 110 employees, consulted users before working out its IT strategy. “It made me think that actually we don’t have a clear strategy for making sure that IT users have some input when it comes to developing our technology. And this is something we will consider in the future.” However, in the main, Chalkley found Explorer neither “inspiring nor daunting” and says it reinforced what he already knew about the firm. “I wouldn’t spend three hours going through the program,” he says, “but dipping into it is worthwhile, if only to justify to yourself that your company is moving in the right direction.” Chalkley feels the questions on business process improvements and benchmarking are often too general, and he agrees with Taylor that the assessment is simplistic. “The response is very basic – a red, amber or green light as to whether you have best practice.” Chalkley says the company scored well, with three marks of best practice and one of “getting there”. He thinks any company with an interest in best practice will draw a benefit from Explorer. But he adds that the program should be made more prominent on the CBPP website. “A direct link is needed between it and the home page.”
Firth believes that all marketing and customer service managers could benefit from looking into the section of Explorer dealing with client focus. He says: “Managers would benefit from knowing the level their company has achieved in this – and how they can improve upon it individually and as a team.” He says the tool will serve as a useful benchmarking tool for developing internal relations within his company, which employs 1000 people, because Explorer is “very thorough”. Moreover, he says Lincoln-based Simons will use the program alongside its annual appraisal strategy. “I think that Explorer will help us to consider our current performance more objectively,” he says. Firth’s only criticisms are that the program takes too long to go through and some of the questions are too subjective. He says: “For instance, one asks if you have ever been bullied. To answer that, you need to decide if you have your employee or employer’s hat on.” As Firth sees it, “The site itself is very well laid out and straightforward links provide easy access to all areas. Generally, it is a very innovative and useful tool for helping identify areas in need of improvement.”