How Box-Tickers Can Become C-Level Strategists

Last Updated May 10, 2011 5:11 PM EDT

Functional managers in HR, finance, marketing, accounting, and risk assessment all play important roles in their companies. But their influence does not extend much beyond their individual departments or functions.

Yet these functional experts represent years of accumulated experience, wisdom that could prove invaluable to the top strategy thinkers in the organization. Now new research from a team of academics at Harvard Business School and the London School of Economics shows the path for how these experts can increase their own value and make their companies that much smarter in the process.

This journey takes a person from a role of "box-ticker," someone who collects tacit knowledge and communicates it person-to-person, to a "frame-maker," someone who creates tools such as new processes, practices or technologies that become highly communicable knowledge embedded in the organization's decision-making processes.

In the research paper From Box-Tickers to Frame-Makers: Transformations in the Roles of Functional Experts the authors follow a risk manager in an unnamed British bank whose career starts as a classic box-ticker but evolves slowly over a decade. One key moment comes when she delivers 10,000 booklets throughout the organization that not only defines her department's insights on risk but that also is offered as a central view for all of the organization. After that, according to an account of the research in Harvard Business School Working Knowledge:

"The chief risk director also implemented new practices including scenario planning and a forward-looking Early Warning System that conveyed the bank's "risk view." Management started using these tools to frame important debates, such as the evaluation of divisional heads' performance at quarterly business reviews. The system also helped the bank plan through the uncertainty of the credit crisis.''

In order for this transformation to take place, two requirements must be met, according to the researchers:

  1. The tools these functional experts create must be attached to C-level business goals, such as linking them to the quarterly business review in the example above. The risk experts establish a tight collaboration with top management.
  2. Frame-makers must become personally involved in the analysis and interpretation of the tools they create, producing analysis and interpretation while participating in executive decision-making.
Are you a frustrated box-ticker who yearns to make a bigger difference in your company? This research will give you some idea of what's involved. You can also read an interview with one of the researchers, Anette Mikes of Harvard Business School, in the article Moving From Bean Counter to Game Changer.

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(Photo by Flickr user aev, CC 2.0)
  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.