HRExaminer v3.33 August 17, 2012
Table of Contents
Besides Graceland, Sun Records and Beale Street, my favorite Memphis institution is Tater Red’s Lucky Mojos. In the back of this voodoo supply store, you can buy a wide variety of snake oils to cure a broad range of ailments (including Boss Ease Off Oil). There are all sorts of magic potions.
There’s a lot of engagement snake oil being sold around our industry. While there is some interesting academic work that shows the possibility of broad based team synergies to turbocharge organizational performance, most engaement projects are designed to improve scores on employee satisfaction surveys. Most engagement projects are really fancy happiness pills.
Voodoo dolls are likely to produce better results.
Industry stalwarts cry that if practitioners would only do this right, they’d get better results. That’s what academics do when their ideas perform well in the lab but go feral in the wild. Blame the practitioners. Claim to have the only true snake oil. Blame the consultants who are spreading the word.
Meanwhile, the HR profession is misguided in its use of the term engagement and the various practices surrounding it.
You don’t suppose it’s an accident that Engagement emerged as a magic cure all potion in the heart of the downturn. It’s not really a surprise that a process that encourages ‘discretionary’ labor would pop up after a national layoff carnival. Is it really that strange that employees are less connected to their work after their comrades have been summarily executed?
- Coachability (26%): The ability to accept and implement feedback from bosses, colleagues, customers and others.
- Emotional Intelligence (23%): The ability to understand and manage one’s own emotions, and accurately assess others’ emotions.
- Motivation (17%): Sufficient drive to achieve one’s full potential and excel in the job.
- Temperament (15%): Attitude and personality suited to the particular job and work environment.
- Technical Competence (11%): Functional or technical skills required to do the job.
In other words, all of the failure was due to “observable defects” in the people hired. (Of course, the survey was executed and published by a company with a vested interest in a solution to a problem like that.)
But, think about it. All of the new hire failures were caused by the people who were hired. They all had defects that made them unsuitable for work most places. That’s a silly view of the world. It is simply not true that 46% of the people who get new jobs are broken.
Jobs change, expectations go unmet, cultural integration is not always what it seems to be, decisions get rushed, managers are bad, companies are rotten, coworkers are unpleasant, better jobs emerge elsewhere. These reasons don’t seem to effect the results of this survey. It’s just another bottle of Snake Oil from Tater Red’s.
We are being bombarded with surveys, infographics and advice that seem to make sense until you apply the teensy-weensiest bit of thought to them. Of course, the percentage of new hires who are useless screwups is not that high. And of course, there is no magic formula to increase employee satisfaction. And, the relationship between employee satisfaction and profitability is sketchy at best.
At its heart, engagement is an idealistic notion.
Anyone who has experienced working in a well oiled restaurant during a rush knows what its like to be in an environment where everyone knows there role and executes to the limits of their capacity. There are few things more thrilling to a workaholic like me than that sort of experience. My fellow workaholics (who are genrally the kinds of people who run things) imagine a utopia where everyone lives to work, the company is the center of the universe and heaven feels like a restaurant rush.
“Will you be having fries with your snake oil?”
The truth is that most people work to live. They go to work to finance the rest of their lives. They are happy to deliver professional results to the best of their capability if the system will let them. But they will never see the company as the heart of their existence nor will they derive the bulk of their self esteem from thier work.
They are employees, not owners. And, any program that tries to make them feel ownership without paying them the way that owners are paid is just more snake oil. Owners are owners and employees are not.. In practice, engagement programs set workaholism as an ideal.
The idea that there is something wrong with people who work to live takes root when the economy goes south. The system favors people who will work without requiring compensation. That is the very essence of workaholism
The most idealistic variants of engagement thinking take a different view. They look at the organization and try to remove barriers to performance. Their view is that the organization is the thing most likely to get in the way of performance. It’s a tremendous notion and at the heart of much of the thinking in Organizational Development.
But, OD has suffered for decades because the invested mangement structure doesn’t give up power all that easily. It’s great theory that falls apart in practice. Restaurant flow is driven by great management, not hounded out of people.
The less intelligent (and more prevalent) view is that workers are somehow defective and the root of all problems. That’s agreat story for upwardly mobile young professionals, consultants and other practioners of brown nose voodoo.
It’s hard to find enough workers when half or more of them are defective.
We’re coming to the end of the time where engagement is a vogue buzzword. It simply isn’t working in its current forms. Already, we’re starting to see a groundswell of voices raising this question:
The New Architecture of Work: VI Learning Technology
Things are changing very rapidly. Moore’s law, the stubborn force beneath the reinvention of the planet, continues its relentless doubling. Today’s smartphone has the computing capacity of a 1980s Cray computer. Capacity will double again and again in 18 month cycles.
The current rate of technical change would be unfathomable to your great grandparents. We have enormous processing power in our pants pockets and backpacks. Many low level employees have computing resources that the entire organization couldn’t afford as recently as 2000.
With the change and the rate of change comes broad impact on our jobs, the way we work and how we learn to do the next thing. Learning different things faster than ever is the challenge facing today’s organization and its workforce. Understanding the job that needs to be done requires our employees to have deepening technical skills and understandings. As learners, we need to know how to figure out what to learn and how to learn it.
Jay Cross, one of the regular contributors to the HRExaminer, is the father of informal learning. He coined the phrase and has devoted himself to popularizing the idea. One of the tools that is best used to make our organizations adaptive is informal learning.
Informal learning is what happens in the break room, over the barbeque pit, in mentored relationships. It’s the natural effect of living and working in an organization. We all learn. We all adapt. We all do this together. Jay’s notion is that part of the answer comes from setting the forces of informal learning free.
From a technical perspective, informal learning can now be documented. You tube is chock full of demos, advice, work instruction and tips and tricks for using software. The explosion of video cameras (every smartphone is a video cameras) results in a kind of unstructured and informal learning that can turbocharger organizational results.
As a complement, institutions like the Kahn Academy are championing the use of short video to deliver more formal training. The blend of micro-curriculum and informal learning means that the organization’s ability to adapt is being strengthened by social technologies without its involvement.
HR leadership has little idea, currently, about how to manage viral informal learning in the trenches. The approaches that work will involve encouragement and recognition as employees bring themselves up to speed.
(Part of the problem with most engagement processes is that they can’t effectively harness new technologies like digitized informal learning and micro-courses. Employees who are busily trying to adapt may not fit the organization’s definition of ‘engaged’. Sometimes, getting the job done and making the company whole transcends the desire of the organization’s administrators.)
But, there’s more.
Multimedia classrooms that combine video, text, chat, interactive white boarding, link exchanges and other interactive forms create intense learning environments. By harvesting the full potential of employee potential, these tools increase the depth of learning and retention across the members of the class.
Informal learning and multimedia driven learning environments have the capacity to help the company organize the turbulent times ahead. As HR shifts its focus towards the actual doing of work, Learning technology will be at the forefront.
The New Architecture of Work Series
We are moving from the information age (an age of knowledge workers) to the conceptual age (an age of conceptual workers).
Work-life was much simpler in the last century. Information work entailed following instructions and procedures, and logical analysis. Today’s concept work is improvisation. Learning leaders must deal with situations that aren’t in the rule book. Concept work relies on pattern recognition, tacit knowledge and the wisdom born of experience. You can’t pick this up in a classroom or workshop.
The workplace has changed inexorably. Business has become unpredictable. Results are asymmetric. Everyone’s connected. Value has migrated to intangibles. Organisations are becoming organic. Talent chooses where to work. Power is shifting from suppliers to customers. Learning and work are converging. Time has sped up.
Historically, most managers didn’t make time for employees to learn, grow, and develop. However now work and learning are converging into the new conceptual work. That makes life even more challenging. Conceptual work involves gaining experience, learning, developing new thoughts and new ideas, and even developing new lines of business. In this new era of work, the potential value that a worker can create is many times greater than it was, because they no longer have physical limits.
And speed is an even greater imperative. Businesses talk about speed, but they don’t take advantage of it.
Organisations that don’t embrace new ways of operating and radically different approaches to corporate learning will not survive for three reasons:
- We’re witnessing a dizzying rate of change. Business people are being overwhelmed by the pace of progress and the explosion of knowledge.
- There are denser and denser interconnections afoot. Everything is becoming linked to everything else. This increases complexity and makes business unpredictable.
- Intangibles are the prime source of value. Social capital and know-how have replaced plant and equipment as the creators of economic value.
Companies that fail to adopt new practices that take these things into account are doomed. If you don’t believe me, then ask somebody in the newspaper business – The New York Times and USA Today are doing better than their peers –they have lost only 80% of their value in the past decade.
Or look at the music business — remember record stores?
Change tears people out of their comfort zones. Inertia is huge. Maintaining control was the bedrock of 20th century thinking — avoiding surprises, keeping things in line, being efficient, reducing exceptions, doing the same thing over and over, planning your work and working your plan — but these are yesterday’s obsolete practices. When we put new practices in place, we need to be explicit about what obsolete practices they are replacing so employees can unlearn those.
Today’s prime directive is sharing control among all stakeholders — discern the underlying pattern and take action. Act responsibly. Do what’s right. Follow your heart.
I recently found an artefact from the 20th century on the walkway outside my cottage: a time card.
Time cards were once a mainstay of industrial life. You clocked in; you clocked out. When work was physical, time was a reliable measure of production. The fastest manual labourer was possibly 20% faster than the average. It’s different with concept work. The top concept worker creates new business models, wins patents, brings in major clients, and does the deals that make the enterprise. A manager who monitors who is at her desk early and which cars are last to leave the parking lot must unlearn clock-watching and look at time through a new lens.
A quarter of a century ago, Stan Davis wrote in Future Perfect that the fundamentals of the universe, and therefore business, are time, space, and matter.
The derivatives of time, space, and matter are the universal variables that impact all business.
Speed, connections, and intangibles each suggest levers for improving business performance. Leaders talk about speed but they don’t take advantage of it. Take revenue. It’s expressed as revenue per quarter. Shouldn’t they flip the fraction upside down and talk about decreasing the time it takes to bring the revenue in? Time-to-completion is the appropriate metric. Value network analysis quantifies the value created through better linkages. Relationships like supply chain are the tip of the iceberg.
Businesses must also focus on increasing the value of relationships with customers and partners. Improving network effectiveness improves the business. And as for intangibles, it’s high time to replace 20th century accounting with scorecards and surveys that assess the soft stuff, capabilities, competencies, and intangibles. The narrow focus on what’s easy to count stifles business creativity. What we can’t see has become more important than what we can.
Choosing the right feedback to listen to and responding to it is the key to optimizing speed, connections, and intangibles. Honest, rigorous feedback can identify practices that have outlived their usefulness. When a practice is not producing results, it’s time to unlearn it.
Feedback also provides the incentive for adopting new practices. Rigorous transparency promotes agility. Feedback fuels evolution.
Once upon a time, feedback from the boss was sufficient. “That’s what I’m paid to do.” That’s no longer good enough. In the 21st century, all of us must shoulder responsibility for delighting customers and making the organisation better. In a business world characterised by speed, connections, and intangibles, that means paying attention to the right signals. Is that on your corporate learning agenda?
The New Architecture of Work Series
The New Architecture of Work IV: Agile Technology
Most new software development departments run their operations using Agile Methodology. This new approach to software development is built on the premise that one knows more about what one is doing the further into it he or she gets. Agile Technology is an iterative, somewhat self-directed, approach to getting things done.
Focused on tight development loops and self-correcting trajectory, agile teams are organized into short burst project development exercises. The agile approach places a higher value on getting results than following processes. It is a method designed for the real world of changing requirements.
Traditional project management fails to deliver software which is responsive to changing market needs. With its emphasis on knowing the outcome in advance, traditional project management fails when the project includes some level of discovery. In other words, the traditional approach to getting things done in an organization depends on knowing where you’re headed.
There are plenty of situations where that’s simply not possible. Sometimes, the situation is that you can’t plan ahead. That’s where agile approaches shine.
There are other situations where agile methods are completely inappropriate. When the outcome is clear from the beginning and continuous improvement disrupts ongoing operations, a more traditional approach to management is required.
One way of thinking about it is that agile methods are horizontal and customer centric. Traditional Project Management involves top-down control and is hierarchical. Agile methods are better for managing collaborative processes while traditional Project Management works best in construction project style environments.
Agile methods are very new. Little is really understood about where they will produce productive results and where they’ll be damaging. As we learn more about the process, the techniques are moving out of software development projects and into other areas of the organization.
Here are some examples of places where an agile approach is likely to succeed:
- Enterprise software implementation teams
- Work environments with steep peaks and valleys in workflow
- Departments where regulatory change comes quickly and erratically
- Custom shops (Bespoke)
There are plenty of others.
As the department of Work, 21st Century HR will be the repository for the organization’s learning and wisdom about how and where to apply agile approaches.
At the end of this article is a copy of the Agile MAnifesto and the Underlying Principles of the Agile Method.
The New Architecture of Work Series
- I: Intro to The New Architecture of Work
- II: The Work Department
- III: Gamification
- IV: Agile Technology
- V: Learning
- VI: Learning Technology
- VII: Learning Tech: WealthHabits
We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value:
Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan
That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.
(to learn more about the manifesto and its implications, see agilemanifesto.org)
We follow these principles:
- Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.
- Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer’s competitive advantage.
- Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale.
- Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.
- Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.
- The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.
- Working software is the primary measure of progress.
- Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.
- Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility.
- Simplicity–the art of maximizing the amount of work not done–is essential.
- The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.
- At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.
In our industry, there is nothing like it. The Annual HR Technology Conference, held this year in Chicago on October 8, 9 and 10, is mecca for HR tech folks. A blistering stream of events, influencers, meetings and parties, the conference is ground zero for the tech products that shape the face of HR.
To quote Bill Kutik, the event’s own MC,
A generational shift is happening in computing – have you felt it? – making this the most important year ever for you to attend the HR Technology® Conference. Why? Both to hear what the experts think – they will all be there, as usual – but also for you to help our international community figure out what it all means.
The major drivers are The Cloud and Social Technology in the Enterprise. Make no mistake. Only HR Technology® brings enough of our community together to make it collectively wise enough to help you plot your future, while solving the problems you still face today.
If you joined us in Vegas last year, you know the facts:
- 30% more attendees than the 2010 record
- 27 countries represented, including Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa and South Korea (with eight executives from four organizations)
- All 10 of the “world’s most powerful HR technology experts,” as selected by Human Resource Executive®, attended
- A record 220 exhibitors in our largest Exposition ever
Add 60+ analysts/press/bloggers, our 70+ presenters and the 1,700 vendor representatives (full members of our community), and HR Technology®brought together 4,600 professionals, who all cared about the exact same thing: IT for all aspects of HR.
Talk about an international annual Town Meeting! Don’t miss this year’s!
If HR technology is ultimately your executive responsibility, your actual job, your current headache, or something you know you just need to learn more about for your career – you need to join us.
For me, it’s the place from which I manage my year.
Mr. Kutik has been kind enough to give me my very special own discount code: SUMSER12 (all caps). Use it when you register online to save $500.
If you’re going please let me know.