by A. V. Srinivasan
There is perhaps no technology-driven enterprise in this country in which a vigorous discussion of change is not taking place. The most noticeable results of such discussion are reported daily in the media as companies announce mergers, acquisitions, restructuring and downsizing through a variety of approaches including early retirement and layoffs.
The financial security of American families that became the hallmark of the post-war era is a thing of the past. Events in the past five years have touched every family in the United States. Even those who are not directly affected by the changes know someone among their friends, family or neighborhood that has been. And those who have managed to remain with their organizations do not seem to display a sense of confidence and belonging. Understandably, this experience creates an environment of fear, insecurity and anxiety among many. The cost of this loss in confidence may be high and may have repercussions not unlike those following the Vietnam War.
How did things begin to go so wrong when leaders of these enterprises have had the best schooling, the best training from among the best business schools? To be sure, the rest of the world has changed a great deal. Some say that the Japanese, the Koreans, the Chinese are milking innovations made in the U.S. and challenge us with their talented but low-wage work force. There may be some truth to it, but whatever happened to that wellspring that supplied two centuries of innovative products and services that made us the envy of the world? We attempt to examine this question in the context of technology and its management. We do this at a time when index after index and survey after survey appear to proclaim that anyone employable is employed and prosperity is bursting through the seams. Notwithstanding these incredible statistics, there is an underlying sense of hopelessness and insecurity and a “wait and see” attitude that needs to be looked into. Recent incidents of violence in schools, riots on campuses, road rage through which some try to vent their frustrations are all dangerous signals that simply cannot be ignored. The statistics somehow miss what is heard at lunch counters and water coolers: that families are working harder than ever to stay in place and are accumulating credit card debts disproportionate to their income levels. A confident mood among the citizenry that should be the most natural outcome of a prosperous nation does not seem to be there. This should be a matter of serious concern.
A code of competence based on skills
If we have expertise in science, technology, finance, planning, computing, research, design and development, manufacturing, marketing, etc., then what is it that we lack? Is it the capacity to integrate these disciplines into a wholesome, productive and dynamic whole? Is it that we have lost our capacity to learn and be current with new theories, new discoveries and new methods? Or is it simply the question of character among the leadership in enterprises that is not providing a sense of trust and inspiration? Clearly there are no simple answers to these questions. Two decades ago we were charged to manage by objectives. Then came the quality circles. But someone discovered that the true reason why we couldn't perform was that managers didn't really understand what was going on around them so the prescription was to manage by wandering about. Then came total quality management. The vision idea followed along and industries went wild with that one. The energies of highly compensated leaders were directed towards producing a literary masterpiece that would at once charge the troops into action. First came long paragraphs that were carefully hammered into stirring one- or two-liners. This fad was put to rest with the report in the media (see for example The Hartford Courant, July 28, 1993) of a comment by the IBM chief executive Louis V. Gerstner that "the last thing IBM needs right now is a vision." Then came the new and sudden discovery that what we truly lack is learning and the recommendation is to build learning organizations. As we accelerate on the slippery road trying one gimmick or another, posting a new label every few years, a different watchword to highlight the malaise, things don't really seem to change for the better and in most cases are even worse.
What is happening here? It appears that we need to instill in ourselves a code of competence a la Ayn Rand when she declared in Atlas Shrugged: "There is nothing of any importance in life - except how well you do your work. Nothing. Only that ..." Gimmicks cannot provide the firm basis needed to rebuild; a code of competence based on skills can. If we were to discipline ourselves to adhere to such a code, not only for the sake of our organization but also for our own sake, then what difference does it really make whether the organizational structure has five layers or ten as long as value is added at every layer? Take the simple example of a machining process such as drilling a hole in a plate. If the worker whose job it is to drill holes is trained, competent, and trustworthy, then the drilled plate simply moves on to the next process in line. At least one, if not more, layers of so called supervision will be unnecessary and therefore can be eliminated. A code of competence challenges the individual and thus meets an essential requirement towards job satisfaction. All other aspects, such as objectives, quality and vision, must issue out of that single fountain.
There is nothing wrong with concepts such as objectives, quality, vision, learning, etc. How can anyone deny the importance of any such concepts for the success of an organization? We need all of these and more in order to remain competent and competitive. If being competent in an area of work demands that a worker learn more physics, or chemistry, history, finance or the classics, then it is the worker's responsibility to do so in order to maintain skills at a level consistent with individual aspirations and the goals of the organization. How can an organization fail with such a highly skilled work force? Such an organization truly meets the requirements of what I call the win-won situation in which the individual and the organization both win.
Technology and Management
The corporate culture blamed a declining defense industry, the end of the Cold War, the high cost of diversification and commercialization, technology transfer, etc., as they struggled to explain what happened. The very same leaders have in the past two decades maintained that management tasks require only certain basic skills that are "common sense," acquired "hands-on" experience and are easily exportable from, for example, a giant earth-moving firm to, say a giant jet engine firm or a giant health care enterprise. After all, aren't interpersonal skills coupled with some basics of finance and marketing generic to managing any enterprise? If enough people, especially influential types, say so, then it must be so! Many senior managers do not recognize management as a discipline in its own right and therefore do not insist on formal education as a prerequisite to manage. If you don't believe that, ask any managers you know to define the term innovation and observe the variation in their responses! If a similar question on, say, Newton's second law of motion were to be asked of a group of physicists and their replies were to have the same variation as the above, most of the so-called physicists would be fired! Clearly the analogy is not entirely fair; nevertheless, it conveys the extent of misunderstanding of so basic and central a concept relevant to technology management.
In so far as technical professionals are concerned, a selected few get promoted to the ranks of management, based mostly and strangely enough on their technical skills! In many cases this has been a disaster as these individuals, with no formal management education, not only lose their technical proficiency over the years but gain little or no managerial talent. Consider the example of one such "manager" in a high tech enterprise who put up a notice on "his" copying machine that the machine was for the exclusive use of his group! Or another example in which the members of a group of about 100 engineers in another high- tech organization were put on overtime by their "manager" merely because his counterpart had done so. These are examples of pettiness, pure and simple. But these characteristics are not as uncommon as one would want to believe. Consider the observations of Astronaut Chaisson (The Hubble Wars, by Eric J. Chaisson, Harper Collins, 1994) made in regard to the attitude of Hubble scientists who felt "they had proprietary rights to certain stars and galaxies and refused to let other astronomers use the Hubble to study them." What is equally, if not more, bizarre is that such "professionals" may rise through the ranks and become part of management in spite of such unprofessional and unproductive attitudes. Clearly, trained managers would, in such situations, have had a more realistic perspective of their role in an enterprise and would hesitate to take such blatantly childish postures in managing their organizations. In any case the organizations that offer management positions to individuals with the narrow outlook the examples portray do not gain any new talent. On the contrary the organizations stand to lose the skills such individuals brought in, skills that were the basis for their hiring in the first place!
On the other hand, the bulk of technical personnel that form the backbone of American technological enterprises has been treated as "special" and thus become compartmentalized! The cultural reaction to this treatment from the technical community has been such that some engineers and scientists feel "elitist" and thus cater to the "special" concept. The result is that technical professionals have had little opportunity to broaden the application of their skills and therefore are allowed to remain "specialists" and narrow. This has led to a tremendous underestimated, underutilized and suppressed skilled labor force. The missed opportunity to optimize highly paid and highly skilled personnel, in turn, led to obvious overpopulation, increased costs and an over-burdened system that could not be sustained. It is simply incredible that management in certain enterprises fail to see that conceiving, experimenting, designing, developing, manufacturing and marketing a wide variety of technology products involve the sound application of physical sciences, tempered by limitations of market and materials, manufacturability, durability, safety and affordability.
There is a need to change this thinking and encourage full expression of the breadth inherent in technical personnel and exploit their potential fully. It is time to stop discriminating against skilled individuals and groups as separate and distinct entities, and stop pretending that "specialists" are somehow unable to grasp and be a part of the big picture. It is also time for technical professionals to shed the "elitist" posture, to develop a sense of belonging in the business, and begin to partake in the larger picture of their enterprises. The negative Pygmalion effect (Livingston, J. Sterling; "Pygmalion in management", HBR, September-October 1988), has been in full force on both sides and as a result the extent of identification by the "experts" in the larger scheme of things has been sorely limited. The self-fulfilling prophecies of the leadership and the technical professionals have hurt organizations almost beyond repair.
Skills as Drivers
Time magazine declared in its November 22, 1993 issue that "There is no room in the future for the factory worker of today." New technologies in computing, robotics, transportation, communication, etc. have the potential to essentially eliminate routine tasks. Thus the need to continually upgrade skills. The real danger for so-called blue collar workers is not management, but the advancing force of new methods and processes that continually convert manual labor into machine labor. The new organizations must train skilled and semi-skilled technicians and support staff of all kinds to become knowledge workers with a new kind of knowledge that justifies their continuing participation. This is not a new problem for either the workers or the management, but the scale is larger.
Undoubtedly, the new organization may have professional managers, but far fewer, far higher in quality and perhaps with far different titles than we currently use. Quality in this context must mean not only a certain depth of knowledge in disciplines that contribute to the products or services of the organization, but also special skills in regard to finance, the market and especially people. These skills should not be taken for granted as they have been in the past, assumed to be issuing from "hands-on" experience. Instead, they need to be acquired and constantly updated through education and learning through hard work, practice, training and constant refinement. Their functions may involve more coordination, guidance and direction and therefore the need for new titles that truly reflect their role. For example, Semler (Semler, Ricardo; "Managing without Managers", HBR, September-October 1989) talks about three concentric circles and four titles to "manage" his enterprise of 800 people. The titles are counselor, partner, coordinator and associate.
To build the new organization, we need new definitions of age-old concepts of work, power, influence, success, etc. As work in technology based organizations will no longer be routine, knowledge workers will perform work using advanced technologies that, to some extent, remove the constraints of the five-day, eight-hour framework. Individual success may still be measured in terms of power and influence but the latter may not be based on organization charts; instead it will be based on the skills and corresponding influence those skills have in enhancing the wealth and value of the organization.
There is an urgency to build such organizations. This urgency is based on the probable unpleasant consequences to society as a whole when a large number of its people are discouraged, disillusioned and angered. It is no solace to the unemployed or "separated" that conditions are worse in Germany or Spain. Somehow an appreciation of global pain doesn't quite reduce individual suffering! People are restless because they perceive that the pursuit of their dream has been badly interrupted - a dream that was once a palpable reality to be attained through sincere effort. History teaches that wide-spread discontent in a society has a disastrous and dehumanizing impact. We can no longer afford to continue to be the "me" generation. The new organizations will be "me-plus", the plus being the work force and society at large of which we are all members. This view may sound philosophical, but it needs to be practiced because the alternate models have clearly not been a roaring success lately.
As organizations continue to restructure, a period of national readjustment has been thrust on the work-force. Work, office, compensation, benefits, security, management, power, success and a host of the most familiar terms need to be redefined on the basis of new realities of technology, economy and geography.
What are some of the likely issues that we need to confront squarely in the face that require realistic, practical, robust solutions? There may not be solutions common to and across industries but the problems are indeed quite common to all enterprises irrespective of the sector of society.
Sense of Belonging
Open Measure of Performance
Flexible Organizational Structure
Strength of Character
No claim is made that the suggestions made here are the only approaches to rebuild organizations. Nor are they all entirely new ideas. But they can in combination contribute to rejuvenate and recharge groups of workers ready to contribute their best and maintain the balance between their own needs and those of the firm. In such an organization not only the organizational needs can be met, but in addition, an outreach program can be expected. Thus one can expect (1) an open discussion of and commitment to the well-being of the communities in which the business operates, (2) a flexible policy to provide for minority members of the society in order to contribute to the overall development of society at large, (3) a permanent organization-wide awareness and involvement in the promotion of innovative ideas (4) a systematic methodology to evaluate risks, (5) a continuous organization-wide study of competition and, finally, (6) a system to periodically measure the extent of freedom individuals truly enjoy to express their views responsibly and freely under the constraint that they are, and will remain, part of the equation.
An honest examination of and attention to these and other related issues with a sense of urgency and an insistence on the Ayn Rand philosophy quoted above, can lead to enterprises which are vibrant and productive, a place to which people would want to come to work week after week and make life-long careers contributing to the organization, to themselves and to the communities in which they live. Such wholesomeness can indeed translate the American Dream back into reality. It can be real if we want to make it so. Such wholesomeness leads to what I have called, at the risk of adding one more cliché, a truly win-won situation in which individuals (I) and their organization (O) win and maintain the balance between the two.
This paper was presented at the Ninth International Conference on Management of Technology, February, 20-25, 2000, Miami, Florida.
Dr. Srinivasan is an Engineering & Management Consultant and may be
Many more articles in Creative Leadership in The CEO Refresher Archives