isabelwu.com | making 'People' work

To have meaningful work that enables our independence and to live with dignity should be a basic human right

Month: April, 2014

What should we do about the job problem?

Reporters, statisticians, economists and demographers are predicting the demise of jobs, millions of jobs. According to futurist Thomas Frey, 2 billion jobs will disappear by 2030. Whether you believe all the data or not it is clear that changes, mostly due to technology, in the structure of the labour market have already been significant. In Australia, across Europe and the US, the numbers of jobs lost during the GFC, for instance, have rebounded, however, mostly in lower, entry-level positions and high-level professional positions. The middle class jobs lost have stayed lost.

industrial_revolution

It doesn’t take much thinking to understand how this has happened. The ‘middle class’ jobs came about through industrialisation. Workers needed managers to manage them, facilities needed controllers to oversee them, professionals needed assistants to administer diaries and type, file and dispatch documents, services needed agents to book and coordinate them. Now, any function that can be performed routinely, mechanically or using an algorithm has been or will be replaced by technology. This will leave many of those in the ‘middle’ to take up work that previously would have been held by unskilled workers, pushing the unskilled or marginalised worker further out of any prospects for economic security.

The significance of the implications of this global workforce restructuring cannot be overstated.  With the expectation that by 2030 only 2 billion of the 8.3 billion people on earth will hold jobs of the nature we currently recognise, protecting jobs and industries is not only futile it gets in the way of the vital work preparing for the future.  If this lack of urgency continues, the inevitable increase of people living below the poverty line will be one of history’s greatest crimes against humanity.

The 16 years between today and 2030 is only enough time for a person to finish high school, complete a university degree and gain two to four years of work experience.  Is this enough time (assuming in the future this method of progressing through education will even be relevant) for us to also understand, develop and regulate new industries?  Will it be a fight between the health, biotech and manufacturing unions over who represents the 3D body part printing industry workers, for example?

Space architects, nanotechnology, memory neuroscientists, livestock engineering, robot repairs, virtual ethics lawyers – these are just some of the jobs set to emerge over the next decade.  It is easy to think that obsolete jobs will be replaced with new jobs and therefore no need to panic.  The problem is that the opportunities favour those who are already practising their specialist field.  They will be the ones with enough accumulated experience, training and knowledge to take on these positions.  The expected shortage of qualified workers will push up the remuneration they will be able to command, increasing the divide between the wealthy and the poor.

In this scenario it seems incredible that governments are focused on progression from the past rather than preparation for the future.  ‘Saving industries’ and ‘creating jobs’ is great for political cachet but the reality is a marketplace that simply does not want commoditised goods and services produced and sold using old industrial/traditional methods (especially due to cost).  Government does not have a say in whether these industries or jobs are saved.  All we are achieving is a constant state of tension between the desire to cling to the past and the looming approach of the future.  In a state of tension action is stymied by the pain of movement and the paralysis from no clear plan of action.

The projected imbalance between the working and the non- or intermittently working must put ‘work creation’ on the priority list.  How will the working minority ever be able to pay enough taxes to support the rest?

What should be done?  There are many ideas that have been proposed to improve employment such as the reduction of red tape, revision of unfair dismissal laws and removal of penalty rates.  Many good ideas are made difficult because they are unpopular.  These ideas endlessly argued in parliaments, courts, the media, social media and organisations are only improvements on the master-servant relationship enshrined in English common law.

It’s time to debate some new ideas that will help societies enable more people to work in fulfilling and productive enterprises.  Here are mine:

  1. More people will be working as freelancers and small business operators than employees within the next 5 to 6 years.  As more Gen Y and Millennial Generation workers enter the workforce the growth of this sector will continue.  Why then, are schools still preparing students for jobs they may never hold?  The focus on ‘preparing’ students for the future writing résumés, applying for jobs, career advice are akin to the compulsory subject I was forced into for two years in high school.  I am grateful that I can touch type but the chances that it would be how I earned a living was, even then, dubious at best.
    How many in the school system still operate, even subconsciously, on the premise that the ‘smart’ ones should be groomed for university, the ‘non-academic’ encouraged to find a trade and the non-conformists to find a job.
  2. Whatever funds government is pouring into employment should be adjusted so that at least the equal amount is made available for solo and small business operators.  Not only are they going to outnumber employees, there will be more opportunities for the at-risk of unemployment in their own enterprise than in jobs.  You might even consider self-employment the new entry-level job.
    This option will give government far better return on their investment.  Companies are increasing their use of outsourced work, while average earning for freelancers and solo business operators have been increasing on average year on year.
  3. What if governments paid the first five hours per week up to 30 weeks, say, for any worker employed by a micro or small business?   How many more people would get a starting chance at work?  How many retiring workers could mentor new workers?  How many businesses might be encouraged to reconsider their (non-tax paying) unofficial operations?
  4. What if there was tax incentive for workers to change jobs?  A social policy version of Tony Hsieh’s initiative where Zappos’ new hires are paid $2,000 to quit.  This would relieve employers of workers who would rather be elsewhere but force them to get serious about providing a decent work environment if they want decent workers to stay.
  5. With all the smart technology available, payroll administration should become the responsibility of the individual.  Payroll administration is an expensive burden for large employers, and a nightmare for small employers.  It’s the workers’ money, why don’t they look after its administration?  The employee registers once as an individual tax payer, then as they are employed to work, links up their account with the employer’s.  It then becomes one tax payment on the employee’s total monthly earnings, one tax return.
  6. One of the main arguments against employment reform is that workers need protection.  Putting restrictive practices in place such as minimum hours and penalty rates to discourage poor employer behaviour disadvantages decent employers and employees while the rogue employers simply flaunt the law.  What if employers were required to apply for a licence that comes with basic employer training?  When registration and licences are required for rights like driving a car and owning a cat, it does not seem unreasonable to register for rights that give employers so much control over the economic and in many ways physical and mental well-being of their workers.  Plus it would be a nice windfall for government coffers

The objective for society must be work, not job, creation.  To do this we need to focus on where most of the work will be available, and if this is NOT in employment, then we need to make it easier for independent operators to set up, to operate and to become good employers themselves.

What other ideas do you have?

Let it go! HR practices we know don’t work but use anyway

In 2014 we have the benefit of technology that allows us to see inside a working brain and compute massive amounts of research data to give us a never-before-available understanding of human behaviour.  This has significant benefits for those of us who are responsible for improving the outcomes from people at work.

If the main responsibility of human resources, other than employment administration is the implementation of programs that improve productivity (although this objective is due for a review too, but I’ll save it for another day), new knowledge about the circumstances under which people’s performance will improve should be of great interest to the human resources professional.

Rather most HR programs continue to cling to outdated models.  Here are five errors upon which human resources bases programs that cost thousands of dollars, and countless hours of managers’ time to implement even though they do not do what they claim to do.

1. Financial incentives improve performance

Wrong. Dan Pink in his book, Drive: the surprising truth about what motivates us (Riverhead Hardcover, 2009), described the work of researchers from MIT, the University of Chicago and Carnegie Mellon University who undertook a series of experiments to test the impact of financial rewards on performance.  The researchers were able to demonstrate that for all but purely mechanical tasks (i.e. where no thought process whatsoever is required), monetary rewards have a detrimental effect on performance.

Money does affect performance, of course.  It communicates a management desire for certain outcomes which can imply (the organisational culture plays a significant role in this) a sanctioning of behaviours that will facilitate these outcomes.  The obscene bonuses received by bank employees even while their employers were receiving billions of dollars in taxpayer bailouts is such an example.

2. Setting goals leads to greater motivation

No, they don’t.  Most organisations operate on the basis that giving individuals goals to achieve will encourage motivation, in turn leading to more outcomes being achieved.  The ‘logic’ is we can create a level of dissatisfaction in the employee with their current state; and if we draw a direct link between current/immediate performance and goal attainment the employee will work harder to achieve that goal. Motivation is affected by too many other factors, such as goal conflict, a sense of fairness, unconscious biases and the environment in which problem-solving occurs, to expect that a hypothetical future target can override all other influences.

Progressive achievement towards a goal is far more effective for stimulating motivation.  (Learn more about this from Dr Jason Fox).

3. Goals work if we choose the ones that will make us happy

We are terrible predictors of what will make us happy.  Goals are usually linked to personal ambitions on the theory that if the personal goal is attainable via the achievement of the work goal, a win-win situation is created for everybody.  In his book, Stumbling on Happiness (Knopf, 2006), Daniel Gilbert provides three reasons why this is flawed reasoning:

  1. We think we can imagine the future as a whole. The classic example is the number of people who swear that winning the lotto would guarantee their happiness, yet subsequent studies show that winners are usually no happier than they were before their windfall and in some cases disastrously miserable.
  2. Our vision of future is based on our present. We might think that our longed-for promotion, or spending the rest of my life with this person, will make me happy forever, but we cannot include in our imagined future the changes that will happen.
  3. We are not good at recognising our future situations and how things look when they actually happen. For example, the person who is convinced cosmetic surgery will fix the source of their unhappiness, only to believe that they have not gone far enough in judging the level of correction they should have made and need to keep ‘fixing’ the problem.

4. We are Visual, Auditory or Kinaesthetic learners

Totally unproven.  Identifying VAK learning preferences has become a foundation principle of adult learning theory.  It suggests that individuals are more likely to learn if teachers change their teaching method to suit the learning style of the individual.  The VAK model was developed by teachers for early school learners and was never developed scientifically and has never been proven scientifically.  While people may prefer material to be delivered to them in a specific format, there is no evidence that changing the method of delivery has an impact on learning.  It ignores the role that the type of content plays in learning.  For example, learning geography is going to be more effective if you can see maps, images of terrain and climate, and how these may have affected culture such as food and dress.  Learning to ride a bicycle will be a ‘kinaesthetic’ process no matter how much your ‘learning style’ says you are an ‘auditory’ or ‘visual’ learner.

There is proof, however that learning needs a change in the brain, and this change requires physical activity.  Learning is therefore not going to happen with people sitting in a classroom passively taking on information, no matter how brilliant the presenter may be at VAK-oriented delivery.

5. Feedback helps people to improve performance

Here is a typical explanation how performance appraisals work: “Effective and timely feedback is a critical component of a successful performance management program and should be used in conjunction with setting performance goals. If effective feedback is given to employees on their progress towards their goals, employee performance will improve. People need to know in a timely manner how they’re doing, what’s working, and what’s not.”

Only this explanation is wrong. The performance appraisal system works by helping individuals understand where they have gaps between their current performance and their target performance, and what they can do about them.  This means that all feedback is, in essence, negative (even when it is positive it is still presented in the context of “this is good, but still more is needed”).

Neuroscientists have clearly identified that our brains are fundamentally protective.  Even though threats in the workplace are rarely about survival, our lizard brains are hard-wired to protect us from threats.  We instantly develop an ‘away’ response which may mean rationalising or rejecting the information we receive. If the information is in conflict with our self-image we will change the information, rather than change ourselves. It is not merely a case of ego or vanity. Research shows that a cohesive understanding of our self is vital to our health and well-being.

The brain also recognises facial expressions the eye cannot see.  It guides our instincts about the intentions of others.  When managers rate conducting performance appraisals as the task they dislike most other than firing an employee, it is no surprise that neuroscience shows physical pain is caused to both the receiver and the giver of the feedback. It is no wonder that a meta-analysis conducted by psychologists on 607 studies of performance evaluations concluded that at least 30% of the performance reviews ended up in decreased employee performance

When you consider how much of the work of human resources is based on these five flawed approaches alone you would think some major overhaul is overdue.  The question is whether companies are able to admit that so much that they have set store by is so wrong.

Goodbye, Papino

Last night we had our dog put to sleep.  His already weak heart suddenly gave out and we knew it was time to say goodbye.

Papino came to us through a series of, as it turned out, fortunate events four years ago.  I had undertaken some work for his owner, who a few months later decided to move to Italy.  Amongst all the possessions he left behind was his dog, Papino.  Papino was handed around to a succession of carers as his owner repeatedly failed to pay each of them the boarding fees.  We decided to rescue Papino from going to what would be a sixth carer in as many weeks.  His owner never came back for him.

Papino


Goodnight, Doggy

Despite the limitations of his physical heart, Papino was a dog who was all heart.  Loving and placid, being close to us and being allowed to have his bone inside was all he needed to sink into contentment.  At the same time, if there was ever a dog that wanted to prove himself, that was Papino.  At the time he came to us we kept chickens.  You can watch as each hen quickly establishes herself in the pecking order.  Each time we acquired another chicken, Papino would attempt to stare her down only to back down in resignation soon after.  He must have subscribed to the theory, “If you can’t beat them join them,” because he learned how to be one of the chickens including sleeping in their chicken coop, scratching in the dirt with them, and attempting to eat chicken grains (followed by hilariously comical gagging).  He never quite mastered the knack of pecking grains but he acquired a taste for bread and would fight for his share if any was on offer.

He had many other idiosyncrasies including his ability to position his bed next to his water bowl in a way that he could drink just by turning his head while still lying prone, his eye for any escape chance so he could take himself for a walk to the end of the block and back then knock on the door to come in a few minutes later, and his personality change every time he came back from dog grooming, as if to say, “How could you let them do this to me?”

We watched last night as within the space of an hour his breathing became increasingly laboured and he could no longer perk up and wag his tail whenever his name was called.  As he laid his head down for the last time, we told him he was off to the place where there is never a shortage of doggy bones.

As these things often do, it prompted a reflection on the fragility of life and the hope that we all have enough moments that count while we are still here to make them.  In the context of this blog, our work – I don’t mean ‘job’ – is where most of us make our mark.  It is irrelevant whether that mark is in teaching, health, entertainment, administration or as a part of a group that makes things, or whether it is paid or not.

I still hear people decide which job they should accept, whether it is time to do something new, whether a pay rise is better than a promotion, how a job title sounds, which level they report to, if a position with fewer direct reports is a demotion, on the basis of ‘what looks better on the résumé’.  Really, who cares?  You résumé matters only when you haven’t actually achieved something that does.

So go out and do things that are your best you because it’s all that counts in the end, and even if that thing is just being a loving pet dog, it is more than good enough.

Why businesses should work like not-for-profits

This week as I pause while Encompass prepares for the next stage of the #encompassproject, here is why not-for-profit (NFP) organisations have an advantage over business.

There are still some who believe the world of business has not changed.  At least this is what their business practices would lead you to think.  Admittedly when you have benefited so much for so long from one formula, it is a big ask to let it go.  The formula that I am referring to here is selling to mass markets.  Quick recap: the industrial revolution of the late 1800s/early 1900s was borne of the invention of the steam engine that allowed machinery to out-produce anything that was previously achievable.  Along with steam-powered transportation, the invention of the telephone and wireless telegraphy around the same time allowed suppliers to to develop national and international markets and sell goods at prices even the working class could afford.  The business practices that developed to take advantage of these markets hungry for goods could not be any more entrenched today than if they were mandated by law.

Position descriptions, competency-based systems, performance appraisals, fixed organisation charts, top-down management and bottom-up reporting are all organisational practices designed to maximise efficiency for mass market selling.  The businesses that continue to battle it out for the mass market dollar become increasingly commoditised as they compete primarily on price.  There are many segments that are dominated by few providers because most, especially the small operator, have been unable to sustain the squeeze on prices.  Goods sold in supermarkets and variety stores, insurance, magazines and travel services are examples.

Today’s markets, in direct contract to mass markets, are fragmented, marketing is becoming ‘democratised’, and consumers seek personalisation – even if it means more self-service and trading personal information.  This new environment favours the small business operators that are not tied to contracts of scale (e.g. minimum order and shipping quantities) and where decision makers have direct conversations with their customers and suppliers as a matter of course.

http://tomfishburne.com/site/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Slide05.jpgNot-for-profit organisations are in an even more advantageous position because they already organise around the markets’ changing expectations.  Generally, they:

  • Organise to serve a mission or community interest rather than shareholders;
  • Focus on customers who are interested in the organisation, not just the products and services they deliver;
  • Incorporate highly participatory processes that include members of the community;
  • Expect their people will build skills and contacts within their sector not just within their position in the organisation.

Many corporate organisations have adopted some of these practices trying to stay relevant to their customers – with mixed results.  In 2009 Kraft felt the ire of their customers when it asked for suggestions for a new name for Vegemite.  48,000 ideas later, the iSnack2.0 hit the supermarket shelves and soon after the new name hit the rubbish bin.  On the success side, the restaurant chain, Chipotle, created a series of videos to support their ‘Food with Integrity’ values.  The videos attacked industrial farming practices succeeding in convincing the public that the business considered itself part of an ‘ethical ecosystem’ (ironically promoting sales of fast food).

(Aside: You have to admire the cleverness in bringing up the issue of fast food and re-framing it.  The last line in the video states: “Those people died of eating, not of starving. That’s progress!”)

If NFP organisations find themselves sitting in the position where the market has evolved around to matching their basic make up, how do they use this to their advantage?  The first important step is to abandon the mass marketing practices they have been emulating.  Look at the practices adopted by many tech and online start ups.  Tech industry founders consider themselves part of a community not an industry; in fact many go out of their way to avoid corporate practices and the risk of losing their agility and market-responsiveness.

Build practices around your strengths and your relationship with your community and if it looks like no one else’s structure and practices, all the better because it becomes your own ethical ecosystem.  That will be something all business will have to learn to do.

#encompassproject – when good ideas become reality

Last Thursday it was my privilege and pleasure to be invited to Encompass Community Services by CEO, Elaine Robb, to attend the launch of the Encompass Revolution.  Staff gathered to hear Elaine, and Board Chairperson, Dr Alyson Miller, explain the purpose of the ‘revolution’ and to watch the launch of Encompass TV.

Elaine gave an impassioned speech on the remarkable work that the team of loyal and committed Encompass staff performed every day and the difference this made to the lives of many.  BUT, Elaine continued, there was more work to do.  Times change and new challenges continue to arise, prompting the need to ensure Encompass was always adapting.  Elaine told her team that the Encompass Revolution would be many things, including new ideas, better systems and more services, however it would not be reducing staff or removing positions.  The team at Encompass, she concluded, was the ”best staff in the world” and the Encompass Revolution was about removing barriers that prevent them from doing more for disability services, not-for-profit organisations, Geelong and wider community.

Alyson spoke simply of the opportunities ahead for Encompass to pursue greater things using a community of the motivated, talented and skilled people who were sitting in the room.

Encompass TV launch

Encompass CEO, Elaine Robb, addresses her team

The inaugural episode of Encompass TV was launched to the delight of the team.  Its producer (and for now director, program manager, sound and camera person and editor), Fritzie, managed to capture the spirit of Encompass and some stellar grabs of team members and clients.

Elaine generously allowed me to speak to the team to explain the background the #encompassproject and the work I had done with the organisation over the years.  One thing that Encompass and Elaine has achieved that many organisations never do: every person in the room knew word-for-word the Encompass Vision and knew exactly what it meant to them and their work.

Organisations regularly implement programs, policies or procedures to increase employee participation.  There is always a new trend; twenty years ago it was flexitime.  Ten years later we had employer of choice with massages and birthday days off all the rage.  Casual Fridays is still considered a ‘bonus’ in some workplaces.  The success of initiatives that interfere with positions and status, particularly for full time workers, are typically the least successful.  The ability to work outside what is still for many organisations the ‘backbone structure’ of rigidly managed full time work often ends up little more than good intentions; they like the idea but not the changes needed to allow them to happen.  As one industrial relations lawyer once wryly remarked to me, “Employers are happy to offer many flexible initiatives, but they’re always surprised, sometimes resentful, when anyone tries to use them.”

In this, the 21st century, employers need to understand their workers differently.  The platitudes of being the “most valuable asset” will no longer wash.  Perhaps once when people were human-powered production – basically the parts of production that could not be performed with a combination of electricity, mechanical parts and computers – there could be some argument that the employer owned (an asset being a resource that an entity owns or controls) the labour which is how a person came to be a legal entity’s ‘asset’.  In the knowledge economy, the workers own the assets – their knowledge.  The organisation leases this knowledge.  In place of rigid positions and inflexible rosters the organisation creates a positive workplace culture to promote innovation, considered risk-taking, and the ability of staff to continuously self-evaluate and self-moderate.  The organisation ‘partners’ with the knowledge asset owners to maximise the value of intellectual and social capital, resulting in on-going opportunities for both.

It’s a paradigm shift that few understand, for a large part because it has only had a few years to develop, against the 150 or so years of the industrial economy.  The companies using what software company Atlassian calls ‘Ship It Days’ (giving time to employees to work on any project of their choosing for a set amount of time) have been the progressive ones.  Encompass, to its enormous credit, took a giant leap last Thursday, making a commitment to its staff to become a partner to the vast untapped resources of its employees for the good of its community.

%d bloggers like this: