People change slowly. They change because they have to, more often than because they want to. And they change their behaviours before they change their beliefs.
Nowhere is this more manifest than in business. And most large organizations have a large number of people, and so, like oil tankers, they change direction the slowest of all, and are the least agile and manoeuvrable.
Change gurus and consultants have, over the years, pushed three ways to bring about change in organizations. These are illustrated in the concentric circles at right.
The first way is by changing or imposing tools and technologies that enable, or strait-jacket, employees. A software program that requires you to complete credit check information on a new customer before you can open up a customer ID and sell to that customer is one example. New skills and competencies, both technical and ‘soft’ skills like time management, can also be considered ‘tools’ of the trade. The difference between a skill and a competency is that a competency is an applied skill — the competency to innovate, for example, is an application of several skills, notably creative skills.
The second way is by changing or imposing work processes and methodologies. The new regulations under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, for example, have imposed mandatory new processes on both managers and auditors of public corporations.
The third way is by changing the culture of the organization by using ‘internal marketing’, by leadership style, through performance management and through reward and recognition programs.
In the past generation, all three methods have been, and continue to be, used in most organizations, particularly the larger ones which are inherently harder to change. ‘Core competency’ development, which was hot in the 1980s, has somewhat gone out of favour as the loyalty of employees to employers, and employers’ willingness to invest long-term in employees, has waned. To most large enterprises, automation is a more expedient way to use technology to achieve change, since to some extent it bypasses change-resistant people entirely.
The rage of the 1990s was Business Process Reengineering, which attempted to change organizations using the process lever. In organizations where processes were defined and prescriptive, this was generally a success. But, as Peter Drucker has pointed out, we now live in a world where, for the first time, most employees know more about how to do their own specialized job than their boss does, and almost everyone’s job is unique. When there is no longer any ‘standard process’, any ‘best practice’ that applies across a large group of employees’ jobs, there is limited opportunity to apply this change lever. One business guru has even predicted that the information age will bring ‘the death of processes’. What many organizations are doing, instead, is suggesting, rather than imposing, ways to improve productivity at the more granular task level, rather than at the process level. Such bottom-up, personalized productivity improvement programs are more focused and effective than broad-brush process improvement programs, but are also more expensive. They are generally only occurring, therefore, in the small number of organizations still willing to make a significant investment in their employees.
A more popular way of dealing with this ‘problem’ is to get rid of it entirely, and to outsource or offshore processes entirely, so that they become other organizations’ — suppliers’ — problems. Many organizations have found that, in outsourcing, you ultimately get what you pay for — if you’re lucky. Some organizations have already been through several cycles of outsourcing and then insourcing — bringing functions and processes that were being incompetently handled by outsourcers, back in to the company, and then trying again with another outsourcer. Ironically, one of the main victims of this revolving-door practice has been training departments, so that many organizations have less capability today to bring about organizational change either by improving processes and productivity, or by teaching new competencies. When training is done by outsiders, it is possible to teach skills, but nearly impossible to teach competencies — because teaching competencies requires a knowledge of the context in which the skills will be applied that outside teachers usually don’t have. That is why the apprenticeship and internship methods of teaching competencies held sway for centuries — because they provided that context, they worked.
In North America at least, there has been in the last couple of decades something of a cult of leadership, a belief that organizational leaders can single-handedly achieve massive change by some alchemy of charisma, management and example. This has been used to justify the huge salaries such leaders are paid. But most studies have shown that business leaders, like managers of sports franchises and political leaders, ‘succeed’ mainly because of good luck rather than good management — they happen to come into power at a time when the market for the company’s product, and the economy, are both on the upswing, brief periods when supply and demand happily coincide. And, like managers of sports franchises and political leaders, they are also now prone to be turfed out unceremoniously when their good fortune runs out. Charisma, rewards, strategies and coercive performance reviews can be effective, but their effect is notoriously short-lived. Ultimately, the success and accomplishments of every company are the sum of the productive efforts and energies of all of the employees of the company, nothing more and nothing less. There is growing evidence that the contribution of the average front-line worker is nearly as important as that of the CEO who may make 100 times his salary.
What are those critical skills and competencies? The competencies depend to some extent on the nature of the business — They are contextual. But the skills are usually quite transferable between organizations and across different industries and sectors of human endeavor. I’d propose the ten shown at the bottom of this mind-map as a good starting point:
I’m going to be talking about this mind-map again next week when I invite you to help me, just for fun, ‘reinvent’ the education system. These eight skills and two competencies are critical life skills, not just critical employee skills. The eight skills are what are often called ‘soft’ skills because their direct application to everyday work is different for each of us, and not always immediately apparent, even to the learner. That’s why, even if we can teach them to our young people before they graduate, they must still be taught again, built on and practiced, in the context of the employer organization. Ideally they should be taught one-on-one, but at the very least they need to be taught as workshops, where the learning is immediately applied to real and current problems and challenges of the organization. Too often, when they’re taught at all, they’re taught in the abstract by outside ‘experts’ flown in for the occasion, who are enjoyable to listen to but who know little about the business or the culture of the organization in which they’re to be applied.
Any employee with these eight skills is of staggering value to any organization:
Add to these eight skills these two competencies and you have an unbeatable combination, an employee, a human being of almost unlimited potential and capability:
As I’ll tell you about more tomorrow, when I confide why my search for a ‘second career’ is taking so much longer than I thought it would, the only meaningful role I can see myself playing in large organizations today is in organizing and teaching these essential skills and competencies to everyone in the organization, and in suggesting how those skills and competencies can be applied, as I explained in my recent article, to solve the organization’s problems creatively, and letting the employees practice applying these new skills immediately and continuously.
Forcing employees to use awkward tools, coercive and frustrating technologies, and mandatory, inflexible processes (as so many organizations are doing today) demeans these employees, turns off their heads and their hearts, and drives a wedge between them and management. And teaching (or requiring) skills that employees don’t get a chance to apply is not only a waste of time and money, but demoralizing as well. Only by equipping employees with these essential ‘tools’, and offering (not mandating) processes that can be used immediately to apply those tools to creatively solve the organization’s most important intractable problems, can management bring out the best in their people, and truly bring about change in the organization.
Invest effectively in developing Critical Skills and you’ll reap Creative Solutions. That’s the best ROI you can get. It’s a simple business success formula. All it takes is managers with the vision, the courage and the trust in the untapped capacity and desire to do good work inherent in every employee, to capitalize on it.
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Archive by Category
My Bio, Contact Info, Signature PostsAbout the Author (2016)
--- My Best 100 Posts --
Preparing for Civilization's End:
What Would Net-Zero Emissions Look Like?
Why Economic Collapse Will Precede Climate Collapse
Being Adaptable: A Reminder List
A Culture of Fear
What Will It Take?
A Future Without Us
Dean Walker Interview (video)
The Mushroom at the End of the World
What Would It Take To Live Sustainably?
The New Political Map (Poster)
Complexity and Collapse
Save the World Reading List
What a Desolated Earth Looks Like
Giving Up on Environmentalism
The Dark & Gathering Sameness of the World
The End of Philosophy
The Boiling Frog
What to Believe Now?
Conversation & Silence
The Language of Our Eyes
Cultural Acedia: When We Can No Longer Care
Several Short Sentences About Learning
Why I Don't Want to Hear Your Story
A Harvest of Myths
The Qualities of a Great Story
The Trouble With Stories
A Model of Identity & Community
Not Ready to Do What's Needed
A Culture of Dependence
So What's Next
Ten Things to Do When You're Feeling Hopeless
No Use to the World Broken
Living in Another World
Does Language Restrict What We Can Think?
The Value of Conversation Manifesto Nobody Knows Anything
If I Only Had 37 Days
The Only Life We Know
A Long Way Down
No Noble Savages
Figments of Reality
Too Far Ahead
The Rogue Animal
How the World Really Works:
If You Wanted to Sabotage the Elections
Collective Intelligence & Complexity
Ten Things I Wish I'd Learned Earlier
The Problem With Systems
Against Hope (Video)
The Admission of Necessary Ignorance
Several Short Sentences About Jellyfish
A Synopsis of 'Finding the Sweet Spot'
Learning from Indigenous Cultures
The Gift Economy
The Job of the Media
The Wal-Mart Dilemma
The Illusion of the Separate Self:
Did Early Humans Have Selves?
Nothing On Offer Here
Even Simpler and More Hopeless Than That
What Happens in Vagus
We Have No Choice
Never Comfortable in the Skin of Self
Letting Go of the Story of Me
All There Is, Is This
A Theory of No Mind
The Ever-Stranger (Poem)
The Fortune Teller (Short Story)
Non-Duality Dude (Play)
Your Self: An Owner's Manual (Satire)
All the Things I Thought I Knew (Short Story)
On the Shoulders of Giants (Short Story)
Calling the Cage Freedom (Short Story)
Only This (Poem)
The Other Extinction (Short Story)
Disruption (Short Story)
A Thought-Less Experiment (Poem)
Speaking Grosbeak (Short Story)
The Only Way There (Short Story)
The Wild Man (Short Story)
Flywheel (Short Story)
The Opposite of Presence (Satire)
How to Make Love Last (Poem)
The Horses' Bodies (Poem)
Distracted (Short Story)
Worse, Still (Poem)
A Conversation (Short Story)
Farewell to Albion (Poem)
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