Saturday, February 26, 2011

Small is better

Many years ago, my sister and my father read a book called Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered by E. F. Schumacher. Both of them recommended the book to me, but I did not read it at that time, and still haven’t done so. I could imagine doing so now. It’s taken me an entire work life to get to the point where I viscerally understand that bigger is not better, growth is not necessarily good, and productivity without humanity is soulless and demoralizing. I no longer see the point of huge corporations and conglomerates. I have to admit that when I was younger, I looked forward to joining a large company, to becoming loyal to it, to representing it, and to feeling safe within its walls. I looked forward to becoming part of a corporate family. I viewed small companies or self-driven businesses as risky places to work, because there was no guarantee of a stable income or even of a future. And maybe at the time I began my work career, large companies were stable and humanistic organizations for the most part, but thirty years later, it is clear to me that this is not the case. But considering the employment problems my father had working for large corporations during the 1960s and 70s, I’d have to say that I was just naïve thirty years ago, and thought perhaps that my traverse through the business world would be a much different experience than his was. To some extent that has been true. I have not suffered unemployment the way my father did. But I have experienced firsthand what it is like to be a number in a huge system that does not really care about its employees. I did not end up in the business world per se. Although I briefly considered a business career, science won out and I ended up as a scientist working in large hospitals, first in New York City and now in Oslo. The seven years I spent working for the research institute at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan, a private hospital, were among the best work years I have ever had. I was proud to work there and I will always have those memories. I never felt like just a number in a system or like a nameless employee. I work now as a staff scientist in a medical department at a large hospital corporation in Oslo, which became a huge conglomerate following the merger of four separate city hospitals, all of which are public sector institutions at different locations. This was a political directive—of course the politicians know best. I don’t know if the private versus public sector aspect is the major difference between the two hospitals in terms of my experience of them. Both of them are large hospitals. All I can say is that working for a huge public hospital has become an exercise in dealing with an organization that is so huge that it no longer has any overview over individual employees nor does it really care about them. We are numbers in a huge system and we got lost in it a long time ago. The merger of four city hospitals was supposed to improve patient services and care, cut costs, centralize competence to specific areas, and reduce administration. It has not accomplished any of these things. Perhaps it is too soon to try to measure the success of the merger, I don’t really know. All I know is that hospital administration has grown by leaps and bounds. Costs have soared. Everything has gotten bigger. There has been growth. We measure productivity and effectiveness. We write progress reports. We will be required to participate in psychosocial evaluations of our workplace environment that will result in more reports that will be filed with the personnel department and perhaps studied by a doctoral student at some point. When we need to order an item for the lab, the actual ordering process requires the involvement of at least three to four people, whereas ten years ago we could pick up the phone and order it directly or send a fax to do the same (exactly one person was involved, the person doing the ordering). We receive monthly overviews of our budgets now that very few people actually understand. I don’t understand them. Negative values in one column mean that we have unused money and positive values in another column mean that we have spent money. But the reverse is true if we look at another section of the table. My budget deficit grows larger each month due to the fact that money appropriated for my salary has been coming from the wrong account. I have reported this mistake to my superiors at least three times, and each time they have tried to correct the mistake with the accounting department. But the mistake is still there each month. There is growth; my budget deficit gets larger. But I’m not doing anything to make it larger; it’s growing by itself. I’m not ordering anything because I don’t know how much money I actually have anymore. The other day I noticed another mistake, this time having to do with my job classification. I am a scientist with professor competence (since November 2007); this corresponds to competence class 9. I informed my superiors in 2007 that I had achieved professor competence. I should be in competence class 9. But no, I am in competence class 8, scientist with a PhD. This mistake was corrected in January 2011 and then uncorrected in February 2011. No one informed me why it was changed. No one cares enough to do so. I don’t know who to inform about it anymore, since I’m not sure that anyone even cares about a ‘miniscule’ little problem like this. The problem is that a lot of us have been placed in the wrong competence classes and this affects salary levels. No one seems to care. When I was a board member for my scientists’ union, these were the issues I was trying to correct and deal with, until the union leader for the hospital conglomerate decided to harass his board members to the point where half of the board quit, myself included. He worked against us instead of for us. And so I ask, with ‘friends’ like this, who needs enemies? It is yet another example of how the system is imploding.

Everything feels too big now, and all I feel is miniscule. I am insignificant to the system. It doesn’t care about me, and I no longer care about it. I don’t know what it stands for anymore, and I have no idea of its goal. If someone could tell me that I’d be glad. But it wouldn’t change my views. I want a smaller environment now, a more personal one. If I was going to work for another company, I’d want one boss to relate to, not three or four and I’d want to have one name or at most two names of people who could help me when I had a problem or a question. I wouldn’t want to be just a number in a soulless organization. The problem is that I’ve run out of steam. I don’t want to start over somewhere else, unless it was to start my own little company. And it would be a little company. At this point, I’d be happiest being my own boss, maybe working with one or two other people, happily being of service to whoever needed my help. I wouldn’t have to delude myself that my loyalty to a conglomerate would be rewarded, because my loyalty would be to myself and my little organization. Small is better. I’m convinced of that now. It’s better because then people matter. I would matter, the few people I worked with would matter, and that would be enough. Maybe this will happen, who knows. In the meantime, I try in the best possible way to be human in an inhuman system. I help those who need my help. I am honest when asked for advice. I don’t spout the politically-correct rhetoric. I support those who are lower than me in the system. But I wonder what will happen when the implosion is complete. I hope I’m somewhere else when it happens. Somewhere where those around me believe in small is beautiful, small is better. 

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