Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Be careful what you wish for

Whenever I look at the statistics for the blog posts I’ve written, I find that posts about modern workplaces are among the most popular. I guess this shouldn’t surprise me, because we spend a good portion of our lives in our workplaces, so it’s not strange that we want to both understand and feel a part of them. I’ve spoken to many different people lately, both here in Norway and in the USA, and the thoughts, complaints, and experiences they share mirror my own. There have been huge changes in our workplaces just during the past ten years. It seems to me as though they have happened gradually, but the overall effect has been jarring. And if I am honest, I know that with each change that occurs in my own workplace, I am pushed out of my comfort zone yet again. The time allotted for engaging in and experiencing a new comfort zone gets shorter and shorter. The idea I suppose is that we’re not supposed to ‘get comfortable’—the new way of thinking is that it’s bad for productivity and efficiency. Modern workplaces are about change—change at any cost, change for change’s sake, change for the sake of modernization, change to meet the needs of the future, change to improve the quality of workplace life for employees, change to deal with an aging employee population—there may be many reasons for change. After having been pushed and prodded for the past several years, I am finally awake to what is going on around me, and I find that I am beginning to get some kind of overview, a bird’s eye view as it were, on the whole thing. But I am a long way from understanding it.

What I can surmise from all the changes is that many of them are about control—controlling huge organizations, be they universities, hospitals, corporations—it doesn’t matter. The growth of administration to effect this control has led to micromanagement and dissection of all that we took for granted before, all that functioned without us really knowing how or why. And since it functioned, we really didn’t have to know how or why it did. We trusted that this or that particular system (ordering, accounting, invoicing, archiving) was run by people who knew what they were doing, just as we knew what we were doing in our own spheres. It was fine to ‘take each other for granted’, respect each other’s differences, and go on about our daily work lives. Since the ultra-business people with their new management trends have taken over, we are forced to acknowledge their presence, forced to interact with them on a daily basis. They want us to know they are there—not that they are there to serve us; rather that we are there to serve them. They want to be acknowledged for all they do and they want us to know that they are in charge. So now we know. Now we know the answer to the old joke—how many people does it take to screw in a light bulb? How many people does it take to order a computer, or three items needed for work, or to create an invoice, or to create and fill out a work order so that eventual work can be planned? An easy answer is now six or more people, if you’re lucky. Administration grows exponentially. I’m guessing that the jobs of the future are in business administration. Young people should take notice.

Many of the changes are also about creating a lack of accountability. What do I mean by this? You can no longer relate personally to one individual who might be able to help you. The impersonal shield as I call it goes up the minute you ask to speak to one person who might know the answer to your question. You must rather deal with six or more people whose names you will never remember. And that’s the point. Or if you get an email from one of the six, it is with a cc: to the other five, so that you will never know with certainty that the person who wrote to you is the person you should deal with in the future. In this way, no one person is accountable; no one person can be blamed if a problem should arise. But this also means that no one person can receive the honor for a job well-done. They must all share it communally, like it and keep quiet if they don’t.

This lack of accountability is also part of what I call the dilution effect. Call it spreading out the blame, the praise, the responsibility, the actual job tasks—whatever may be involved. No one person can be responsible for one specific job anymore—that would be tantamount to giving full control to one individual, and that cannot be tolerated in modern workplaces, because that would give one person autonomy and a sense of well-being. So the job is diluted out, which leads to a thinning-out of its effectiveness, much like what happens if you dilute the concentration of a medicine that might help you—if it’s too dilute, it loses its effectiveness. I don’t blame the people who sit in these positions—they are told what to do by their superiors. But it’s a sorry state of affairs we’ve reached when high levels of competence and expertise are no longer encouraged. What’s rather encouraged is team-playing , sharing the expertise and diluting out one’s competence and accepting that it should be this way. What happens to a company or to a society when competence is diluted out in this way? Can we trust that teams of people with limited information about their individual jobs can fly, drive or manage the planes, trains, or companies of the future, respectively? Personally, I want to fly in a plane that I know is in the hands of fully-competent individuals, so that if something happened to two of the three pilots, the remaining one would be fully-competent to tackle the situation alone. Ditto for a train. Ditto for a company.  

What is our role in creating the current situation? I wonder. The old adage ‘be careful what you wish for, you might get it’ comes to mind. Have we wished for some of this? I think the answer is yes. I think unwittingly, every time we said that we wished there was a more defined system for this or that, every time we worshipped on the altars of productivity and efficiency, every time we wanted to give up some autonomy because it was too tiring to think or do for ourselves---we were wishing for someone to come along and take control for us. Call it a collective wishing. We may have bought into the business philosophies that talked about how much more effective everything would be after a huge merger. We wished for that effectiveness. It seemed like a real solution, even when we were already productive—we wanted more. But nothing that gets to be the size of a bloated whale or a huge lumbering dinosaur can be effective. Bigger is not always better. Is it always wanting more, better, bigger that will destroy us? Or turn us into bloated whales and lumbering dinosaurs? We are not meeting the needs of the future in this format, that’s for sure. 

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