Thursday, March 8, 2012

Experimenting with the workplace


I have written a lot of posts about the modern-day workplace over the past year and a half in an attempt to understand my own workplace and all the changes that have occurred there during this period of time. I follow the news in both the USA and Norway and whenever there is news about what is going on in modern workplaces, I sit up and take notice. It interests me almost as much as science news. I’m not necessarily talking about business news in general; more about organizational behavior in businesses. Why do companies behave as they do toward their employees? What are the different management philosophies that dominate workplaces and how do they affect employees? Why did they arise in the first place? Who is responsible for their implementation in the workplace? When did modern workplaces become research laboratories? By that I mean, when did it become kosher to ‘experiment’ on employees by foisting different trendy management philosophies on them? Because it is an experiment to do this to a workplace—to force a workplace to adopt new strategies and ways of managing people in the name of cost-effectiveness, productivity and innovation. And before one experiment is finished, before data can be analyzed and conclusions drawn, another experiment is undertaken in the name of some other wonderful ideal that is usually impossible to live up to. It is impossible to draw any conclusion whatsoever without careful study and analysis of data that has been carefully collected from carefully-designed experiments. Do any of the workplace experiments meet the stringent criteria required for performing such experiments? I sincerely doubt it, based on what I have been witness to in my own workplace.

I get the impression that this type of ‘experimental’ approach occurs in the classroom as well. Education seems to have been invaded by the same types of people who are responsible for the major changes in the workplace. There seems to be an inordinate amount of experimentation in the classroom, whether in grammar schools or high schools. I don’t get it. What are the experiments trying to prove? I have listened to frustrated parents talk about their children, who are now young adults and who are struggling to find meaning in their lives. These are children who grew up in the 1990s and during the early part of this century, who were told that they could plan their own curriculum in schools, choose their own course of study, and so forth. What they weren’t told was how they were to follow that self-chosen road to its end. They weren’t taught discipline and focus and the value of hard work and homework; they weren’t told about failing and rising again after failing. They were only told to believe in themselves. Some of them do, but many of them don’t. It’s a vague concept for a child to ‘believe’ in himself or herself. When you’re young, you don’t think that way. You think rather—‘I’m scared to give this talk in front of the class. I don’t want to be the center of attention or the butt of the jokes or the nerd’. But there’s often no one to talk to about these things. And you would much rather get concrete help on how to talk in front of the class than hear an adult tell you to ‘just believe in yourself and it will all work out’. That may be true, that it usually does work out. But as adults, we are responsible for training the young, not leaving them to their own devices. I find it ironic that adult workplaces are micromanaged to the nth degree, whereas children’s (public) schools are not, or haven’t been up to this point. The teachers may be micromanaged, yes, and forced to fill out a myriad of reports; the children are given a lot of ‘freedom’. Discipline is discouraged, homework likewise; teachers who come down hard on students are reprimanded. It’s a very different world than the one I grew up in, and I don’t really understand it. The same is true about the modern workplace—it is not the workplace I cut my teeth on, and I am spending a fair amount of time trying to figure out when the paradigm shift occurred, when the rug got pulled out from under our feet, and how it all changed when no one was looking. The values and ethics I grew up with that I expected would be valued in the workplace, are not necessarily valued as much as I thought they would be. Loyalty, discipline, structure, focus, hard work—I know they are appreciated, but not in the same way as in my parents’ generation. But when I started out in the work world over thirty years ago, they were still highly appreciated. It is amazing how much can change in the space of ten or twenty years. I suppose when I look at it all objectively, I cannot really be surprised. Change is part and parcel of life, including work life. Perhaps it has been rather naive to expect it to remain the same, especially when everything else around us changes continually. 

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