Sunday, October 23, 2005

Why work?

In my last entry I wrote about The Living Company, there's a lot I could say about this book that you're better off going to it read yourself. It isn't my intention to give you a review or abstract in this book buyer would like to share a few thoughts.

While these thoughts concern the role of the individual in the corporation at its most basic level it poses the question: Why do we work?

At one level it is an easy question to answer: we need to pay for our food, clothes, housing, etc. But there is a deeper level to this question and one that concerns the relationship between the individual and the company. We could rephrase this question as, what do I hope to get out of this job? With the emphasis on, I.

For de Geus and his Living Company profits are only a means to an end. Similarly, wages are only a means to an end. In working for a company, and in employing an individual, the two enter into a pact. The corporation promises to give the individual opportunities to further themselves and to grow as a human being, and the individual undertakes to help the company continue in his quest for survival.

De Geus explores this argument in depth. While he accepts that one size does not fit all and that in different firms things need to be done differently he is an advocate of the recruit early, retained the life human resource philosophy. Of course, this has its problems and he does discuss some, but these are discussed from the corporate side

I was left wondering what of the individual who does not get hired by such an enlightened company, is such a person condemned to work for "inferior" companies from the rest of their working life? I suppose I'm thinking of myself when I ask this question, when I graduated from university jobs were thin on the ground and I considered myself lucky to get a job with a 12 month fixed term.

And what of the individual who is unfortunately laid off from the corporation? And particularly when this occurs, halfway through one's careers, how are they to return to an enlightened employment?

De Geus does consider the need for companies to periodically let people go. For him this occurs, not when a company needs to downsize, but when an individual can no longer grow. Of course, sometimes in a downsizing company there may no longer be the opportunities for individuals to grow. At this point de Geus actually starts to sound like Jack Welch.

Welch (Headline Book Publishing, 2001) also advocates a human resource policy based on individual development, of course, being Welch, he is a lot more hard-nosed about it and relates the policy directly to the bottom line of the company. He also advocates a pro-active policy of dismissing people who are considered to be in the bottom 10%.

This is all tough stuff, and maybe, just maybe, the idea that the company can no longer offer an individual opportunities grow and it is therefore best they leave the company, well maybe, this is just the sugar coating that managers can tell themselves so they can sleep at night, when the newly ex-employee is wondering where his next wage comes from.

Don't get me wrong. I think these authors are making a good point, and I am very attracted to the idea that it is through work that we grow and improve as individuals, but I also see a potential for self-deception.

Interestingly, these ideas of growth and, shall we say, weeding out, sitting well with my blog entry of 12 October 2005 - Productivity & IT - US trumps Europe. Maybe this is just a simple case of statistics, if the company is to be above average. In needs to remove those below average and encourage those above-average.

And what of me on a personal level? As I've written here before, I am now a Product Manager, a recent change, and one that is giving me room for. Looking back on it and not sure many of the companies I have worked for have really offered growth opportunities.

There is a chapter in book one of Douglas Adam’s is Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, where he describes the evolution of Vogons. I can't recall the exact words, but he says something like
"evolution took one look at the Vogons and decided they weren't worth bothering with, so the Vogon’s decided evolution was worth bothering with just on with it."

I sometimes feel like that about my career! Some of those large, enlightened companies, took one look at me and decided they didn't have a career for me, so I just got on with it myself.

Actually, I don't think I'm alone in this scenario, I think many of those who entered the labour force during the late 1980s and 90s encountered the same situation. I like to think things have changed now but I don't know.

Still for me, the wage is important, but so is the growth. And as I get older, the relative importance of growth increases.