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Do you have any meaningful say in the work that you do?

Jan 09, 2012 Business Daily, Management

Since the mid-80s, academics have been carrying out regular skills surveys, asking detailed questions of thousands of employees. In 1986…72% of professionals felt they had a great deal of independence in doing their jobs. By 2006, that had plummeted to just 38%.
Which is shocking but also makes sense: if you’re a teacher you now have to work to a national curriculum. If you’re a bank manager you have far fewer individual powers than your predecessor would have had in the 80s. And if you’re a teller, it’s standard practice to work from a script.

ADITYA CHAKRABORTTY, www.guardian.co.uk (Dec 19, 2011)

Aditya Chakrabortty pointed out an interesting aspect of modern life in The Guardian recently: the more variety we enjoy as consumers, the less autonomy we enjoy as employees.

It is not a surprise that most blue-collar workers in large companies have little say in the work that they do. As enterprises have become more complex and more far-flung, consistency across units is paramount. When you are producing multiple product lines across multiple geographies, you cannot afford to have inconsistencies in quality and customer experience. Having a rigid, centrally defined process for everything is the path that most complex organizations have taken to address this problem. This means that the workers at the coalface simply do as they are told – there is no room for experimentation, flexibility or creativity.

The more recent phenomenon is that white-collar workers, including very senior executives, often suffer the same loss of independence. They, too, are tightly controlled from a powerful centre; they, too are permitted few decisions; they, too have to work like cogs in the system.

As a customer, you may have encountered the consequences of this. The bank manager, for example, who cannot make an exception on your loan application simply because he can’t overrule the process; the chief executive who can’t make any adjustment to his local product despite overwhelming data suggesting the global one is not what’s needed in his patch; the team leader who is powerless to make any meaningful change to the rewards flowing to his team members.

Where is this leading? Customers are increasingly facing faceless organizations where the person dealing with you, and that person’s next five superior officers, are unable to make any meaningful decision. All they can do is feed your information into the opaque system, and await a reply.

Certainly, this reduces fraud and poor local decisions; it automates mundane tasks; it makes products and services cheaper. But it also means that the number of people who actually think, create, innovate and make decisions is shrinking. Academics foresee a world in which perhaps just 10 per cent of the world’s workforce has “permission to think.” The rest simply have to do as they’re told. After decades of massive expansion in education across the globe, we may be heading back to an assembly-line model; the difference being that the worker drones are now well-educated graduates.

This phenomenon is going to trouble many an ambitious employee; it will trouble many a customer who wants a meaningful emotional engagement with a business; and it should trouble many a thoughtful leader. Good luck in keeping the best people when your business model disallows them from thinking or contributing ideas.

As 2012 unfolds, I suggest this should be one of the top issues challenging chief executives: how do you manage smooth and consistent delivery without turning your best people into drones and clones?

It also offers a huge opportunity to startups. Big, global businesses are going to struggle, really struggle, in offering human interactions to their customers. They are going to struggle to motivate their best people to be accept being mere ghosts in the machine. And that gives you every chance to thrive by playing on those very weaknesses. Go for it.

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