Posts filed under ‘Ethics’

The Victims of Change

The Question:
“How do you suggest we deal with the victims of the changes we embrace?”

The Details:
“We produce a magazine. A new application offers too many advantages for us to ignore.  With decreased markets, we must be very  cost conscious if we’re to survive. This new solution will almost totally eliminate the need for our current Grpahic Designer

The downside to this new way of doing business is the loss of significant annual income for this designer.

I am looking at transitional solutions, but all so far are only temporary, and seem to delay the inevitable loss of income for this person.

Do you have any suggestions or broader perspectives that might help me find transitional strategies  that are more acceptable to both parties? (Us and the Designer).”

That you even feel the need to ask the question means that you’re doing more in this area than most. Whether you can take comfort in that or not is up to you. The question is a real one, New technologies often displace workers – as you point out in your description, there is an inevitable loss of income for the individual(s) being displaced. You also recognize that it’s the transition that’s most painful. The bad news is that unless we, both employers and employees, plan in advance for these types of transitions, then there is little we can do to mitigate the pain unless the organization is willing to assume the bulk of the burden and carry the employee through the transition. MOst organizations don’t choose this course.

The organization, for the reasons you offered, must more forward with any process that legitimately reduces costs without compromising quality of products & services. An organization can, either through incompetence or deliberate intent (or a combination of both), delay the deployment of an advantageous advance, but to do so for too long places the organization at risk.

To seize upon a displacing technology without considering the impact on the employees is not uncommon. As to whether or not it is ‘moral’ is another matter entirely, one I’ll leave for ethicists to debate. Regardless of whether or not such practices are moral or not, they do have inevitable consequences.

The survivors of any one particular round of technological displacement will inevitably ask themselves, “Is this how the organization will treat me when something comes along to replace what I do?”. The amount of loyalty & dedication they afford the organization in the future is in proportion to the amount of caring and compassion the organization displayed to them in the past. It’s not a complicated equation – and it’s one that the organization creates, and they control all the variables.

Putting aside the contentious questions of what an organization is obligated to do for their employees, there’s the legitimate question of what they’re capable of doing.

Helping an employee transition via re-training is one option. Another is to reposition the employee in some other capacity within the organization. This is one of those situations where the employee’s ability and willingness to learn new things is crucial. If the employee fundamentally does not want to learn a new skill, then they are deciding that obsolescence is preferable to change. An irrational, though common, response to this type of change.

The other side of the coin is that the employee can, I’m reluctant to use the word ‘must’, take responsibility for their own future. Unlike ‘Diamonds’, there is no guarantee that any skill is “forever”… A flint knapper has no place in a modern knife factory – a pen & paper draughtsman has no place in a modern architect’s office. The list is endless, and endlessly growing. Almost all the skills we have today WILL be obsolete before we retire. Anyone who thinks otherwise is going to be stunned and surprised by each transition.

It might sound like a cliché, but if an organization wishes to assist their employees through this type of change, then glorifying our ability to learn new things is a good first step. This means, that training budgets must increase beyond today’s paltry pittance, and such budgets must acquire a certain robustness that allows them to survive at consistent levels through downturns in business.

If the desire is to increase an organization’s ability to Change, then it must increase its ablity to learn.

September 30, 2008 at 10:38 am Leave a comment

Work Flows Downhill

“The Internet ignores both political and geographic boundaries!” To anyone with even a minimal level of technical expertise, this statement is nothing more than a grade level observation. Yet if we use it as a lens to examine the future, it offers a few interesting implications. Especially if we have a minimal level of technical experience, and are living outside of what we refer to as the “third world”.

As a writer with regular columns in computer magazines for the past few decades, I receive many e-mails requesting my view of trends in IT employment opportunities. I repeatedly get asked by people who should have the answer within their reach, if the current down turn in North American IT opportunities will end… and when?

The reasons for the down turn are many: a recession, an oversupply of capability, a recent house cleaning in most IT shops worldwide, the trend to outsourcing and the real threat, the rise of off shore services in the white collar arena.

Will the downturn end? Look back to the opening line of this article… “The Internet is ignorant of both political and geographic boundaries!” now add an additional ingredient. The cost of living in third world countries is significantly less than it is here in North America and Europe.

This results in the following prediction: IT employment opportunities for particular skill sets will continue to plummet. There will be no turn-around. Technology is the great equalizer. Just as heat travels from hotter to colder, and a high pressure zone will equalize with a low pressure zone if given the chance, by eliminating the geographic boundaries, telecommunications allows “work” to seek out the most hospitable climate.

The “work” affected is not restricted to application development, it includes the following categories; Data Entry, Call Centers, Back-Office Operations, Document Imaging etc.

One response to this is… “We’ll do it better! We’ll be more efficient! We’ll use technology!” and the counter strategy is… “Anything you can do, we can do cheaper… because we have an advantage — our standard of living is lower.” Another response is to attempt to legislate a solution, which only serves to create a black market of opportunity.

There is no new force at work here. We’ve seen this happen before. People from China were shipped into NA to build the great railroads because they were cheaper than local labour. This time we’re shipping out the work, instead of shipping in the people. Exactly the same concept, just implemented differently.

The world is filled with economic inequalities; there are the Haves and the Havenots; the “1st World” and the “3rd World”. With the stated goal of working towards some sort of economic balance, we go to great lengths to provide loans to developing companies, and according to many, these loans do little to redress the balance. Meanwhile the global telecommunications network, part of which we know as the “Internet”, is becoming the unexpected solution.

Of course, there isn’t any solution which isn’t seen by some as a new and threatening problem. If you’re someone in North America who is losing, or has already “lost”, their job to a programmer in India, Pakistan, China, Poland etc. (the list is long… but then so was the imbalance) then you’ll have an understandably different view of this rising trend. From your perspective you’re losing your livelihood to an outsider, to someone who doesn’t even live in your country.

There are many who argue that off shore outsourcing is unpatriotic. That work generated in “insert country of your choice” should remain in that country. That argument, while compelling at various levels, ignores the economic reality. While there are many who only “buy” products made in their own country, there are very few who would support a boycott of sales to ALL other countries. Question? MS Windows is developed in the USA… should we stop selling it to other countries, because it has put their O/S programmers out of work?

1st law of economic entropy: Work flows from higher to lower standards of living. The Internet facilitates this process.

May 30, 2008 at 11:26 am 4 comments

On the Mechanics of one Election

Asimov’s classic “Foundation” is the purest form of SF. It takes a fundamental desire – our need to predict the future – then presents a “What if?” scenario and pushes it to the boundaries of belief. Whenever I’ve read “Foundation”, I’ve always spent more time wrestling with the central idea than actually enjoying the story line.

Is it possible, will it ever be possible, to predict how people will react to a specific event, to any useful degree of accuracy? Are there rules, perhaps waiting for a Seldon to discover and formalize for human behaviour? Will it be possible to use an understanding of those rules to shape the future? Could our tomorrows become manufactured products of calculated action?

I first read “Foundation” during my second last year of high school. I was, by any reasonable definition, a ‘geek’… not quite of the pocket protector crowd, but I owned a slide rule and knew how to use it. My buddies at the time were also addicted to SF and we spent many hours arguing over the possibilities presented by the science of Psychohistory.

We were then presented with an opportunity to use our high school as a grand experiment.

Like most high schools we had a Student council, elected by the students, and responsible for school activities such as parties, fund raising, proms and concerts. We also, like many other schools, had a raging case of student body apathy. Nobody attended school functions, sports events or concerts. School spirit was non-existent.

We, a cadre of invisible students, devoid of popularity, suffering from a dearth of cool, decided to fix this problem.

While the formal tools of Asimov’s Psychohistory were beyond our reach, there were some basic rules of human behaviour we could use in our social re-engineering project. The rule which best fit our situation, was the concept of the swinging pendulum. The notion that popular opinion/behaviour swings from one extreme to the other. The ‘trick’ is to identify the extreme ‘states’ and then apply just enough ‘force’ to nudge the system into one of these ‘states’.

We ran for student council on the platform that student councils were a tool of the administration to distract our attention from the real problems of poor education, over-crowding etc. etc. If WE were elected we would abdicate our responsibility, we would shut down the council, we would do nothing for the following year, and we would ban all future student councils… Anarchy would Rule!

The administration hated us… therefore the students loved us. We geeks won by a landslide. We abandoned the student council. Phase I of our project was complete. Now we waited.

Winning this election was an accomplishment of sorts. We had no prior status or influence within the student body, yet we beat much more popular and influential jocks, cheerleaders and divas. Rule #1? It’s easy to get elected if that is your ONLY goal… Just promise the people whatever they want. Some of our politicians are very good at this.

Throughout our elected year, we threw not a single party, flew no banners, we raised no funds. The first 2-3 months everything was ‘fine’. Then slowly but surely, discontent festered in the land. The value of a student council grew conspicuous by its absence. It grew in importance, because it didn’t exist. Phase II of our project was well on the way to completion.

That was our final year before we scattered to our universities, but we kept an eye on our little experiment to see if it would develop as we expected.

It did.

At the end of our last year, the students demanded a student council election. We knew someone, would step into the breach at the appropriate time. A full council was elected. The next year our school experienced a huge increase in student involvement. Parties, event attendance, fund raising all reached historical highs. The Pendulum had swung from abject apathy to total commitment. Phase III complete. Mission accomplished. Apathy defeated. Hari Seldom would have been proud.

Were there unintended consequences to our little experiment? Two of them come to mind.

Fact: The individual who became student council president… went on to become a Member of the Canadian Parliament.

Fact: I now speak for a living. My topic? Change Management.

May 26, 2008 at 10:06 am Leave a comment

Can you Live with that?

Here’s a quick scenario. You’ve advertised a vacant position in your department and have received several hundred resumes — a dozen of which are excellent. You’ve decided one of them will become your next employee. Just before you call the lucky candidate, your boss comes into your office and hands you her niece’s resume. She makes it clear she’d like her to have the job. However, the niece is not as qualified as the candidate you were going to call. What do you do?

Welcome to the hard and rocky field of business ethics. Notice the question was “What do you do?”, it was not the far easier question, “What is the right thing to do?” Why? Because most (all?) of us know what we should do… “Sorry Boss, but your niece doesn’t have the necessary skills to fill the position. Perhaps next time.” The problem is, there is inevitably a consequence to such a stance. A consequence most of us would rather avoid if we could.

If you don’t hire the niece, will your boss hold a grudge? How will you know? The sad fact is that most, not all, of the ethical dilemmas placed at our doorstep, are placed there by people who know full well their actions are unethical. This is what causes the dilemma, not the difficulty of figuring out the right course of action. Doing the right thing is usually not what these people want you to do.

Ethical business behavior is important. How many of those resumes in our imaginary scenario would be from Arthur Andersen or Enron employees? How many would still be gainfully employed if even a small number of people had stood their moral ground and raised their hands in protest when they encountered dark deeds?

We could of course choose to ignore the issue of ethical behaviour. Most of the little dilemmas we encounter won’t bring our organization to their knees. Besides, as I’ve pointed out above, we usually know the right thing to do, even if we don’t always have the courage of our convictions. The issue isn’t one of ethical training — it’s one of responding to, or even better, avoiding unethical behaviour.

There is a technique available to those who’d rather not face these little problems. Make ethics an issue in your department. Talk about it, distribute articles on it, make a point of requesting that the training department offer at least one “Ethics and Management” seminar each year, devote some time to it. In short, become known as someone who places a visible value on ethical behaviour, one who asks the ethical question of every decision. At the very least it will prevent your manager from handing you resumes from relatives — for fear you might call them on it.

One of the reasons why we steer clear of ethical discussions is that how we respond to these scenarios speaks volumes about what we hold to be true. To be judged “unethical” is personal, because it is based upon the choices we consciously make. If you’re interviewing someone for a job and you ask them what they’d do if they found a wallet with a $1,000 in it, along with the address of the owner… would you really hire them if they said they’d take the money and throw away the wallet? If you were being interviewed, would you state proudly(?) that you’d take the money… and still expect to be hired?

The issue of Ethics is difficult to address in a corporate environment for exactly those reasons. The “wrong” answers bring with them harsh judgments. It is precisely because of these “harsh judgments” that ethical training, or at least awareness, is important to every organization and everyone with people responsibility.

Despite the catastrophic consequences of unethical corporate behaviour, how many “Ethics” seminars/workshops have typical managers/supervisors attended during their career? How many organizations have posted an Ethical Charter, or have an ethical review board, or a recognized method of safely airing an ethical issue?

Ethical behaviour is never a problem until it becomes a crisis, then the time to pay attention to it is long past.

March 4, 2008 at 11:35 am Leave a comment


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