Archive for May, 2008

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.

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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

As Others See Us.

If you don’t recognize the tail end of this quote from Robert Burn’s ‘To a Louse’ then here it is in its entirety, “Oh wad some power the giftie gie us, To see oursel’s as others see us!”. Why am I waxing poetic this month? Mainly because a sad incident a few months ago that has stuck in my mind.

I’d just given a presentation on Change Management and was afterwards approached by a contingent of a half dozen dejected looking employees from a company which shall remain nameless in this article. They wanted to have a private and confidential discussion about some changes going on in their organization. They wanted advice on two things; how to cope with the changes and how to communicate to management that they were on a path to destruction because of how the changes were being implemented.

None of this is unusual, I get asked these types of questions all the time. What was different this time was some of the language used in their responses to my standard information gathering questions. I could easily comment on their queries on coping with Change, as the techniques are the same regardless of the Change, company, person etc. etc. Change is Change is Change.

To offer advice on how to communicate with management isn’t as easy. To offer advice without knowing the culture first hand, is presumptuous. To dispense communication strategies without knowing the details of the existing Status Quo and the Change being implemented isn’t only naïve, it’s dangerous.

So when I asked if could come into the organization to gather this information their responses were as follows;

No – management isn’t listening to anyone who takes issue with their policies
No – the powers that be, won’t listen to anything that might change their actions.
No – that’s pointless – they only hire those who agree with them.
No – they shoot the messenger on a regular basis – I can’t risk my job.
No – upper management is convinced there isn’t a problem.
No – the dark overlords know best. (Their words… not mine)
No – management has no interest in people issues.

Now, we all know that ‘gaps of disagreement’ between staff and management are not unusual, but their choice of words, combined with the deer in the headlights look of desperation on their faces in front of me – suggested that this was more than the normal amount of disagreement. Other comments described management as a ‘not very nice people’, ‘bullies’ and ‘interested only in themselves and not the organization’.

Here’s the question, and the purpose of this particular article, are we certain we know how we’re perceived by others in our organization? Do employees really know how they’re perceived by management? And even more importantly (in my opinion) does management really know how they’re perceived by the rank and file?

Regardless of the accuracy of the above statements by this post-presentation contingent of employees, is management aware that they are not seen as leaders? Do they care? Should they?

That that question is even asked is a symptom of something wrong. We all know people who literally do not care what employees think of them. Why is that wrong? If we can’t answer that question, then we’ve lost touch with what it even means to be a leader. I can’t imagine how an organization can excel if employees don’t respect, and even admire, their managers.

I’m not a great fan of most Human Resource management instruments, many of them seem more like Astrology and tea leaf readings than anything I’d use to manage either myself or others. That personal quirk aside, there is one I’m willing to treat with great respect, primarily because it’s nothing more than a process by which the feedback loops between ourselves and everyone around us – which should take place on a regular basis – do take place, at least from time to time. I’m referring to the class of HR tools known collectively as “360-degree feedback”.

The 360 concept is simple. Your peers, subordinates, managers and even your clients provide feedback on a variety of your attributes – anonymously of course. Robbie Burns would love it.

All of us, regardless of where we sit on the organization hierarchy, need to know how others see us. Regardless of whether the impressions of management, such as the ones listed above, are accurate or not – it’s information we can use to our advantage.

There’s a risk of course. Ask for feedback and, guess what? You’re going to get feedback… can you handle the truth? What about the lies?

Not all the truth will be ‘pleasant’. Under the guarantee of anonymity (need I stress how important that is?) people are willing to provide both the good, the bad and the ugly.

And, under that same guarantee, there are those who will seize the opportunity to inflict some petty revenge. Luckily, these are usually exceptions and stand out as anomalies amongst the rest of the feedback. Good 360 instruments are designed to identify these aberrations.

Regardless of the feedback, it’s all information we can put to good use, unless we don’t care.
Frankly, even after a lifetime of experience with organizations of every stripe, I don’t know of more than a handful of managers who would pride themselves on a reputation as bleak as the one painted by the contingent that prompted this discussion. And even in those rare situations, would a competent board of directors support a management style worthy of the ‘Dark Lord’ comparison? Assuming they wanted the organization to prosper?

Putting the extreme end of the perception spectrum aside, are we seen as; fair; reasonable; competent; hard working; pleasant to work work with? If that’s what we believe, how do we know it to be true? Most people have trouble telling us we have something stuck in our teeth, never-mind anything really important such as our pet project is doomed to failure. Especially if we’re sending out unconscious signals that negative feedback is unwelcome.

The advantage of the 360-degree feedback process is the enforced anonymity of the feedback. We all enjoy both giving and receiving positive feedback – it’s the negative stuff that presents us with the largest difficult and the largest benefit. The amount about benefit depends entirely on our willingness to give more than a little credence to the negative comments we’re sure to receive.

So? Was Robbie Burns on the mark? Do we really want the power to see how others see us? Or is ignorance truly bliss? (ps. You do have something stuck in your teeth.)

May 23, 2008 at 11:31 am 2 comments

Forget the Turtles, its PEOPLE all the way down, and up.

I’m baffled… If I go to the Tim Hortons corporate site I read the following…

“The Tim Horton Children’s Foundation was established in 1974 by Ron Joyce, Co-Founder of the Tim Hortons chain, to honour Tim Horton’s love for children and his desire to help those less fortunate.”

And then I’m forced to contrast THAT worthy value statement with the article in today’s Toronto Star, where one of their employees in London, Ont is FIRED for handing a toddler a single Timbit…

Has Tim Hortons lost its mind?

Folks? From a marketing perspective alone this has to be one of the most incompetent management moves I’ve read about in a long long time. I don’t CARE if they have a corporate ‘policy’ against ‘theft’ – this isn’t THEFT, it’s called ‘Customer service’ and it’s the type of action that management should encourage in their employees. Instead she gets fired? For giving a customer a $0.16 Timbit? They put a person’s livelihood at risk for a Timbit???? Good grief.

It’s possible to try and condone, and even support the manager’s actions by pointing to the ‘policy’ and stating “The employee took a Timbit. She didn’t pay for it. It’s theft.” But when it comes to the negative PR? This is an unmitigated and totally unnecessary, disaster.

I sometimes wonder if the corporate world has forgotten what the term ‘customer service’ means anymore. It means treating customers as if you valued them. Handing a child a Timbit will likely result in the parent feeling grateful and spending a few extra dollars in the store. It’ll certainly prompt them to return to the store from time to time.

Be prepared for a backlash on this one. The best thing Tim Hortons could possibly do, is immediately re-instate the employee with a public apology and hold a ‘free Timbit’ for toddlers policy. If anyone should be fired, it should be the three managers involved in this PR fiasco.

Updated: 3:22pm May 8th 2008 same day the story broke:

Well, I tip my hat to Tim Hortons – common sense has won the day. The employee was rehired and is now working at another store. Full story here.

May 8, 2008 at 10:04 am 1 comment


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