Q. What is the job of Management?
A. To manage!
And yet, in the area of human resource development, managements of big and small companies alike have failed to manage what they profess to consider a strategic threat to their sustainability. They are not without options in addressing this problem; primarily they are without vision. And to a large degree, they have created their own problem.
Sometime in the ’90s (you remember, that prior century. How quickly they seem to pass these days), I became aware of the growing meme that the labor force of the future would have eight to twelve careers in the course of their working lives. This is the kind of nonsense that routinely flows from hip thought fountains like Fast Company and similar self-styled orifices of cutting edge management wisdom.
One must then ask what constitutes a ‘career’ by that definition. Take a 40 year work life and divide by 8 (to keep the algorithm conservative and simple) and you’ve got 5 years plus or minus for a ‘career’. Except for the exceptional, most people are only reaching their competence and optimum productivity in the first five years, and ready to move on to the next level of ‘Career 1’. So the meme suggests one of two pathways: 1) we’re talking about truncated expertise and productivity among ‘career’ moves; or 2) we’re really talking about job moves for the most part.
I am an accountant. I’ve morphed into many forms with multiple companies over my career, but I remain fundamentally an accountant by career definition and SKILL SET, which has also morphed over time.
If we’re talking about job changes, we’re talking about tactical changes in our preparation and decisions as CEOs of our personal careers. But if we’re talking about planning for a future of major ‘career changes’, we’re talking about strategic decisions of much greater import.
Back in the good old days of the Last Century, major corporations would hire a careerist by some definition, and mold him/her through various means of career planning, investment in education, job rotation, etc. to meet their long-term needs. Corporations invested in advanced degrees and credentials, and acquired individuals who expected advanced compensation and who in too many cases were expert at ‘doing the drill’, but often susceptible of ‘missing the point’. Hence many organizations, bloated with expertise, notoriously missed opportunities/risks presented to them in the tumultuous events of the ’90s.
But in our current management environment where management regards people as plug-and-play commodities, to be available exactly when needed with exactly the needed skill-sets, we’re running into a problem. Not surprisingly except to the executive corp, supply is not meeting the demand. Embedded in the corporate mentality is the convenient, if utterly unrealistic, assumption that ‘the workforce’ will self-manage itself to management’s needs. It will intuitively divine the constantly shifting, A-D-D driven expectations of the E Suite and reprogram itself to need. It’s not working.
This was reinforced this week when I attended the 18th International Festival of Arts and Ideas in Yale, Connecticut (also known as New Haven). On the particular day of my attendance, the theme of ideas was innovation, at various levels of the entrepreneurial food chain. I attended a panel discussion in which representatives of four innovative organizations spoke of how their organizations endeavored to promote innovation and economic growth.
During the Q&A, I did what I so often do at these events and threw them a curve ball. Acknowledging the obvious benefits of their various contributions to innovation, I asked if their organizations ever consider what is often the intended consequences of innovation: the displacement of people from their positions. The answer was not surprising, and telling. The collective response was the recognition of the reality of my question, but the belief that many of the people who are displaced in one instance will transfer their skills to other promising opportunities. In essence, they were speaking to a small segment of highly creative, highly skilled, highly motivated individuals who are on the cutting edge of innovation, but not the vast majority of the workforce, many whom have been or stand to be displaced by future innovations. The panelists were unknowingly trapped in their own philosophical bubble.
My question was somewhat unfair, because it is not necessarily the role of any given corporation to plan for the collateral labor consequences of its strategies, particularly beyond the boundaries of its corporate mission. But if not business, who should be concerned? The implied answer is the labor force. It should pack its own parachute. It should be ready to bail at a moment’s notice into the unknown and recover instantly without need for unemployment compensation, government sponsored re-training or damage to their credit ratings and impairment of their ability to sustain consumption. Neat trick if you can do it. Statistics suggest it’s not working.
Over the years and with the ever-increasing demands for maximum growth, US business in general has relied on growth by acquisition over internal, organic growth. The results have generally not been good for a variety of reasons, suggesting an overall lack of executive competence in effectively managing this strategy, and resulting in investor cynicism when presented with this proposition.
Similarly, corporations have revealed equal challenge in effectively managing R&D reliably to support organic internal growth with some predictability. Thus, they have again turned to external acquisition, looking to small start-ups who can furnish what the biggies cannot conceive. It is an option to be sure, but an opportunistic one; not a strategic one, and filled with risk for all involved. Imagine if we tried to go to the Moon with such a strategy.
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In 2005, I was researching the issue of technological displacement which I had concluded trumped outsourcing and off-shoring as threats to economic stability in the US. In the course of that research, I came across an article that reported a decline in the number of US students considering a career in computer science. Eschewing the rising paradigm? How foolish! Do they not see the future? Quite possibly at the time, the future was obscured by the fog of the present. Seeing on the one hand what was happening to their parents in their respective fields, and hearing the propaganda in the background about 8 to 12 careers in a life time, they may well have wondered what was the point in investing intensively in a demanding career that would likely render them obsolete by forces they could not anticipate before that career made them secure. Good question.
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Two weeks ago I attended a conference on transit oriented development. An intern joined our table. When I asked her background, she indicated that she was currently studying at an Ivy League university. I asked her career interests. She replied that she was pre-med, but also considering career options in community engagement. It struck me as a somewhat strange combination, and she seemed of equal mind on both.
Last week at the Arts and Ideas Festival, I made a stop at a small business incubator. On one of our stops through the facility in a recently re-purposed commercial building of some vintage, a young lady described her services with the incubator in facilitating programs to inspire and nurture would-be entrepreneurs. At the encouragement of our program guide, she also offered that through her primary efforts, she was developing her own small business to sell cupcakes, samples of which she offered to us. I wrestled with concurrent feelings of cynicism and sympathy.
My feelings of cynicism sprung from a sense of the triviality of what I was observing, and the high probability of failure. It was tempered only by the realization that, for all I know, her cupcakes could be the next Mrs. Fields success and go viral. But the sympathy came from a sense that these were acts of semi-desperation in an economy that offers her and her cohorts little more of substance at this moment, and perhaps for many moments to come. I respected the dignity of her effort, even if I questioned its probable success.
In both cases, these young people seem to have arrived at the atrium of adulthood without clear direction leading to a sustainable future. They are joining older cohorts who previously had a sense of clear direction, only to be derailed by circumstances they did not anticipate, and in many cases could not have foreseen.
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US society has learned to recycle waste. It is gradually learning to recycle the electronic refuse of our digital era. But we are doing a genuinely lousy job of recycling people to beneficial purpose, and that is the ultimate waste. In that human ‘waste’ is the future sustainability of our obsessive consumer economy, and all the marvelous innovation that presumes to support it. It also holds the fate of our democracy.