Lately there has been a variety of news related to U.S. employment. Stories about worker productivity, automobile and airline unions, low employment and foreign laborers have frequented the news. Each story has good and bad attributes we might argue over, but on the news’ frequency and importance, we would almost certainly agree. After all, employment is important to us, and its volatile characteristics aren’t going to change anytime soon. Now may be the time for employers and employees to prepare for future employment changes, particularly one that appears imminent.
Countless news articles suggest the next big labor trend will affect U.S. corporate “white collars,” indicating the possibility/probability companies intend to move professional labor outside the states, where work can be done as effectively and efficiently as in the U.S and at one-quarter of the labor cost. India comes to mind, China too. Obtaining such substantial labor savings makes transferring the jobs outside the U.S. easily understandable.
It is not just a theoretical question. Look at Dell and IBM. These companies have moved white-collar jobs out of the U.S. They are not alone. Many oil companies in Houston have either moved in this direction or are thinking about it. Why shouldn’t they? Remaining competitive in a global economy makes considering this alternative a “no brainer”.
What can employers and employees do? Are they doomed to hand over their jobs to other countries? Not necessarily; but companies do have to come up with a better solution. But what thinking is needed to accomplish this? This is a short and compact question, but a critical one.
Employers/employees interested in retaining white-collar jobs must take the following steps:
DISABLE INGRAINED THINKING THAT NO LONGER WORKS
- Disable ingrained thinking that no longer works;
- See jobs as pieces of a bigger process, steps in a journey;
- Find and implement changes that result in renewed productivity.
Even before Henry Ford’s assembly line, companies emphasized specialization of labor, multi-tiered organizations, and often a decision-making style of “Management Thinks, Workers Do.” This is ingrained in corporate tradition and in our schools as well. Both have separated, categorized, and specialized people. Schools do it class by class; companies do it profession by profession. They educate and employ accountants, engineers and lawyers who have their own “professional” language. This results in corporate meetings where communication is impaired by specialized language, creating a corporate “Tower of Babel,” a scene of confusion with different languages being spoken.
This work-and-school model may have been successful 75 years ago, but not today. Today it creates a managerial/employee workforce that waits too long to act and/or performs robotically in conformity with ancestral processes. Instead of being dynamic, the decision-making process is on automatic pilot at best, lacking agility and creativity, moving too slowly in today’s dynamic world environment.
To change this, employees must be encouraged and empowered to step outside the borders of their professional jobs. They must be integrated into the decision-making process so decisions can be made quickly and closer to the problem. This change in emphasis will work best because the closer the decision making is to the problem the fewer layers involved, and the faster the problem will be addressed and resolved. To accomplish this though, employees must have a different work perspective.
SEE JOBS AS PIECES OF A BIGGER PROCESS, STEPS IN A JOURNEY
Because of traditional corporate decision-making, most employees have a piece-meal understanding of the business processes. They understand their job, but not in context of the bigger picture. As a result, employee contribution is limited, as these workers cannot easily address problems holistically.
On the other hand, the traditional up-and-down the organization chart approach does not effectively resolve process problems, as it is too slow to act on issues. The solution should be intuitive. In today’s world, driven by fast-paced, changing technology, employees must contribute to the business processes they are a part of. But how can this done?
Employees must view themselves as “small companies”, understanding how their jobs add value and contribute to the corporation’s bottom line. They must understand the supplier-and-customer roles across the entire value chain, and how those roles impact them. It shouldn’t be hard. After all, in addition to being a producer, the employee is a supplier and customer too.
For example, say an accountant’s job is to produce a spreadsheet, a producer role. But the accountant supplies that spreadsheet to his terminal-operator customer, as a supplier. Got it? Then the accountant has suppliers, the pipeline delivering product to the terminal and the terminal’s payroll clerk, who provide him the source data to produce the spreadsheet. Here the accountant is the customer. So, even though the accountant’s job is described as producing a spreadsheet, he performs customer and supplier roles too.
Seeing and acting out these connected roles enables an employee to better understand the interdependencies and different pieces of the business process “puzzle”.
FIND AND IMPLEMENT CHANGES THAT RESULT IN RENEWED PRODUCTIVITY
Until now, productivity has been technology driven. New database systems and system-integration ERP software have led the way. Certainly, there will be more gains from technology ahead, but the technology productivity aren’t the only opportunities. We need “people” systems to compliment technology.
With empowerment, a deeper understanding and a broader perspective, the employee is in a position to increase productivity and decrease costs, eliminating the need to transfer jobs outside of the United States. As a simultaneous producer, supplier and customer the employee can successfully connect the dots across the business process, choose the correct alternatives, and find avenues for renewed productivity.
Employees will need mentoring, encouragement and the right tools to support their new roles. But following the steps described will keep them on track. Sure, mistakes will be made along the way, but in the long run the successes will far outweigh the failures. The U.S. labor market is well educated and savvy, and it will quickly learn how to renew U.S. productivity. This will keep white-collar jobs in America.
Finally, having made a case for why companies and employees must change, the process won’t be easy or without pain. Some workers will not readily make the transition from “doer” to “thinker,” if at all. Old habits are hard to break. In the case of Baby-Boomers, some may say “I won’t be hurt if I lose my job.” They may be right. On another level, however, they indeed owe it to their kids to find a better way to perform and save their jobs – not only for their sake but also for the benefit of succeeding generations.