Saturday, June 30, 2012

Saturday Morning Musings - half lives and New Ways of Working

A few years ago I ran a network of independent consultants. As part of my role, I advised people thinking of joining independent practice. Some were in existing jobs, others had just been retrenched. All thought that their networks and knowledge could be used to generate an impendent income.

In all cases, I advised them to think of their half life. Your existing base, I explained, has a half life of about eighteen months. After that point, your success depends on what you have learned, the new networks you have established, through your own work. As a consultant, you must continually reinvent yourself. You have to recreate through your own efforts those things that your organisation and work once delivered to you automatically. You are now totally responsible for yourself.

This advice was a bit frightening to many. Yet it's very true.

Over the years, I have became increasingly aware of just how fragile the things are on which we base our lives. I have also become increasingly fascinated by the variety and interest of the lives of the people I have known.

This piece on China Daily, Watching History in the Making, deals with the Chinese space program. I quote the start of the piece:

China's Shenzhou-9 soared from the launch pad into history on Saturday. The capsule carrying China's first female astronaut, Liu Yang, and her two male colleagues, Jing Haipeng and Liu Wang, blasted off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China, atop a Long March-2F carrier rocket.

On Monday the spacecraft successfully docked with the Tiangong-1 space lab, a vital step in China's plans to build its own permanently manned three-module space station by 2020, which will be the only space station after the programmed retirement of the International Space Station in 2020.

The ninth "Divine Vessel" adventure is more than just a milestone in space exploration; it marks the rise of China as a space-going nation, just as the Russian and the US programs lose their luster. This can be compared with the world-changing rise of Spain in search of the New World. Spain's dominance of centuries of ocean-going exploration was based on advanced shipbuilding technology and a burning quest for what has been characterized as "God, gold and glory". China now has the technology, but unlike the conquistadors it is not proselytizing and not seeking to steal gold.

The story is written by John Coulter who is described in this way: "The author is an Australian researcher collaborating with Chinese academic and commercial institutions."

Dear me. Its very hard to move from the John I knew when we were both in the Armidale Methodist Youth Fellowship to now. John had come from New England's Northern Rivers to study at the Armidale Teachers College, I was at the University of New England.

We came from different worlds. I was a member of an academic family, John was, I think, the first person in his family to do further study. Here I have written about the role played by the Teachers College and University in bringing higher education to the people of the North who had never had access before. After John left TC we lost contact. Then, just a few years ago, we reestablished contact via the wonders of the on-line world.

I have done, still do and will do, some interesting things, but John makes me look like a pussy cat. His experiences have taken him into worlds that I barely know and then as a tourist or external observer. Now he lives in Beijing. Along the way, John has made mistakes as I have done. But no one could deny the sometimes strange exotica of his life!

In challenging, as I had to, the implicit assumptions held by our potential network members about the continuing value of their previous life and work, I was saying that life is a constant reinvention.

Some of us are lucky in that we have sufficient personal stability including financial stability to sink into what we are now. We can stop evolving and just enjoy. Most of us are not in this position, although many of us think that we are. We have to go on as best we can. We have to recognise our half lives!

A bit over ten years ago, my network developed what we called New Ways of Working. Central to this was the need for staff to recognise that they had to take control of their own lives, that organisations had to recognise the logical outcomes of the approaches that they were adopting in terms of their own people. The challenge was to harmonise, to join, the two. This involved a revolution in people management. We developed processes and associated policy approaches and training to do this. 

We were not able to make it stick properly because we simply lacked the resources to fund the very high  resource demands required to properly develop and market the concept. Yet the need remains.

Consider this.

We talk about the need for management and people flexibility in that most basic area, secure employment. We say that a young person will follow multiple career paths in their lives. Yet we do nothing to address the most basic questions: how might this actually work? How do we create a world that might provide the desired business and personal flexibility? How do we give people a degree of certainty about their own lives in an unstable world?

I suppose that this is the first part of my charge. We have failed.

The second part lies in our failure to address to actually recognise the implications of what we do. I will hold this one to my next post.   


Legal Eagle said...

Jim, I am reading a book at the moment which I think you would really enjoy: Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure by Tim Harford. It has lots of stuff about organisations and problems which arise therein.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, LE. It looks interesting. I have started a reading list of suggestions from commenters!

Augustus Winston said...

Jim – Pardon me but I couldn’t disagree with you more. Let me explain. Too much of what I see and experience in the workforce is about caring for people who are basically there to do a job. I’m not talking about OH&S I’m talking about people who feel that employers must nurse them through their careers. The amount of time and resources spent on propping up underachievers, the bored and disinterested and those with personal problems foisted on the rest of the workforce astounds me.

The amount of committee meetings and good ideas about restructuring, aligning, creating synergies…blah blah blah depresses me. I liken this to the vacuum cleaner salesman who turns up at your door with no product. He’s smartly dressed, considerate, has a high work ethic, happy in his personal and professional life, but he doesn’t make money for his employer. Eventually his employer goes broke and he is on the street.

I would like to expand/rebuke on some of the points raised in your article.
“…. the need for management and people flexibility in that most basic area, secure employment’.
What brings about secure employment is making a profit. Having a business model that works. Not pandering to the whims of those who feel that secure employment is a right of passage regardless of whether or not they add value to their workplace.

“…a young person will follow multiple career paths in their lives. Yet we do nothing to address the most basic questions: how might this actually work?”
Whose job is it to address this most basic question? If someone wants to follow a multiple career path I say more power to them but it is not mine or societies’ obligation to ensure that occurs.

“How do we create a world that might provide the desired business and personal flexibility?”
Why should we? If an employer and employee come to some agreement on flexibility in their work arrangement fine but to impose blanket solutions to all businesses is naïve and counterproductive.

“How do we give people a degree of certainty about their own lives in an unstable world?”.
Might I suggest we make people responsible for their own actions and choices. It’s not up to me, you or us to give people some certainty. It seems that this argument implies that one person’s right is another person’s obligation to provide on demand. And to say that “we have failed”. Have failed what? Where is your evidence? The workplace is more flexible than it’s ever been.

“News Ways of Working” is not a new concept. And much has been written about it. Google it and you will see what I mean. There are many different themes on this but one common factor is that it appears in most cases to be an aspirational document.

I keep hearing about “these difficult times”, “these uncertain times” etc. What a load of rubbish we have never had it so good. It used to be that putting a meal on the table was what mattered. I struggle with this spoilt brat mentality that seems to be encouraged from the moment a person leaves school through to those who stick their hand out for a redundancy and a week later are out job hunting again.

I look forward to your next post.

All the best

Rummuser said...

I have a different perceptive on this. All the young people I know who are now in the work force, and I do know a lot of them, thanks to my son, seem to manage very well with turbulence. They seem to be able to cope with sudden loss of employment and find other things to do soon and do not seem to get stressed. The only exceptions being those who borrow to live a high life style who find it difficult to maintain the monthly payments till they land other employment. I think that they are quite capable of finding their way through by trial and error just as we did when we were young. It does no good for us to worry, just as it did no good for our parents to. I would call it a memory gap.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thank you for your comments, Augustus and Ramana. I will hold of responding until I have finished my next post.

Evan said...

Thanks Jim, looking forward to the next post.
Robert Theobald's Reworking Success is a worthwhile read. The only person I know who has had interesting to say on employment in recent years is Paul Wildman thinking through the concept of nework. He is friends with Bob Dick18

Winton Bates said...

Jim, a comment in the article I have just posted on my blog might also be relevant to your next post.