Meeting Volume vs. Meeting Value

I think I may have telegraphed this week’s topic with that title.

It is no secret that I have been looking at the topics of Process, Meetings and Virtual Offices and the effects that the changing norms for each of these topics have had on each other. As more process is driven into the business organization, the requirement to have more meetings as a part of the review process increases. As people who were once in the office now work from a virtual office instead of the brick and mortar organizational location, they attend more and more meetings “virtually”. Meetings are now really little more than what would once have been described as very large and elaborate conference calls. Against this new backdrop I can’t help but wonder if what was once a vital aspect of corporate culture and progress has become little more than an opportunity to answer emails and texts while partially listening to someone talk on the phone.

I think process has a place in business. It should provide guidelines and directions as to what potential next steps need to be taken in a given situation. This is probably particularly important in those disciplines that deal with crisis situations (such as critical system failures, etc.) or those that deal with repetitive situations where uniformity of approach, response and output are desirable.

I am sure that there are probably others, but for now a think that a little process guideline setting can go a very long way.

I have written in the past that process is invariably input into an organization as a replacement for judgement. The human brain, when properly applied, is a spectacular difference engine. It is capable of correlating seemingly unrelated inputs and creating leaps of faith and imagination that no process could ever hope to replicate. This is what “judgement” is.

And yet we continue to put more structures in place with the purpose of curtailing this capability. We continue to input more process into business as a replacement for judgement, and then react by trying to input even more process when it comes the time for good judgement, and there is none available.

One of the hallmarks of process is the requirement that there must be review meetings to make sure that the process is being followed. Otherwise, how could anyone be sure that the process even existed, let alone was being followed. These are events where everyone associated with the process attends, mainly it seems because the process indicates that everyone associated with the process should attend every process review.

Process review meetings are usually pretty large affairs. As we have increased the application of process to business, we have also increased both the number of meetings, particularly process reviews, and the number of attendees at those meetings.

Virtual Office arrangements have also contributed to the ever-expanding meeting numbers and sizes.

Back in the olden times, when people actually all went to a specific place to work together, it was usually somewhat apparent what everyone was doing and how busy they were. You could see them. You could see what they were doing. Even if you weren’t talking to, or directly interfacing with them you were at least peripherally aware of what was going on.

But now with the proliferation of Virtual Office arrangements, no one can be really sure what any of “those people” who are not in the office are actually doing. This phenomenon is also not lost on the people who are in the virtual office. So, what do the people in the virtual office do?

They attend more meetings.

There can be no doubt regarding someone’s work status when they are always in meetings. There is no question as to what they are doing if their calendar shows that they are attending a meeting.

Meetings have now evolved into a vehicle that allows the once “invisible” virtual office worker to not only be more visible, but to be more visible to many, many people. Since meetings have devolved from face to face events where you could see who you were talking to, to expansive conference calls where just the slides appear in front of you on your personal computer screen, and are addressed by a voice on the telephone, they seem to have grown in size.

That doesn’t mean that they are any more popular, or more useful. They are just more easily attended.

In a face to face meeting, it is readily apparent to everyone else in the meeting is doing. You can look over and see. Are they paying attention? Are they engaged? Are they making eye contact? Are they asking questions? What, if anything are they getting out of the meeting?

This is no longer the case.

We now have an ever-increasing slate of meeting attendees, most of which are no longer even in the same building as the meeting host. We have an increasing number of meetings, attended by an increasing number of people, for an increasing number of reasons. Just because we now have more people at these meetings doesn’t mean they are paying attention. Chances are more than pretty good that they are not.

The only thing that seems to be decreasing when it comes to meetings is the actual interaction that goes on during the meeting.

Since there is usually no one in the room with any particular presenter during a particular meeting, they are no longer presenting “to” anyone. They are presenting “at” them. And since there is no longer any direct ownership associated with the reception of the presented information, there seems to be fewer and fewer questions associated with what has been presented.

Meetings, events that were originally created to enable the two-way exchange of information, seem to have been reduced in importance and capability by the very technology that was designed to further enable the meeting’s reach.

I think that this has been an ongoing phenomenon for a while. I, like I am sure many of you, looked to see who is in virtual attendance at the meetings I attend. I then noted the number of questions that are asked. The number of specific items that are addressed. The number of dates that are selected or identified. The number of action items that have been taken, or given as the case may be. The deliverables that are to be expected. And the number of people who speak.

It seems that the actual number of any of the above listed events occurring during a meeting is going down. Meetings no longer seem to be events where discussion occurs. The give and take dynamic seems to have been lost as meetings have become more process driven and virtually attended. Meetings now seem to be designated times where slides are presented, and the most important aspect of the meeting is to make sure that it ends on time in accordance with the process that is being followed.

Meeting attendance seems to have evolved into some sort of barometer associated with individual activity levels and importance, where actual participation in the meeting, the value added in attending a meeting, has continued to decline.

Meetings used to be recognized as having a specific purpose. Meetings used to be designated as a face to face event. It took people out of their specific environments and put them in a meeting. While they were in the meeting they were not busy or distracted with other activities or demands on their time. There was a goal associated with the meeting.

As we have continued to implement more and more process into the business system we have generated more meetings to track our progress against the process. As we have virtualized our offices, so have we virtualized our meeting attendance. What was once a designated time to exchange ideas and leave with a goal achieved has evolved to a time to call and review charts on-line.

We seem to be meeting more, but getting less achieved at each meeting. In many instances, it seems that instead of having a goal, the meeting is the goal. Instead of challenging each other, due to the size and impersonal nature of virtual meetings, we are presented at. If we have issues or concerns, they are probably best handled off line.

In short, we seem to now attend meetings. We no longer participate in them.

I have yet to hear anyone suggest that they are not attending enough meetings. Perhaps it is time to participate instead of attend, and expect more from meetings. Asking and being asked questions, assigning and accepting the assignment of action items, and challenging as well as being challenged need to be expected parts of all meetings.

It is going to be through these attributes that value is driven back into meetings. The meeting needs to evolve away from its current spectator – presenter arrangement, and back to its original participant structure. Meeting minutes need to be taken at every meeting and distributed. If you are not going to be a participant in the meeting, you should not attend. You can read the minutes.

Reducing the number of spectator attendees, assigning and accepting action items, and delivering meeting minutes afterwards seem to be simple requirements. But meetings should be simple. They should be to exchange ideas and challenge each other. I think that is where the basic value in them lies. Not in the number of them that you have or attend.

Solutions, Costs and Confirmation Bias

It is said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I guess it can also be said that the best solution is also in the eye of the beholder. It probably also depends on who you ask. The problem is that the best solution depends on the relative criteria associated with the issue that requires a solution. It also depends on the lens that each individual looks through when they are trying to craft a solution.

Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist who was most notably remembered for his ideas on the hierarchy of human needs. That in and of itself is pretty cool in my book, but that is not why I am citing him here. He also said:

“if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”

and variants thereof, which is from Maslow’s The Psychology of Science, published in 1966.

And here-in lies the issue.

What seems to occur is that if you are trained as a lawyer, you are taught to view every issue from a legal standpoint. If you are a marketer, you view every issue from a marketing point of view. If you are in finance it is always about money. The view you have of business influences the view you have of issues and their respective best solutions. And so on.

This is absolutely the case for engineers. It seems that if you are an engineer, everything is an engineering problem, and therefore an elegant engineering solution is probably not only possible, it is highly desirable. For engineers, it doesn’t seem to matter what the specific issue criteria are. Topics such as cost and time required take a back seat when it comes to engineers. It always comes back to engineering the best engineering solution.

For those of you (like me) who are not engineers, and who have argued with engineers in the past, you will probably very clearly understand the following. For those of you who have not yet had the opportunity to argue with an engineer, be patient. I am sure that you will get your opportunity to argue with one in the near future.

There is an old saying regarding arguing with engineers. It is so old that no matter how I researched it (two or three variants of searches on Google) I could not find any direct attribution as to the original author. The saying goes:

“Arguing with an engineer is a lot like wrestling with a pig in the mud. After a while you realize that the pig is enjoying it.”

But I have digressed enough. With the possible exception of noting that engineers are usually much more associated with costs than sales. I’ll get to that in a moment.

The point that I am trying to make here in my own clumsy way, is to point out that regardless of what the defined criteria may be regarding an issue’s potential solutions, we all have a bias as to how we would go about creating our best solution. This type of bias has a specific psychological name: confirmation bias.

Between my earlier discussions regarding Maslow, and now confirmation bias, I seem to have taken on quite a psychological bent here.

Shahram Heshmat (Ph.D.) in his blog states confirmation bias occurs when we have formed a view on a topic, we embrace information that confirms that view while ignoring, or rejecting, information that casts doubt on it. Confirmation bias suggests that we don’t perceive circumstances objectively. We pick out those bits of data that make us feel good because they confirm our prejudices. Thus, we may become prisoners of our assumptions. (https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/science-choice/201504/what-is-confirmation-bias).

I brought this idea up to an engineering friend of mine. He said every problem should be viewed as an engineering problem, and started arguing with me again. Having just cleaned the mud off from the last time, I didn’t engage.

Confirmation bias is an interesting topic when it comes to management, leadership, and issues. This is especially true when it comes to looking at two very important aspects of any business: sales and costs. I will hedge my comments here with the qualifier “for the most part” in that there are definitely exceptions to every generalization. But for argument’s sake, I will go ahead and generalize a little.

When it comes to setting sales targets, who sets the goals?

Those of you that said sales are wrong.

Management usually sets the sales goals. They ask for bottoms up forecasts and expectations from the sales teams, which they will usually review and find lacking in that they do not meet the financial and or growth expectations for the company. They will then ratchet up the targets to be more in line with the company’s needs and requirements, and issue them to the sales team to achieve.

The confirmation bias here is that management believes and expects that sales will provide them with a lower set of sales forecast targets because it provides the sales team a higher probability of achieving those targets. When sale provides a forecast, regardless of its veracity, that is lower than management expectations, this bias is confirmed.

I really don’t think I have ever been part of an organization where the sales team ever provided a sales forecast which was greater than management expectations. Perhaps my own confirmation bias is that management sales expectations will always exceed the sales team’s expectations, regardless of the market conditions.

On the other side of the spectrum lie costs. When it comes to setting costs, it is usually engineers that set them. While there is usually a similar process of setting up costs and budgets associated with products and services (I am not going to look at specific disciplines or functional groups here, just the costs associated with deliverable products and services) where the cost groups (usually containing at least some engineers) are consulted regarding their input into the costing model.

Herein is where the processes begin to diverge. Management has the ability and bias to step in and alter or impose their sales demands on the sales experts, but does not have nearly the same inclination to alter or impose their wills on the cost experts and groups.

Their confirmation bias is that the cost groups are doing their very best to keep costs low, even though the cost group has the same rationale as the sales group when it comes to setting targets. Higher cost targets for the cost group are obviously much easier to achieve than lower cost targets.

The resulting higher costs drive higher prices and a sales team that is invariably told to “sell value, not price”.

This may have been an acceptable mantra when there was discernable value (and price) differences associated with products and services. In some instances, there still may be, but the race to the bottom regarding minimally acceptable product quality and service levels at the lowest compliant price seems to have mitigated all but the basic pricing and functionality topics as differentiators.

Customers do not particularly care what a supplier of products or services costs are. They care about the supplier’s price. And quality. In that order.

A colleague of mine mentioned that the incentives and commissions associated with sales incite the striving behaviors associated with good sales teams, while there is no similar incentive plan in place to incite a similar striving approach to reducing cost budgets for the cost groups. Sales teams make at least partial commissions, proportional to their sales target achievement, even if they don’t fully meet their sales objectives.

Perhaps it is time to rethink the compensation plans associated with the cost teams so that they more accurately reflect the need for continued cost budget reduction instead of the current cost budget achievement structure.

Nominally the market sets the price for a good or service. The market is made up of customers. Even Apple with its ubiquitous iPhone faces market challenges from the likes of Samsung, LG and other smartphone producers. If Apple raises its price too high they risk losing share, and profitability to competitors.

Apple is immensely profitable. They are also a veritable tyrannosaur when it comes to working and controlling their costs. If you don’t believe me, try becoming one of their suppliers and selling them something. I have been a part of organizations that have done this. It can be a challenge, to put it politely.

It would seem that Apple’s culture may have evolved out beyond the confirmation bias dichotomy associated with sales and costs to the point where they continue to challenge themselves with respect to their cost structures, and engineering solutions. They seem to have created a market cache, expectation and demand that may have enabled them to restructure their cost model focus in order to maximize their profits.

That is truly speculation on my part, but it is a theory that would seem to be supported by the empirical observations of them in the market.

Companies that are looking to maximize their profit potential probably need to do a little internal analysis to understand their own costing processes and capabilities. There are many that are still looking at them from a bottom up, confirmation bias based point of view. Apple has recognized that their costs and their product price really have very little relationship and should be treated as almost totally unrelated items.

This approach would allow product and service providers to focus on their sales strategies and their costs strategies in separate, but similar ways. It would seem that the best solution has proven to be to engineer your products and services, not your costs, and instead to treat your costs with the same type of aggressive objective setting that you treat your sales.

Don’t Do Your Job

Although we all like to think of ourselves and our careers as fully and totally unique, I think there are some experiences that we have all probably gone through, to one degree or another, that are probably somewhat similar. It is how we react and respond to these experiences that creates the differences in careers and career trajectories. As I think back on all the roles I have had in the same organizations as well as in new or different ones, I think of one thing that pretty much all of them had in common. They all had a specific job description.

They didn’t all have the same job description. Each role had a somewhat different or unique job description. It was usually that job description that helped the then hiring manager define the combination of experiences, traits and capabilities that led them to choosing me to fill that role. I think it’s probably the same for just about everyone else who doesn’t have some sort of genetic or familial tie to also trade upon in the organizational world.

I think we can all remember those first days in a new position (any new position) where the first thing you do is try to ascertain both what is expected of us and what we will be reviewed and rated on. This is only natural. We all want to do what is expected of us. We want to have objectives to work toward and be measured against. We like to know what we have to do to get ahead.

We then dig in and go on our merry way in trying to achieve or even possibly exceed our goals.

The end.

When review time comes around we are then tasked with the objective of trying to define whether we exceeded our goals in such a way as to merit an excellent “super-star” status (or some such similar ordinal ranking), or just merely a good, exceeded what was expected. Was it really an “exceed” or was it just in reality a “strong achieved”. Did the objective get achieved, or could it in reality have been done better.

It seemed what was once a defined and specific object has now turned out to be open to some interpretation, as it were.

Then there is the ever-present worry regarding whether the ratings that are being discussed are a true reflection of actual individual performance, or is it influenced by, or the result of the organization’s requirement that only certain percentages of the organizational populace can and must fall into certain ranking categories. The dreaded forced rank stacking.

This sort of ranking has been put in place to make sure that managers don’t neglect their responsibility to differentiate employee performance. Instead of having real, and sometimes difficult discussions with their individual team members, some managers have been known to give everyone a “good” rating, regardless of organizational performance.

It’s sort of like this grade inflation thing that everyone seems to be talking about in schools these days. I still don’t understand how you can do better than a 4.0 (straight “A’s”), but apparently, it is possible.

This employee ranking and review is also a good thing in that even outstanding organizations probably have some team members that could benefit in some areas by increased focus, and poorly performing organizations probably have some team members that have performed above and beyond the call.

What this has all led up to, and the point I am trying to make is that when you follow a job description and just do your job, it becomes a question of relative ratings when it comes to reviewing your performance. There is a certain amount of qualitative that inevitably seeps into the quantitative review.

Contrary to what you might think, in this age where the “process” has taken on ever increasing importance, where you would probably think that as a result the quantitative aspects of performance review would be at their strongest, the qualitative aspect of reviews has probably increased.

Think about that for a minute.

As processes continue to ever more granularly define roles, jobs, and their inputs and outputs, the ability to differentiate performance among similarly defined jobs, at least at the high level, becomes smaller. It can almost come down to interpersonal and soft skills as one of the differentiators between similar performers.

Now think back for a minute about that last statement. Have you ever seen that occur?

So, what do you do when just doing your job leaves you open to these types of performance interpretation vagaries?

Don’t just do your job.

Just doing your job is the easy thing to do. You have a job description. You were probably selected because your experiences and abilities matched that job description in such a way that there was a perceived high probability that you would be able to perform the tasks that were outlined in that job description. That was what made you uniquely qualified to fill that role. You were the chosen one.

Don’t flatter yourself.

There are a significant number of people in any organization that can perform any and each specific role in that organization. You may have been selected for that new role, but that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t anyone else around that could do it. Chances are that there were several candidates for that role, and from them they selected you.

I have had it explained to me in a couple of ways, that I will share. The first was that in business, all candidates that make it to the interview portion of the job search are judged to have all the requisite technical and experiential capabilities for the role. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be called in to talk. All candidates enter the interview process as relative equals. It will be their soft skills demonstrated in the interview(s) that differentiate them.

Remember what I said about soft skills and reviews earlier?

The next is that if we each are truly “one in a million” as the old saying goes, and there is in fact close to eight billion people on the planet, then there are at least eight thousand people that are like each one of us.

There are a lot of people that can fulfill each and every job description.

I guess the point I am making is that the job description is the table stakes in the game. It is going to be what you do above and beyond that job description that sets you apart. Performing against only that job description, regardless of how well you feel you have, or even how well you may be able to demonstrate you have, still puts you somewhere on the “achieved” continuum when it comes review time. You are demonstrating that this is the role or job that you can do and no more.

Regardless of how well things were going, every role that I have been in had facets or areas that could be improved. Sometimes these opportunities for improvement were within my defined responsibility, but many times they were not.

This is where for leaders; the process focus must change. There must always be a bigger picture view that the leader must hold, and be able to rationalize against the more detailed and specific needs of the business. It is not enough to just do your job and fulfill a job description.

You have to recognize on the larger level what needs to be done, and then chart the way to do it. What needs to be done may not reside in your job description. It may not be within the realm of your responsibilities. It may not be immediately obvious and may take time to identify.

The issues that are causing the business issues will however become clearer for you as you perform the tasks that are expected of you. It will not be so much the identification of these business issues that will set you apart. Chances are that the issues are already very well known. It will be identifying the causes of these issues, and the resulting solution that you create (and potentially implement) that will be what sets you apart. Remember what I said earlier about how we react and respond to these issues will define careers and career trajectories?

Again, in short, it will not be doing what is expected of you via fulfilling your job description and objectives that will enable you to continue to move forward. It will be doing the unexpected. It will be questioning some of the basic business assumptions that “everybody knows are correct” and creating a new model. It will be questioning and causing issues as people are challenged by you to move out of their comfort zones.

It will be looking at old problems through the new eyes of someone coming into a new position. New employees in new positions are not yet beholding to the status quo. They have not yet become stakeholders in the existing process. It will be those who are not content to do their job that see the answers to questions, many of which may not have even been asked, and identify the new ways to move forward.

It is not how well you do what you are supposed to do that sets you apart from everyone else. It will be how well you do what you are not expected to do that will differentiate you. It will be important to don’t do just your job if you are to get ahead.

Automation

Automation used to be a word that was welcomed into business. Back then we were a disconnected, manual world. If you needed to get more things done, or if you were growing, you had to go get more people to help meet the demand. There was a time that I remember seeing competitors driving advertising trucks around the outside of our business campus in an effort to lure our employees away to meet their growing demands.

But times have changed.

It’s fashionable to discuss off-shoring and out-sourcing when companies now reduce their staffs, but the force that is now causing the largest reduction in demand for employees is automation.

It has been easy to look at China, or any other relatively low wage country and discuss the economics associated with moving production and manufacturing to those locations. It is a very easy way to reduce the cost of labor associated with that production. I have discussed it in the past. We all can probably name several companies that we are aware of that have taken advantage of the economic model.

But do you know what is even cheaper than paying people less in low cost countries to manufacture goods that used to be manufactured in relatively higher wage countries? It’s really a simple answer.

Not paying anyone to manufacture your products.

From 2007 to 2013 manufacturing in the US actually grew about 2.2% per year (~17.6% total), however the number of manufacturing jobs fell. Approximately 13% of those job losses came from off-shoring. More than 87% of the job losses came from automation. (http://fortune.com/2016/11/08/china-automation-jobs/)

Now let’s fast forward only a few years. When you hear the word “automation” it can strike fear in the heart of anyone who is currently working. The active word in that last sentence is “currently”. And it is not restricted to just those in production or manufacturing based positions.
As I have also noted in the past, business and organizations continually try to apply those successful approaches used in the reduction of costs associated with production and manufacturing, to other disciplines in the organization. An example of this is where once only manufacturing were outsourced, so now are other disciplines such as finance, accounting and human resources.

So how does this trend affect automation?

The same rules of organizational cost reduction are going to apply. PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) has recently released a study that is predicting that up to 38% of all jobs in the US are at risk for being replaced by automation in the next 15 years. These are not just manufacturing sector positions. They also predict the finance, transportation, education, and food services sectors are also going to be significantly affected. (http://money.cnn.com/2017/03/24/technology/robots-jobs-us-workers-uk/index.html)

In case you missed it, that means that automation isn’t just for manufacturing anymore.

Just about any position that has any sort of a repetitive nature to it can and probably will be a candidate for automation. It is predicted that many of the first positions to go will be those focused on the consumer sector. The continued automation of teller based functions will further reduce the number of people in your local bank. Baristas at the local coffee house may also be endangered. How repetitive is it to take an order for a fixed set of options and then write a name on a plastic cup? If there are relatively similar activities being repeated, the function will be looked at for automation.

Look what Amazon has done to the previously brick and mortar based appliance product purchase process. What was once a trip to the store where you dealt with sales associates and waited downstairs for them to bring out your purchase, is now an online search for the best price, the tapping of a few keys and then answering the door when they deliver your purchase, in some instances in as little as one day.

Of course these trends will be somewhat balanced by many consumer’s distaste for dealing with systems instead of people. But even that is changing. Each new generation of consumer has less and less of a tie to the human touch and is more technically savvy than the previous. And even the preceding generations learn the value, simplicity, speed and most importantly the economic benefit to their own personal finances of the new automated model.

Amazon has been successful not only because they have worked to improve the shopping and purchase experiences. They have been successful because they have also reduced the customer’s cost and simplified their search. No more driving around, visiting stores and malls and looking for a sales clerk to answer your questions and wondering if what you want is still in stock.

If you don’t believe that this is the case, the current number of retail stores that have announced they will be closing starting in 2017 now stands at over 4,500. http://clark.com/shopping-retail/major-retailers-closing-2017/.

These are also concepts that will be applied to organizations and business to business commerce.

However, as noted above, I think they will be primarily focused in internal corporate activities, instead of any functions that deal with corporate customers. I have already noted customers distaste for not being able to deal with and have direct human interaction when it comes to their requests for support when they have an issue. I think we could expect an even stronger reaction if corporate customers were asked to interface with a machine for their complex equipment and service needs.

I would also expect even this type of resistance to reduce in the future as each successively tech comfortable generation matriculates up through management to positions with purchase decision responsibility.

The drive for automation within corporations and businesses has started with the internal functions. Just as the automation of spreadsheets reduced the need for the number of accountants in business, so is the drive for on-line processes, tools and tracking systems reducing the need for the number of other types of support staff.

As processes continue to be implemented and refined, and as tools for the tracking of work continue to expand and go on-line, the business environment becomes ripe for automation. Sales opportunities are now tracked from suspect to prospect to bid to contract to implementation in on-line tools. How much data resides in that tool that can be automatically reviewed, with the generation of sales forecasts, booking reports and expected profitability projections made available with just a few key strokes.

Costs are likewise automatically tracked via on-line time charging and the utilization of already automated production and shipping capabilities. How much easier will it then be to generate booking, shipping, revenue and profitability reports.

People in these support and accounting roles who have up to now been providing these periodic reports and functions need to be aware of which way the automated wind is blowing.

So where does that leave us?

First I think everyone is going to need to “up their game”. People are going to have to get reacquainted with the risk-reward scenario. The relatively safer “support” type roles are going to get squeezed almost out of existence. You are going to have to be able to “do” something, not just support the people who actually are doing something.

It is always the “new” or next great thing that is prized in business. People will have to relearn that following the past methods of success will not now provide them with success. They will have to get used to looking forward and trying to predict what will be needed and then trying to move in that direction instead of relying on what was once needed. The creative spark will need to be reignited in all workers as those who wait to be told what they need to do will probably be automated (or off-shored) out of their current roles.

Everyone will truly have to get used to and good at selling. Selling their products, their services, their vision, their ideas, their value, their future. It will probably not be good enough to align with and support someone else who is able to do this.

Everyone will also have to get good at delivering. Customers will want their solutions in ever shorter time frames. Look at how Amazon is driving toward same day – immediate gratification – delivery for their customers. Customers will be defined as those that use your particular service or value. That means that they can be internal to the organization, external to the organization or both.

And value will not be a report. It will have to be more along the lines of an idea, or the fulfillment of an idea.

Automation is coming. The capability to automate will only continue to expand. However, it will be the ability to generate ideas and conceptualize that will be the most difficult to automate (if ever) and will hence increase in value. The person who can think of new ways of doing things will increase in value.

It will also be the person who can actually deliver and implement the products, services and processes of the future who will also be in demand. As I said, it will be those that are able to “do” things as opposed to those that enable others to “do” things that will be in demand in the future.

I guess it has always been that way to some extent, except with automation the gulf between the two will become that much greater.

Self Help

“I love those automated attendants, recorded voice answering machines and the endless opportunities I get to push my own buttons whenever I make a call looking for someone to help me.”

Said no one, ever.

It has been well documented for some time that customer satisfaction is adversely affected whenever a customer has to deal with or must navigate through one of those automated phone answering systems. Normally when they call, they have a question, or need help with an issue. They want to talk to someone. Otherwise they would have just sent a text. Or accessed the company web page and sent an email. But no, they had hit a threshold where this type of technological linking was not good enough. They wanted to ask another human being to help them. And yet despite their need for support and desire for human interaction, they are denied.

The problem is so rampant that there are now commercials by certain companies appearing on network television espousing the point that when you call them, you actually get to speak to “a real human being”. Some companies now feel that it is now a competitive differentiator that they will have a real live human being answer your call and that you actually get to talk to them when you call them. It is interesting how quickly times changed initially to the automated systems, and then just how quickly they are changing back. There can only be one reason for this service technology whiplash.

Money.

Companies originally saw these systems as opportunities to reduce the cost of support by in effect making the customer responsible for some of their own issue or support request. They would need fewer support people if they could make customers work a little bit in the identification of the type of issue they were calling about. Fewer people needed for support equated to reducing the cost of support. This is always thought of as a good idea for the bottom line.

What they learned was that for the most part customers didn’t really like this type of automated system. It may have saved the company money in their support costs, but it made their customers unhappy. And unhappy customers were not as likely to buy more equipment or products from the vendor that made them use an automated attendant system when they needed support. This is normally thought of as a bad thing for both the top and bottom lines.

Companies learned, or actually relearned the old adage:
“Penny wise and Dollar foolish”. (It is actually “Penny wise and Pound Foolish”, but, I live in Texas, USA, so I have taken a foreign exchange liberty here.)

They may have saved a few pennies with the automated systems which enabled them to reduce the number of people required to deliver customer support, but it ended up costing them many dollars in lost sales from their customers who were not particularly impressed or happy with the support that they got.

Now we have companies advertising that they are using people to answer their service calls, just like everyone used to do thirty plus years ago. Go figure.

While it is interesting to discuss the migratory aspects of the types of customer service and support, I think it might be time to discuss a group that may not have fared so well in the evolution of support: The Employee.

It is no secret that companies must spend significant amounts of money, time and effort supporting their own communications and networking needs. Every company has a corporate network. Every employee has a Personal Computer. The employee productivity gains that have been created are enormous and well documented.

It has also put an enormous strain on and demand for corporate Information Technologies (IT) teams for support by these employees. Security and the ability to keep hackers out has almost become an industry unto itself. Requests for networking, applications, upgrades and support continue to grow as the complexity of what is required by the corporate knowledge worker increases. In the age of Virtual Offices (VOs) the demand to deliver these services to locations outside the classic organization structure or office has boomed.

And what is the diametrically opposed force that companies must deal with in this time of burgeoning employee technology demands?

The desire to reduce, or at least limit the growth of Information Technology support costs.

Companies are facing explosive demand for new and innovative Information Technologies applications and services by their own people in order to continue to generate ever better productivity, but are having to temper responding to this demand due to a desire to keep their IT costs in check. There are many innovative ways that companies are dealing with this issue, and unfortunately there are also several ways that may not be considered quite so innovative.

When I was in college, I once had a physics professor who was preparing us for a rather extensive round of midterm exams. He informed us that once the test was passed out that there would be no talking. He also said that if we had any questions we would be encouraged to raise our hands. He noted that by raising our hands above our heads, blood would obey the laws of gravity and flow out of our arms. This would in turn increase blood flow to our brains. This in turn would cause an increase our brain activities in the firing of synapses and neuron transmission, which in turn should enable us to solve the problem on our own.

I am not sure, but I think the gist of his comments were that we were not to ask him questions, because it was a test.

I am concerned that many of the IT leadership of many businesses today seem to ascribe to the same school of thought when it comes to staff support. If you don’t believe me, try and find the internal organizational phone number to call and actually talk to someone real time if you need IT help with you technology based connections. Emails and instant messaging are by far the preferred mode of communication if you need help. And if by some chance you do locate the telephone number for IT support, I think you have guessed it: You get to deal with the corporate IT automated attendant.

It seems that what was once done for you as a valued productivity asset of the company, when it comes to new applications and upgrades, are now being pushed down to you to try and do on your own. The new definition for employee service seems to include unlimited numbers of IT based emails with directions on how to update, upload and upscope the many new, mandatory or desirable IT capabilities.

Sort of a raise your hand and hope for increased blood flow to the brain when it comes to IT support.

I think part of the reason for this internal support shift is that the cost of IT and support is a very identifiable amount. There are direct numbers, budgets and staff associated with it. In budgeting and costing terms, it has become a very identifiable target. There is a defined amount being spent and as such becomes a prime candidate for cost reduction.

The issue that arises is that for every identified and quantified dollar that is saved from the IT budget, there is not a specific quantifiable amount of incremental time or lost productivity that can be identified or captured by the employees, as they are forced to pick up the slack. The measurable IT budget is reduced and a real dollar cost reduction is recognized. But it is far more difficult to measure how much is “spent” when all the additional hours that all the individual employees must now spend completing these IT tasks are totaled up.

An extra hour or two, here and there spent by each employee doing what was once an IT task gets lost in the count. The employee’s work load doesn’t decrease to accommodate this new additional effort. The deadlines aren’t extended because there is now more to do. It’s just another issue to deal with.

Just like happy customers are known to buy more products, happy employees are known to be more productive. However, employee productivity is something of a subjective measurement where IT budgets are very quantitative. This leaves the decision in the realm of reducing a measurable budget, known quantity at the risk of reducing an unmeasurable, unknown employee satisfaction and productivity quantity.

When the cost of cost reductions is reviewed in such a manner, it is best to expect continued pressure on corporate IT budgets for the foreseeable future.

I think it is probably safe to assume that there will be a point where there is a recognition of the value of supporting employee satisfaction and productivity via increased, direct tool and technology support. My guess is that corporations are probably getting close to that tipping point.

When bellwether companies such as Yahoo! and IBM have already decided that there is in fact greater value to the company when employees interact with each other in the office as opposed to the convenience of working via Virtual Offices, it probably isn’t too far a leap to think that they will also recognize that the small, but highly visible investment in the IT resources to support them is also probably money very well spent.

The Five Stages of Change…..and Grief

A friend of mine asked me to look over a document that he was going to issue to his most prized customers. He wanted to prepare them on how he saw things were going to change in the coming (if not already here) digital world. I was flattered. Normally the only people who ask for my opinion are some of my myopic golf buddies when they are having trouble reading a putt. My friend wanted to make sure that his message was not viewed as just another document to be scanned and thrown on the pile of other documents his customers read. As usual, this got me to thinking about how we can relate to and react to the now inevitably changing processes, as they continue to barrel down the tracks at us.

As is also usual I first went out and looked around to see if there was anything written on the five stages of change. I wanted to know if I was capturing some original thought or possibly just rehashing something that someone else had already said. It was with only a modicum of surprise that I did indeed fine information on the five stages of change. According to the article I found, the five stages of change are: precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance. I correctly assumed that anything that includes both precontemplation and contemplation in its description is somehow academic in nature and not fully business oriented. You too can see this at: http://www.cpe.vt.edu/gttc/presentations/8eStagesofChange.pdf

I have never really encountered “precontemplation” in a business environment, but I will now be on the lookout for it. Most of the time I am both surprised and thrilled if I run across anything that even resembles contemplation, let alone precontemplation. For those of you wondering what precontemplation is, it is the point in time when people are not even considering (contemplating) change.

I had to look it up because I didn’t know either.

The five stages of change that I want to deal with are a little more basic and deal more with the human factor associated with change. They are, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Some of you may recognize these five stages of change also as the five stages of Grief. Since there is very little in business these days that causes more grief than change, I think that they are most appropriate.

I have had the opportunity to be a change agent in several different roles for several different organizations. I have found that the two primary reasons that businesses need to change are: The business is doing well and it is anticipated that the market will require the change, or, the business is not doing well and the change is required by the market if the performance is to improve.

Pretty simple, huh?

In either instance, you are almost guaranteed that the universal initial response by those who must change will be denial. They are already doing everything in accordance with both their objectives and the existing process. It will be others who must change, not them. And they are usually at least partially correct. However, I have found that the proper response to such a denial is that others will also change, not just them.

Denial can be one of the longest lasting stages of the change process. Too many times change is seen as an invalidation of what the business has been doing. This not and should not be the case. All business environments are dynamic. Change is an inevitable requirement.

I promised myself that I would try to avoid platitudes of that type. I guess I will continue to try and promise myself that after that last statement.

The next stage in the change process is anger. If denial is not the longest stage of the process, then anger is. When people are made to do something that they don’t particularly want to do, they do tend to get emotional and this usually translates to a little angry. They can also perhaps be a little angry that they were not the ones that recognized the necessity of the change, or that they were not the ones that proposed the change, or even perhaps that the change occurred on a Tuesday as opposed to a Monday or Wednesday.

The idea here is that the response to change can be emotional. And the first rule of dealing with an emotional response is to not get emotional in return. Understand why the response is present, but don’t slow down or alter course.

So now everyone is denying that a change is necessary, and they are now also angry that you are not paying attention to their denials. What’s next?

Bargaining is next. This is an interesting stage in the change-grief process. It denotes the understanding that some change is going to occur. It is also the beginning of the internalization process for that change. It is the methodology by which people begin to take ownership of the change.

It is always good to engage in the change-bargaining process because no one has a corner on the market for good ideas. You never know where the next one will be coming from. Listening to the team that is preparing to change is always beneficial. There is one thing to remember though:

It is not a negotiation.

There may be pieces and parts of proposals that can and should be incorporated into the change process, and there may be those that may best be ignored. Most organizations will not change of their own volition. It takes someone to change them. And it will take will power to overcome the inherent resistance to the desired change.

Once the bargaining is done, along with all the associated renting of clothing, gnashing of teeth and general keening, there is usually a quiet period. This is where the depressing truth of the pending change sets in. It’s going to happen. People will have to change the way they do things. There may even be pending changes to the people themselves.

It will be up to the change leadership to do two primary activities during this period. The first is to make sure that the period between the acknowledgement of the pending change and the actual implementation of it is minimized. It is up to the leader to keep this stage of the change process as short as possible. They need to minimize the length of this negative effect.

The second is to continuously communicate with the changing team during this time and process. Over communicate. Be visible. The change leader must assume the responsibility for moving the team, not just the process, forward at this time.

Finally, if everything has gone right, and the implementation of the change has begun, there should be the final stage of the change-grief process: acceptance. And as with almost every other stage in this process, there will be varying levels of acceptance. Some will embrace the change and move forward with it, and some will begrudgingly go along with it. The only way to make sure that all are on the same page is to take one more additional step.

Review.

What was the reason for the change? Why was everyone put through the grief inducing process? What was the outcome of the system before the change as opposed to the now current outcomes?

In short, show the team what the benefit of the change was. Look at the business performance before and after. Document what is was before, what the implemented change was and what the performance is after.

The idea is to close off the change-grief process with a review that (hopefully) shows that all the effort was in fact worth it to the business. Having a final review of what was the situation and performance before the change and what the new baseline is after the change closes the loop with the team that has gone through the change.

There is no doubt that change induces grief into an organization. Even the prospect of change can and will generate grief. I think that organizations might have a little better response to change if they focused more on dealing with it as grief instead of just change. While the idea of change has its own connotations, it does not engender the appropriate management response. Change is almost an intellectual concept.

Dealing with the organizational upset generated by change from a grief point of view enables management to understand more of the human response and emotion that is created. After all we like to think of change on organizational levels, but it is really on the human level within the organization that the meaningful changes actually take place.

Off-Shoring

One of the hottest debates going on in business these days is the debate regarding what work, if any, will stay in the supposedly high cost country and what work will be sent to the supposedly low cost country. This is the function that is usually referred to as off-shoring. There are many factors that seem to be taken into account with this decision, but there are also several factors that don’t seem to be included. It appears that the only major factor that companies really consider in the off-shoring decision is the relative wage differential of the existent workforce versus the prospective workforce. Having gone through, worked with and reviewed some of these types of working environments, it has made me wonder if there are other factors that should be reviewed before these decisions get made.

The bottom line in all of these out-sourcing or off-shoring decisions seems to be doing what is perceived as best for the organization’s bottom line. This is also somewhat subjective depending on which of the shores you find yourself. The idea is to save money. All other factors will be dealt with or considered in due course. And one of the best ways to save money is to try and reduce the cost of your labor associated with the function in question. Are there other people in other places in the world that can and will be paid less per person to do the work in question?

On the surface the answer to this question is almost always “yes”.

If the only factor to be considered is the wage rate paid to the resources doing the work, then the decision is always an easy one.

But things are usually never that easy.

The first jobs to experience this sort of movement were the production and manufacturing jobs. Production lines and repetitive functions were sent elsewhere. Business cases were built containing the incremental cost of building a new factory as well as the reduced cost associated with the low-cost labor to staff it. Questions were answered about how long the pay-back was on the needed off-shoring investment and decisions were made. Factories and production lines were built in these low-cost countries. The production of simple and basic products was then moved.

I am not going to continue too far down this line of thinking because we all know where it goes. More and more, and more production functions have been off-shored. These are finite directed positions that perform repetitive processes at a fixed rate, to create large numbers of similar products.

Let’s now fast forward a few decades.

Almost every business function is now subject to the discussions associated with which shore it should be on. One of the biggest issues associated with any proposed move now, is that the work being considered is usually more variable than the production work of the past, and it is more subjective in its execution.

While a production line will move along at a fixed rate enabling all participants in the production line to work at the same rate, the same cannot, and should not be said about knowledge based disciplines. Do all people who write software code, or design hardware do it at the same speed? Are they all equally proficient at their respective disciplines? Are all accountants or financial managers at the same competency level?

On an even more basic level, do all locations have the same financial drives, work culture, language fluency and associated work styles when it comes to delivering the required work products? Remember now we are discussing complex or service oriented work products, not physical products such as consumer electronics or other real goods.

It is no longer just a question of the difference in the hourly wage rates, or salaries of the teams involved. The question now moves into the somewhat murkier areas of work force effectiveness and work force efficiency.

Efficiency and effectiveness refers to how many resources it takes in each relative location to accomplish the desired work, and how long it takes them to do it. Too many times it is assumed that one workforce is as proficient as another. This might have been the case on the fixed speed production line (after appropriate training and time to come up to speed), but is it correct to apply these same principles to non-production line types of work and service products?

This is neither a case for or against the off-shoring and cost reduction push. These are tidal type forces that will continue until some sort of economic equilibrium is reached. This is more a question of identifying, accepting and analyzing the total costs associated with each proposed workforce location decision.

Just because it takes ten highly motivated, well educated, relatively expensive resources in one global location to deliver a satisfactory work product, does not mean that it will take the same number of similarly motivated, similarly educated relatively inexpensive resources in another global location to deliver the same work product in the same amount of time.

Research has shown that it usually takes more people, and more time for the lower waged (and supposedly lower cost) locations to accomplish the same tasks and deliver the same work products. (https://cs.stanford.edu/people/eroberts/cs181/projects/offshoring/failures.html)

What this means is that it is not just the relative cost of each hour of work that must be examined in the off-shoring decision. It is also the relative number of hours of work that are required at each location that must be included in the equation. That means that the relative number of people (spending hours on the work) and the length of time that they spend (how many hours) should also be taken into account.

If it takes five people one month to do the work at a higher cost location, and it takes eight people two months to do the work at lower cost location, the resulting total cost of work delivery may yield a very different work location decision that just the straight hourly wage comparison that has been so popular in the past.

On the other hand, it should be noted that if the relative wage differential is great enough, even these types of labor inefficiencies can be overcome.

I try to focus on real and definable costs. The relative number of hours used and the relative wage rates at each location in question are either known or can be estimated with some relative amount of accuracy. These are usually real numbers that deliver real relative costs. As always there are other factors that can be associated with the off-shoring question. I’ll list a few of them, but as they are less quantifiable in their effect, it will be difficult assign an actual value to them.

Are there incremental but hard to quantify costs associated with the increased complexity of the operations, IT, infrastructure and security associated with an off-shoring. In today’s hacker infested world one would think that adding facilities and resources in other global locations would have an effect on these types of costs. However, it is hard to add them into any comparative costing discussion.

There are considerations that should be observed regarding the relative quality of the work product generated in each location. Are there bugs in the software? Are there differences in the way customer support is provided that affect customer satisfaction? These are difficult issues to quantify, at least prior to having to try and resolve them.

Communications will also become more difficult. What was once a real-time conversation may now become a series of emails, depending on the relative time zones associated with the differing locations, potentially across multiple days. The overall speed at which things are accomplished, or issues resolved can become problematic.

The cost of management should also be expected to increase as well. At least initially, expatriate management will need to be present at the off-shore site to setup the new functions and oversee them. Depending on how things progress, their presence could extend over a significant period.

For those of you not familiar with the expatriate role, these people are expensive. They are normally paid at the “high cost” location salary rate, and their expenses for staying in the low-cost location are usually also covered by the company. They are in effect paid close to twice for the inconvenience of living in one location and working in another.

The final “soft” cost that I will address is the public perception of moving jobs out of their current location and to another, as well as the potential exposure associated with future governmental regulations associated with this activity. Market movements associated with drives to “Buy Local” and legislation designed to increase the expense associated with off-shoring are gaining traction in multiple locations.

It is easy to see why low wage rates in other parts of the world may be attractive. As companies continue to become more virtual in their natures’ Virtual Office can mean an office anywhere on the globe. The initial success and savings generated by moving the simple and repetitive off-shore has given rise to the desire to move more and more complex and unique functions as well. This complexity and uniqueness affects the efficiency and effectiveness of the model.

While the relative wage differential will continue to be an important factor in the off-shoring equation, other factors will continue to increase in importance as the off-shoring drive continues to move up the business complexity curve.

The End of Maintenance

Service used to be a distinguishing characteristic for a company. You wanted to be known as a great service company. If you were good at it, service was also a pretty profitable way to augment both the top and bottom lines. But that was before customers figured out that they could make do with lower levels of service. Excellent service is now too expensive, and barely acceptable service has become good enough. There are many forces at work in the market, and I think they all point toward the end of maintenance as a viable service or business.

Almost all products come with some sort of maintenance agreement to start. It is normally referred to as the manufacturer’s warranty. This is the period of time after the purchase of the product that the manufacturer guarantees that the product will work. The length of this guarantee can vary and depends on several things.

The age of the technology involved, the stability of the market, the relative dominance of the consumer or the vendor in the market, and the speed with which new technologies or substitutable products are introduced, can all be factors effecting the length of the product guarantee.

Automobiles are a baseline technology that has been around for more than one hundred years. They may be becoming more complex, but their basic components still include engines, seats, wheels and the other basics. One manufacturer’s automobile is readily substitutable for another. Warranties on cars can now extend up to ten years. Manufacturers are now guaranteeing car operation for a decade. Research shows that few people actually own a specific car that long but the guarantee is there.

On the other end of the spectrum telephone companies used to require a twenty-year support guaranty from its suppliers for the products they purchased. It wasn’t initially expected that technology would change at the rate it has evolved to. High reliability and long product life cycles were the norm. Now the carriers can no longer pass along the cost of that type of product and its support to the consumers, so now much shorter product support guarantees are acceptable.

Apple has decided that the warranty on the iPhone will be one year. They have also decided that it is a limited warranty, meaning only certain service repairs will be covered, and that they may repair or replace a broken iPhone with potentially refurbished model or parts. They are Apple. If you want one of their iPhones this is what you get.

So, if the article is about maintenance, why am I spending so much time talking about warranty?

The answer is simple. Once your product comes off warranty you have basically two options for service: You can get a maintenance or extended warranty type contract, or you can hope that your product won’t break, and if it does break you can hope there will be someone out there that can fix it.

Or the third alternative will be that you can go out and buy another, or the next generation of product and then make use of the new product warranty.

I think it is safe to say that business used to be all about the best service possible. It then modified that perception and position by saying it was all about the best service at a reasonable price. It seems it is now more along the lines of the cheapest price for the lowest minimally acceptable service.

Products were engineered to the highest levels of reliability. They were not expected to break. When the product came off warranty customers were expected to purchase post warranty maintenance contracts, just in case something ever did go wrong, they would get the best support possible. Since the products were engineered so well, they didn’t break very often. Maintenance contracts were very profitable for most manufacturers.

It seems that something strange started to affect both ends of this arrangement. Manufacturers could not afford to make such reliable products in the new market. They didn’t have the time required to create them. And if they did, customers were not really interested in paying for them versus slightly less reliable, but much less expensive competitors.

There is a wireless carrier that has recognized this shift in preferences. They have a tag line that asks: “Our network reliability is within one percent of our competitor’s. Why would you pay them twice as much for only a one percent difference in reliability?”

On the other side of the relationship, customers decided that maybe reliability, while nice, wasn’t worth the premium they were paying for it. They started to examine their costs. One that obviously pops up is the high cost of maintenance. The drive started to reduce this cost.

Customers started looking a competitively provided maintenance solutions. Competitors realized that if products were reliable, they could sell maintenance cheaper than the manufacturer with relatively little risk, and still make money. In turn customers demanded that if the manufacturer was going to provide maintenance they would need to match or even better these competitive maintenance price levels.

The race to the bottom was now on.

The speed with which new products were introduced was increased. It would seem that the life cycle of products became ever shorter. Products were developed, introduced and then superseded by the next newer and improved version at an accelerated rate.

The reliability of new products diminished in accordance with the lower prices. As the life cycle, and more importantly the life expectancy of products reduced, they were no longer engineered to last a long time. It seems that they are now engineered to last only slightly longer than their warranty periods. After that, all bets are off.

Customers were more willing to accept reduced maintenance capabilities if they came at commensurately lower prices. It has often been said that we have evolved into a disposable society. What was once retained and repaired is now discarded and replaced. After all, with the new and improved version either already out, or on the cusp of availability, why would you want to repair the old one, when you can get the new one for close to, or possibly only slightly more than the repair price?

Why would you want to repair the old one, when you can get a new and improved one?

When a car comes off warranty it is six to ten years old. At this point in time it will be significantly depreciated in value. Chances are if it needs a repair it will be a significant investment verses the actual residual value of the older car. Probably better to get a new one.

When you buy your iPhone you get a year maintenance. Hopefully it will last just a little longer than that, but it doesn’t matter. The iPhone was released in 2007. There has been a new iteration of the iPhone released every year since then. And people line up every year in advance of the release to get some of the first new ones. Why would you want to fix your old iPhone when the cost of the repair represents a significant portion of the cost of just getting the next generational model?

This same approach is now finding its way into business as well. The demand for reduced maintenance costs by customers and the shorter product life cycles driven by competition are combining to eventually squeeze maintenance out of existence as a viable business for manufacturers.

It will probably become what would be called a “break – fix” type of environment. Customers will look for a warranty on a new product that is commensurate with its expected life cycle. They will probably have an extra one or two around as spares. If one breaks they will implement a spare and then do the cost benefit analysis of either getting the broken one repaired, or just buying a new one from the next generation of products.

It may take time for this apocalyptic vision of maintenance to come to pass, but I do think it is coming. The economics on both the vendor and consumer sides of the value equation are pushing it in this direction. Vendors won’t be able to afford the multiple generations of maintenance staff required by rapid product development and introduction. And customers will not be will to pay the costs of even reduced maintenance contracts if newer and more capable replacement products are rapidly and relatively inexpensively available.

I think we are heading to the point where the warranty and the life expectancy of a product are going to be very close to the same length. Any incremental life that can be squeezed out of any product beyond the warranty period will be looked at as an incremental unexpected benefit. Once the warranty expires, the break-watch will begin. If and when the product should happen to break (remember products will no longer be over engineered to last significant periods) the fix – replace decision will be made.

If it makes sense to repair it, it will be repaired. If it doesn’t make sense to repair it, it will be replaced. I just don’t think that we will see products continue to be under maintenance contracts in the future. Business probably needs to start planning for that eventuality now.

Future Jobs

This is a tough topic to tackle without sounding too trite or stale. But I now have children entering the job market and I have been continuing to do some networking with several people who are in a job search mode so it is on my mind. As usual I got to thinking about where to go and how to position for the jobs of the future. With the continual drive for cost reductions and all the talk about bringing certain jobs back on shore (as others continue to go off-shore), is there truly a way to future proof what you do for a living? I don’t know for sure, but as usual I do have a few thoughts on the topic.

It must be acknowledged and accepted that the rules of the game are changing. We must adapt or it probably will not end well. There will be those who will stubbornly hold out the hope for a return to the days when this country could manufacture and build its own products, and people could earn a living doing it. This was an ideal and golden time, but as we have all seen, there may be scattered exceptions, but by and large that economic structure has gone.

I think this was only the start. Almost every role that can be defined within an organization, can be subject to the same risk of off-shoring, out-sourcing, or whatever description you may choose to use for being moved to a cheaper labor oriented area. Production was moved off-shore because the labor was cheaper. The quality may not have been as good initially, but that can be and for the most part has been rectified. We all wanted the cheapest products possible, because they were good for the bottom line.

We have already seen instances where financial and accounting functions are being out-sourced and off-shored in the name of reducing costs. These are largely looked at as internal functions. They are usually associated with the overhead costs and functions, and as we know, everyone wants to reduce overhead. There are many people across the globe who are trained in the financial and accounting disciplines that perform these functions cheaper than they can be performed here.

We have already seen many instances where Research and Development, what was once a cornerstone of our growth engine, have been moved off-shore to lower cost countries. It seems that there are also many places with smart people who can write code and create products, with many of them working for significantly lower costs than here.

We have also seen the relocation and / or reduction of some of the Human Resource functions to other locations. Many of the repetitive steps associated with the simple recruiting and support functions can be and have been moved to lower cost countries. There has also been an explosive growth in the utilization of self-help and web portals as replacements for actual people.

Service and support is also similarly questionable. It is possible that this trend specifically associated with service may be reversing, but it is still highly probable that when you call for help or support on many products, your call is directed to an off-shore, low cost call center somewhere else in the world. People who predominantly talk on the phone as a function of their job, can have a phone to talk on in just about any low-cost country.

So, against this type of cost cutting and low cost country focus, what do we do for a living going forward?

I think for starters focus on one word: Customers.

The majority of business functions and disciplines that are at risk in being moved to low cost countries do not interface with customers.

Yes, I know that call centers and service have moved off shore and they deal with customers. And again, by and large customers don’t like it. It has been surveyed and noted as a major customer dissatisfier when it comes to support from vendors. And if given a choice almost every customer would prefer to deal with someone in their own time zone and their own country when it comes to support.

As I said, companies are recognizing what their customers want and this trend may be slowing, if not reversing as some of these service related positions return on-shore.

One of the inviolate axioms of business to business commerce is that “People buy from People”. It used to be the same for business to consumer commerce, but the internet seems to be changing that for commodity type transactions. I’ll get to that part a little bit later.

Selling will always be a function that requires direct customer interface. It will also invariably require face to face exchanges between the seller and the customer. In short, it cannot be off-shored easily, if at all.

As we continue to evolve to a service oriented economy, and as products continue to become more and more complex as well as more commoditized and interchangeable, having people who have the ability communicate specific value propositions, and more importantly be able to sell those value propositions in the new economy will be at a premium.

On the reverse side of the selling to customers, will be the implementation of the complex products and services that have been sold. It doesn’t matter if it is a good or service that has been sold. This brings us to the operations team. The reality is that most customers will not accept a “Do It Yourself” approach to the implementation of the good or service that they have purchased. They are usually going to want the company that sells it, to also be the one that puts it in.

Again, the direct customer interface from the operations team on the implementation of the customer’s purchase will be a key to that customer’s satisfaction, and potential future purchases. It can’t be off-shored and it can’t be minimized in its importance. The best product in the world can be sold, but if it is not implemented well, the customer will not be satisfied. This will be the case with both product and service implementations. Having good customer interfacing operations teams will also be a non-negotiable requirement for the future.

I have looked at specific individual customer interfacing roles up to this point, but what about broader multiple customer roles, such as Marketing?

For the most part in the past I have considered marketing an overhead function with a two-drink minimum. This is said with just a little tongue in cheek. However, if we note that individual customer interfaces are important then it is not too far a leap to expect that individual markets are important as well. Even though there is much written about the “global” economy, I don’t think that goods and services can be positioned and marketed the same way in Canada as they are in Brazil.

No one in Brazil will know what a Tuque is, and I have met very few in Canada who understand the importance of a good Caipirinha. Expecting one marketing approach to work in both regions will probably not be a good recipe for success. I do not think there will be a good or reasonable substitute for local market knowledge, cultural awareness, presence and positioning.

I suppose that the same could be said about lawyers and the specific legal requirements of each market. However, the less said about lawyers, the happier I find myself to be.

So where does that leave the organizational and business jobs of the future?

I think that it will be those outward facing, and customer interfacing roles that will be the jobs of the future. I don’t believe that customers will stand for the out-sourcing and off-shoring of them. It is the personal relationships and the trust that is built by direct customer interface that is the basis of a successful business relationship. There may come a time where that changes, but that may be in the “next” generation of business.

That means that the internal facing business and organizational roles are at risk as a function the eternal drive for lower costs. Accounting, Finance, HR (some of the functions), Research and Development and Production / Manufacturing, all to one level of success or another can be and have been sent to lower cost countries.

What is also interesting to me is that historically a little more than forty percent of CEOs that are hired come out of the finance discipline. In good times this number percentage goes down as growth is a focus and in tougher times it goes up as the bottom line takes on even greater importance. Many others come from the accounting and engineering functions as well. My point is, as many of these internal accounting, finance and engineering functions get out-sourced, where will the future leaders come from?

If these entry level (and other) types of roles and positions are sent elsewhere, where will the future leaders get their starts. It is in these roles that we learn and gain experience. If the roles aren’t there to provide the experience and jumping off points, are companies also off-shoring the development structures that the future leaders have used to get started?

This could mean that in due time, future leaders would predominantly come from those countries that the jobs were off-shored to.

The Illusion of Choice

I find it rather interesting that I read a many different articles and books from many different sources, that become the genesis of many of my own articles. This fact isn’t really that interesting, unless you consider it interesting that I read things that consist of more than one hundred and forty characters, require a certain amount grammar and literacy capability, and don’t use emojis to convey how the author feels about the topic they are covering. What is probably a little more interesting is that I like to write about business, sales and leadership, and that I rarely find the inspiration for my articles in literary sources that are purporting to be specifically about business, sales and leadership. I seem to find my thought applications from other sources that resonate at a little more elemental and hopefully timeless level.

Such is the case today.

By and large I have found most business articles to be somewhat bland and derivative of other previously written sources. They are also somewhat ephemeral and short lived. There was “The One Minute Manager” and then “The Fifty-Nine Second Employee”. Really. They all seem to be related to the idea of “get rich” or “get successful” quick sort of scheme. After all, if someone actually wrote the definitive text for how to successfully run a business or organization and get rich and successful quick, what would all the other authors have to write about?

Some of my preferred sources can go back hundreds or even thousands of years. I think I have mentioned “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu, “The Prince” by Machiavelli, “The Book of Five Rings” by Musashi and the “The Art of Worldly Wisdom” by Gracion on multiple occasions. Fortunately, my inspiration today was not from these sources, although, come to think of it some of what Sun Tzu said could apply…. I’ll leave it to those that have read both sources to comment.

Today my ideas sprung from a few words by the man who was the coach of the team that lost, yes lost, the last national collegiate championship game for American football this year. For those of you that missed it, it was on TV. I bet you can find it on YouTube. Clemson scored on the last play of the game to defeat Alabama. (I make sure to define it as American football, as I do have friends in the rest of the world where “football” is something entirely different. It is what we in the states would call “soccer”. I don’t know why.)

You would think that there would be far more to learn from the Clemson coach, the winner of the championship, than from the Alabama coach, the man whose team lost it. After all, it was an upset. Alabama was favored and was supposed to win, and it fact, almost did. There may be much to learn from the Clemson coach, but those lessons may not apply to business, sales and leadership as well as what the leader of the Alabama team had to say. At least for me in this instance.

Coach Nick Saban, of the University of Alabama has enjoyed sustained success in his field, the likes of which has probably not been seen in decades. He is successful. He has already won a total of five national championships (across 2 different schools) and is annually expected to be a contender for the next championship playoff. He is the example and standard of what every other coach, school and leader wants to be and do.

But he still lost, last year.

When he was asked what he is going to change, and how much he was going to do different next year in order to win the championship, he responded with what can best be described as an old school response.

He said that he understood all the new offenses, defenses, systems and processes that are out there, but that he was not going to overhaul a system just because he had lost in this year’s championship game. He came in second out of three hundred and seventy-five schools, which when thought of in that way, wasn’t really too bad. Yes, the loss hurt, but there are literally hundreds of other schools and coaches that would have wanted to be there in his place. He understood what it took to get there, and he also understood what it would take to get back next year.

It was at this point that he made the comments that resonated so strongly with me. He discussed that having learned what it took to be successful, he learned that there are no short cuts. He referred to it as “the illusion of choice”. He said that so many people want to make the easy decision, or take the supposed easier road to success. A new process, or a new system were the quick cure. He said this was an illusion. If you wanted to be successful (in his profession) there really were no choices.

It required the recruiting of the best talent available. Alabama’s recruiting classes of new freshmen out of high school are routinely viewed as some of the best in the country. Think about the fact that every three to four years, he (like every other college football coach) has close to one hundred percent turnover of his team. But every year he contends for a championship.

It requires a work ethic that is second to none on his part, and it has to be transferred and translated to the rest of his staff and the players on the team. There can be no illusion that talent is enough. It takes hard work and dedication. There is a base line process and preparation that needs to be adhered to.

Many have heard me discuss my aversion to the perceived over-utilization of process that seems to be plaguing businesses today. Yet here I am praising it. Here process is used to prepare the team. They have practiced and been trained on how each individual need to prepare, perform and act as part of the greater team. A process is not used during the game or against the competition. If so the competition would quickly adapt and defeat it. There is a game-plan, but not a game process.

He assembled the best staff possible, that he vested with the authority to get things done and that he held accountable for those various aspects of the team (Offense, Defense, Special Teams, etc.) he had assigned. However he only held himself responsible for the outcome. He never blamed anyone else. It was his responsibility.

It was this litany of decidedly unglamorous basics that he pointed out were responsible for getting him and his teams (multiple, different teams) to arguably the acme of his profession. He pointed out and reiterated that there really was not choice if you wanted to be successful. It took talent, it took outworking the competition, it took everybody’s commitment and buy-in for the team succeed. There were no “get rich” or “get successful” quick schemes.

That didn’t mean that he wouldn’t change and adapt. He is also recognized as one of the best leaders at innovating and modifying his game plans when his team’s talent, or the competition called for it. He has noted that the basics of the game have not changed, but how you apply them can vary greatly in each situation.

As I noted, by design his team membership turns over every four years. He also turns over his leadership (coaching) staff with significant regularity. His assistant coaches are in high demand to become the leaders at competing college programs because of their success and what they have learned. No less than seventeen of his assistants have gone on to lead their own programs.

It looks like the players are not the only ones that are mentored, taught and become leaders.

Sun Tzu, from almost twenty-five hundred years ago, also talks about talent selection, training and preparation as immutable keys to an organization’s success. He is also quick to point out that flexibility and the ability to adapt to new and different situations, and to be able to take advantage of them while either in or on the field are also the keys to success.

It looks like the idea of putting well trained teams in the field and letting their leaders lead them is in fact an idea that has been around for over two millennia. It sounds to me like Nick Saban may be right when he says that if you want to be successful, and enjoy a sustained success, it really is an illusion of choice. While a new process or system may come into vogue, success is really built on the basics of talent, hard work, and planning, and then letting your leaders lead, and not relying on the illusion that some other process or system can be a substitute for one of those basic building blocks of success.