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Quandary: Career Advancement of Technical Engineers Part IV

with 2 comments

It was about a month ago when I was able to witness, at an all-hands meeting, an employee ask a Vice President what the company goals has to do with him.  You can come up to speed by going back to here.

Now it happened again – at a different company.  (paraphrase) “What am I doing here?”  ‘Why are you asking me to contribute?  I am already doing my job as a tiny cog in a giant machine – leave me alone.”

The Scenario

This particular company, a global company with $30 billion in annual revenue, created a “collaboration space” for its employees available from its internal corporate network.  Waves of business units, divisions, and  functional units were added to the collaboration space over time. The collaboration space includes forums, document sharing, blogs, events calendars, and other capability that serves as a social collaboration and meeting space among employees across the globe.

One functional area consisting of  about 350 people was added a few days ago.  Employees in that functional area got an e-mail message with a URL  inviting them to come visit the space and contribute.  One employee, let’s call him “Daniel”, has a question.

Daniel has a question

It seems that Daniel looked to see who his colleagues where in this collaboration space and found a bunch of executives including himself and others.  Should he be in the same group with a bunch of corporate executives?  Was it a mistake?

In the message below, Daniel refers to the executives as the “upper floors” and refers to himself as “in the basement” doing work “stoking boilers”.  Why an I here?  What does this have to do with me?  Daniel, as does every employee, has a picture on file that is included with his posting in the collaboration space.  Daniel looks to be about 50 years old.

The message below from Daniel is original.  Places where you see brackets [ ] is where I had to edit out specific company information for the purposes of posting this.  Daniel wrote to Susan.  Susan is the company “Communications and Analyst Relations Manager”

Hi Susan,

I really have a basic question — Is there value for [ this company ] or me to be in this group? I’m a [ legacy systems ] programmer working on the [ project in ] Los Angeles.  Seems like most of the folks that are in this group are in the upper floors in our “building”, and our [] team is one of those groups that is kind of in the basement,  stoking the boilers.  What kind of work roles within [ this company ] do you expect to see for the people in this group?

Thanks, Daniel

Susan’s reply

Hi Daniel;

Thanks for your open question.  We really see this space as useful to all [ of this company’s ] employees — for a multitude of reasons.

First, because it provides information about the solutions and services we can bring to [ our clients ], including the [ Los Angeles location].  Every person working [ at this company ] should have the opportunity to identify innovative solutions that can aid in our client’s success and knowing what we do can help with that process.

Second, we feel the [ corporate collaboration site ] will be useful to keep employees aware of what is happening not only within their region – but globally – which again, we hope will be beneficial. Knowledge can be a very powerful thing – whether it’s used for awareness only or again, to bring innovation to a client account.

Finally, as we know, our organization is changing rapidly and sometimes, quite simply, it’s sometimes difficult to keep up with who is responsible for what. We hope providing information about our organization and for the parts of the business of which we have responsibility will provide all employees with a “place to go” to stay current.

Hope I was able to provide some insight with our intents for this space…. please feel free to post back if you need more.

Thanks, Susan

 The “Get”

What is going on here?  Maybe here is an insight ( read a related article on education )

Between 1890 and 1920, along with the huge influx of immigrants , 80 percent of the rural population moved to the city to take millions of new factory jobs, and they brought their children with then.  On the farm, many children meant many helpers, but in the factory, many children meant many accidents and acts of exploitation.  Children s welfare and child labor practices became the issue of the age, and most people felt that something had to be done to protect and train the children while mom and dad worked in the factory.

The solution was to train a new generation of workers by teaching them inside a system that looked like a factory.  In school, bell rings, go to class; bell rings, recess; bell rings, go to class; bell rings each lunch; bell rings, go home.  At school, children with the right answers get a gold star, then an A.  A star pupil is one who does the homework and has the right answers.

The new system undid the classic liberal eduction, which said that the value was in the well-designed question, and this shift in focus made the worker exploitable…

In between bell rings, children learned what they needed to become effective workers, and that amounted to reading, writing, and math.

The system did not emphasize creative thinking, strategizing, leadership, or innovation.  Stars were smart conformists, and people who stuck to the pattern became model students.  That approach also bred the “I’m great (and you are not)” mentality, based on homework, grades, and knowing the right answer.  It did not emphasize empowerment, creativity, or individual satisfaction.

A star employee is one who knows that right answer to a factory problem, obeys rules, and doesn’t make waves.  People are encouraged to repeat this pattern until they retire.

What people like Daniel might not realize is that the world of work has changed.  Perhaps, in the Industrial Age, people were cogs in a giant machine and they were expected to be so and were rewarded for conforming to this behavior.  They “did what they were told” and nothing more.  If, in that era that behavior was an asset, now it’s a liability.  “It did not emphasize empowerment, creativity, or individual satisfaction…. The system did not emphasize creative thinking, strategizing, leadership, or innovation.”

Many older workers are going to get caught in this “Industrial Age Thinking” without realizing the consequences to their careers.   Do your job; don’t ask questions; don’t make waves; come in at 9am and leave at 5pm; do what your boss tells you to do – no more, no less.  Unfortunately, in the 21st century, this no longer flys.

Is glass half empty or half full?

Ok, so you work for a giant $30B global corporation with 100,000+ employees.  Is that good or bad? 

On the one hand, you “could be” a cog in a giant machine; You choose!  (This seems to be what Daniel wants to be, or was trained to be, or was expected to be – Industrial Age thinking – “…leave me alone, I am stoking the boilers – that’s my job”.)  

On the other hand, you work for a giant $30B global company with “unlimited opportunity” and tremendous resources – both human capital and financial capital.  In fact, if you work for the company that Daniel works for the company has given you a voice – directly to the executive leadership through a very public (corporate internal)  collaboration space where you can communicate directly your thoughts and ideas.  The Industrial Age hierarchy has been collapsed – if you choose to view the situation (opportunity) in this manner.

What has happened in this company, and other companies like it,  are they are being transformed in fundamental ways:

  1. Everyone is asked to contribute their ideas to set the future of the company.  Innovation, strategy, new products or services, unmet needs, how to sell, etc.  is no longer the exclusive province or domain of the executive management team.  Even the people in the basement, as Daniel describes himself,  “stoking the boilers” are asked for their input on matters that will inform the future of the company.  Some people are not ready for this opportunity.
  2. Companies realize there are leaders and innovators at all levels of the organization and what is best for the company is to, as they say, “Let a thousand flowers bloom.”  Ideas from everybody and everywhere just might reveal here-to-fore hidden talent.  To reveal these folks in public  is good for you and good for the company.
  3. Companies  are being (slowly) transformed into a meritocracy.  The best ideas win, no matter who you are, or who you know, or where you exist in the corporate hierarchy.

What will become of people like Daniel? 

Why is it that whenever I ask for a pair of hands, a brain comes attached? – Henry Ford

The above quote from Ford is Industrial Age thinking at its best.  In that era people were expected to be, and were treated like cogs in a giant machine.  Daniel shows the remnant of this kind of thinking.  Even the phrase he uses “stoking the boilers” reminds one of someone who is in the bowels of the ship covered with soot doing manual labor while the captain in on the bridge setting the direction and steering the ship.  The implication is that there is a class-full society and the classes (labor and management) will not, or should not, mix.  Daniel is “in the basement” (his words).  The executives are on the “upper floors”.  Just like the other company that I wrote about there are employees in this company as well that ask, “Is there value for [ this company ] or me to be in this group [ with executives ]?… What does this company have to do with me?”

The new way of thinking about employee engagement in a company

Here is a letter from a Group President at the company that employs Daniel.  As above, contents in brackets are my edits to remove specific company information.

One week ago I announced an important [collaboration] event. Already the event has attracted over 460 visitors and generated over 12,800 page requests on [ our internal corporate portal ] . I am delighted.  But more voices need to speak out. I need your input in order to inform the debate.

The nature of the ideas submitted so far are really powerful … but, the power of more voices on those – and the yet-to-be-suggested ideas – are really essential.

If we are to drive accelerated growth, what are the MOST IMPORTANT and URGENT changes we must make to our business? 
Enter your idea/answer here:  [ removed URL]

  • If you have not had your say already, do so now. I need all voices to speak up!
  • If you think you are too senior to take part, think again.
  • If you think you are too junior to take part – you are our future. Have your say.

If you think the event is optional or just another survey, be clear that I am committed to interpret and to act on your input.
Early themes emerging in this discussion concern the complexity of our organization, internal competition, our sales maturity, incentive schemes, go to market conflicts and our culture. But I need more views before conclusions can be drawn. So please get involved.
I offer my sincere thanks for your partnership in this. 
[ Name Removed ] Group President

The Question

Back to his quote on findings from Elena’s Masters Thesis

Success is not really on the engineers’ minds, but when prompted they say they do feel successful. However, they tie their success more to family, happiness, and personal accomplishments. They view internal ideas of success as more important than social, or external, measures of success.

I just wonder if the attitude of these engineers is created and nurtured within a particular company by a little too much Henry Ford Industrial Age thinking where people are only expected to be a cog in a giant machine (hands, not minds).  Treated in this manner, no wonder success as career advancement(since it is not offered) is not of any interest and folks can well ask, “What does [ the future of this company ] have to do with me?

If the engineers in Elena’s study were given the opportunity that is given to Daniel would they be interested in the traditional definition of success as career advancement?  I wonder. 

But what does it say about people who stay at a company where they know they have no opportunity and are powerless?  Is it really viable to have a self-image of oneself as someone who “stokes a boiler” and is only a tiny cog in a giant machine?  Is this the highest aspiration that some people can muster?  Or, is this self-image of “boiler stoker”  the success of the Industrial Age training writ large into the 21st century?

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Written by frrl

October 7, 2010 at 1:29 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. That group leader probably attended some motivational workshop and came away pumped about ideas springing from anywhere. Sure, there /could/ be a few geniuses in the boiler room. But probably /not/ or they wouldn’t be there in the first place. People aren’t forced to do certain jobs, it’s more about their self-image and a blog from the boss won’t change that.

    Is it worth digging for that exception? I doubt it. 90% of the good ideas will still come from the same 10% of the people, so asking the other 90% won’t gain enough to be worth the trouble. The blog posts will mostly be about the brand of coffee in the break room.

    Elwood Downey

    October 7, 2010 at 6:15 pm

    • They are creating an environment where there are no roadblocks to participation. In fact, they are creating an environment which fosters participation. Some companies have made made participation metrics part of employees annual goals on which they are evaluated on as part of the annual apprasial process.

      Now, forcing people to participate has some interesting outcomes. There may be a “diamond in the rough” that appears. On the other hand, some people have significat communication problems and poor ideas. These show up as well.

      If you force people to participate (written contributions) in these collaboration forums you find out what kind of people you really have in the organization. Could be scary. But it’s good to know.

      Here is a story about engineers as told by Dave Hitz, Executive VP of NetApp and former VP of Engineering. Sometimes engineers don’t focus on the things you think they should be focusing on –

      “A friend of mine ran a two-day conference for hundreds of engineers, and afterward she asked several attendees for feedback. Some of the criticism she got surprised her. One engineer complained that the lunch line would have moved faster if it had gone down both sides of the buffet table. “Were they even paying attention to the presentations that were the actual point of the conference?” she asked me. I tried to reassure her: “You don’t understand how engineers think. We spot problems and try to fix them. If the layout of the food line was the worst problem they found to work on, then you had a spectacular meeting.” “

      But you are right, folks “stoking the boilers” at the bottom of the organization (or ship) are generally not interested in what is happening globally (see Susans response), or innovation, or what the customers want, or really much of anything more than what the two cogs next to them are doing right now, today, at this very moment. When I heard the lunch line story above, it sort of confirms that some people don’t focus on the big picture but only what is happening immediately in front of them that interests them. And perhaps, in the story above, that was lunch – not the subject matter of the two-day conference. It’s that kind of thinking that contributes to the reason why these folks get stuck in the basement “stoking the boilers” for most of their careers.

      frrl

      October 7, 2010 at 11:35 pm


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