Tuesday, January 20, 2009

"Values Shift"

'Value' is an increasingly talked about term when dealing with corporate mission and vision. I have visited several companies over the past few months and one thing stands out clear. Values remain a core statement of faith in the corporate world. Instead of the old paradigm of job security, loyalty, lifelong careers and predictable promotion by seniority, the new world looks more temporary, more short-term, greater willingness to jump-ship, and uncertainty in promotions. The movie, "In Good Company," released in 2004 highlights such a new environment. It presents an experienced sales executive overtaken by a young inexperienced salesman who is half his age. Even after years of hard work and loyalty, it shows us how easy it is for the old world paradigms to be simply swept aside with just one Merger/Acquisition exercise. It is a swift change with a single executive decision from the top. In the film, a highly experienced Dan Foreman (played by Dennis Quaid) has to contend with an inexperienced young boss, Carter Duryea (played by Topher Grace). It is one thing to be insulted with the young managing the old. It is yet another to have one's experience conveniently set aside in the world of corporate politics. The film also thinly criticized the use of corporate cliches like 'synergy,' 'bottom line,' 'corporate policy' and 'psyched.' Truth is, these words mean nothing to people who were being fired in the name of corporate restructuring.

According to John Izzo and Pam Withers, the new work environment is no longer one that depends on worker's self-motivation. It needs an injection of new work values that people can identify with. This is because the former world is being surrounded by the four waves of change.

The old world is obliged to change due to 4 forces, namely changes in Family, the Economy, Society and Technology. For the Family, rising affluence, changes in family size and parenting habits, coupled with new family structures have given rise to a new generation that is more averse to overwork and its consequences. In the Economy, one cannot afford to rest passively waiting for things to happen. Workers know that obsolescence is not a matter of why but when. Hence, the kind of work they do must be one that is able to help them to chalk up 'points' to remain employable. In Society, consumerism and spiritual hunger has affected one's perception of success. In a survey of graduating MBAs from Duke University, the measurements of success have shifted from the visible to the less visible, from the extrinsic to something more intrinsic. (see diagram below).
Finally, Technology is something that has dramatically affected the workplace, namely in terms of empowering people who were previously located at the bottom rungs of the information ladder. The book, "Values Shift" is essentially about how companies can adapt their corporate values to keep in step with workers' new expectations in the new world of work.
Values shifting is essentially about 6 major movements corporate workers will come to expect.
    The 6 Shifts
  1. From Hierarchical Structures --> Partnership
  2. From overwork --> Balanced work and life;
  3. From business-driven --> Nobility-driven
  4. From making the numbers --> making meaning in work; (Personal Growth and Development as long-term security)
  5. From Self focus --> Expectation of community living within the work environment
  6. From directives approach --> Trust sharing.
"The six expectations outlined here form a template for companies that want the best employees to flock their way. Companies that align themselves with the new worker values will achieve great things. Knowing how people work is critical. Knowing their dreams and highest hopes is paramount." (John Izzo & Pam Withers, Values Shift, Prentice-Hall Canada, 2001, p13)
My Comments
I have 3 points to make, in terms of what is most helpful, what is least, and what can be done to improve the content of the book. Firstly, the positive.Izzo and Withers are clearly looking at values shifting from the angle of the employer or the organization, how it can improve staff-retention, especially valued ones. I liked the way they talk about values in terms of a 'philosophy' rather than a 'strategy' (198). Strategy is captivating and is an impressive word. Unfortunately, it is often used more as a cliche which does not mean anything. It means different things to different people. Business schools studying Michael Porter's techniques will describe strategy as building competitive advantage. For the layperson, it is another word for 'advanced planning.' However, a philosophy underlines the very thinking and belief of the worker and organization. Izzo and Withers does this job well.

A negative point is in terms of 'worker retention' in tough economic times like the present financial struggles happening worldwide. Many organizations are cutting back stuff, letting go valued employees rather than designing any worker retention strategies. Moreover, the organization can do so much, but if the worker no longer sees any fit between what he does and what the company expects, the best long term option is still to leave.

Thirdly, the book will fare better if it can incorporate a chapter or two specifically from the worker's perspective and what he/she can do for the organization. Like many management books, the quips, blurbs and quotes used in the book are mostly from people in high positions within the hierarchical structure. If the book can have an element of inclusiveness of the ordinary worker, in the tradition of Studs Terkel manner of including interviews with the typical man-on-the-street, it will have a wider circle of readers beyond managers and CEOs. In this sense, the book itself will do good to heed its own advice to adopt partnership with businesses and all personnel, not just businesses and management.

In summary, "In Good Company" is a good movie to watch. For the book, it is an effective entry-level trigger in getting companies to adapt their business practices toward understanding their employees better. Beyond that, the book lacks the ability to inform the organization on situations where 'worker retention' becomes deadly to the survival of the organization in a financially ravaged economy. Moreover, Izzo and Withers do not hide the fact that their proposed 'values shift' will also shift eventually. The trouble is, it has come sooner than their later.


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