Tag Archives | corporate

✱ Flexing organisational muscle

Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer sparked a debate recently when she announced telecommuting would no longer be an option for company employees — a move that seemed to fly in the face of trends towards telecommuting since the 1970s that had largely been pioneered by tech companies. To be blunt, Yahoo! as a company is so moribund that it is probably doomed at this point whatever it does, but the telecommuting debate is interesting nonetheless!

NPR’s Yuki Noguchi says it’s about flexibility vs serendipity:

Davis, a business professor, says what you miss in telecommuting is the “Oh, I’ve been meaning to ask you … ” conversations that turn into something more.

“It’s more efficient, but you lose that serendipity,” he says.

This is a common sentiment heard especially from those companies with modern office facilities that contrive to be a home away from home. Steve Jobs famously insisted that the Pixar headquarters have a large atrium and centralised bathrooms so people from all around the building would keep running into each other.

On the other hand, that does not mean there aren’t necessarily real benefits to be had to employees and to the company by practising telecommuting and other flexible work arrangements. The question doesn’t have to be answered one way or the other, or decided for all time. Of course, that the debate is happening about Yahoo! is interesting in itself, as Noguchi points out:

John Challenger, CEO of outplacement firm Challenger Gray and Christmas, says tech companies were early adopters of telecommuting, and they’re now finding that the practice sometimes goes too far. But he says it’s interesting that this edict is coming from an Internet company that offers email and instant messaging.

“There’s so much irony here,” Challenger says. “Not only is this high-tech company that’s been at the forefront of the technology that’s changed how we work now asking workers to come back in, but also it’s a 37-year-old mother who is seeing the advantages of being able to balance her work life and her personal life by telecommuting and yet saying, ‘For the good of the company, we can’t do this. We have to change.’ “

I recently worked on a research project with the Singapore government which is investigating telecommuting and flexible work arrangements (FWAs) as a way of solving transport congestion problems. In fact, transport planners around the world love FWAs and can be found constantly recommending them to public policymakers.

What I discovered is that while there is an abundance of research on which kinds of organisations tend to adopt FWAs, for what reasons they do so and what measures can be taken to help persuade them, there is a surprising lack of research evidence on how effective FWAs actually are in practice. Continue Reading →

✱ Moving forward

Anyone following Australian politics over the last two years will be wearily familiar with this phrase. Anyone working in an Australian corporate will have noticed it seeping into email chains, like a wet sandwich through a paper bag. I was thinking about what exactly it was supposed to mean: my best guess is, in that carefully image-managed corporate style, that it is designed to do a few things. It should acknowledge, yet dismiss, the past without criticising or critiquing it. The phrase should direct the reader to the attached PowerPoint presentation, which outlines our strategy and core values for the next five years in the form of a bulleted list. It should encourage positive feelings about the future, leaning upon that idea of progress and a ‘brighter tomorrow’. It is a kind of stage direction, quickly black-bagging yesterday whilst trotting out tomorrow, all while inducing a thorough-going ennui in the reader. I suppose there’s a kind of intricate, diabolical mastery of language inside it. I hope my rising nausea is coming across clearly.

Let’s reflect on some of those intricacies. The phrase ‘moving forward’ relies on a particular metaphor of time. Specifically, that time is a straight line where the past cannot be revisited and a gleaming future is always just one second away. We haven’t always thought about time this way, and it really is a metaphor. The physics of time are incredibly complicated and, as far as I understand them, don’t include this directional notion. The metaphor isn’t based on some immutable scientific fact, it’s how, as a culture, we grasp time. We could debate whether we should take that as given so quietly, but I’d like to leave that to one side. What’s more important for our current purposes is how we choose to know time given how we grasp time.

The past is out of sight, and that means it can easily be out of mind. However, our mind is a greasetrap in the stream of our experience. In order to forget, we must once have known. That has two implications – firstly, one must have been attentive and noticed something as it occurred. You might think that would encourage paying attention and a watchful eye. Secondly, one must make a decision about what they have noticed and relate to it. Does something matter? Do I have any strong feelings about this? Do I understand its importance, if any? There is a massive scope for individual ignorance to make decisions here over any thoughtful consideration. That’s simply because of a lack of exposure, experience or recognition. You might think that would encourage one to own their ignorance and do what they can to reduce it. If something passes these twin hurdles, it might make it into memory. Most things don’t.

The past is of great importance to us. We live in its shadow and by its consequences daily. The overwhelming pressure it exerts on the present is actually quite impossible to overstate. Consequently, it matters a great deal what we recognise in the present and how we remember it as time turns it into the past. As a proof, I would point to the incredible shock, even hysteria, which rises out of small changes in politics, business or international affairs. A continuity of conditions is assumed to be the same as stability, and so, change provokes a visceral reaction. Therefore, in many ways, we live according to the past. When we relate to a past which is dear to us we do not enjoy seeing it trampled in the present or the future. That is where something like our sense of justice comes from – just because an unjust event is out of sight will never be good reason to put it out of mind. Some crimes are indelible.

There are many ways of relating to the past, not all of them will be as ‘high stakes’ as justice. Having said that, one’s ignorance about the importance of an event doesn’t constitute a good reason to have no relation to it at all. Some things are worth caring about and when you don’t, you are remiss. Therefore, I would encourage you to think carefully about what one is being asked to move forward from. The phrase itself is encouraging you to forget what, if you thought carefully, you might actually care very much about. In a way it cannot possibly conceal, to be told to ‘move forward’ is to be told to believe something. It can be an insult to you, and a tragedy of varying proportions, to be lead forward unthinkingly by the hand – so don’t be.

McUniversity: I’m Learnin’ It!

Today’s universities offer increasing numbers of people a semblance of being in a university without having to engage in the effort, complexity or expenditure of time that once came with a university experience. Rob charts some of the origins and outcomes of these developments and asks just how healthy it all is.

Today’s universities offer large and increasing numbers of people a semblance of being in a university without having to engage in the effort, complexity or expenditure of time that once came with a university experience.

In 1993, American sociologist George Ritzer wrote a best-selling book called The McDonaldization of Society. As Ritzer saw it:

… McDonaldization … is the process by which the principles of the fast-food restaurant are coming to dominate more and more sectors of American society as well as of the rest of the world.

Ritzer’s point was simple. McDonalds provides a basic model for providing goods and services in increasingly ‘rational’ ways. Let’s not worry about the word ‘rational’ right now—it is economic-speak for extracting as much profit or getting as much done for as little outlay of resources, time, labour (or whatever) as possible.

Central to Ritzer’s argument was that all sorts of businesses and organisations have emulated what Ray and Jim Kroc ‘invented’ when they established the McDonalds model in the late 1930s. Think of toy stores (Toys R Us), home hardware stores (Bunnings), taxation accountants (H.R. Block), bookstores (Borders), car repairs (Midas) newspapers (USA Today), child care (ABC Learning Centres) and so on. Each mimics the logic of the McDonalds chain. That is to say, McDonalds is the epitome of efficiency, calculability, predictability, increased managerial control, and the replacement of human skill and ingenuity by rational systems, many of them automated. To spell out precisely what that looks like in practice, let’s consider a number of ways in which McDonalds works.

Continue Reading →