Remember all those workshops about empowering staff, unleashing their every talent? Well Peter Cochrane is dismayed by the direction some companies have taken... Over the past 40 years I have witnessed and been subjected to many management revolutions that have seen cycles of centralisation and decentralisation. They have also led to better quality management, corporate reengineering, people empowerment and even emergent economies. At the same time there has been a plethora of motivation programmes for individuals, teams and managers. Most programmes were really about changing company direction and culture in concert with technology and market demands. The key principle drawn from all the experiences is that treating people with respect and responsibility sees them respond accordingly but treating them as children creates a kindergarten. Getting everyone to buy in and get focused on the company and customers generally works. It always seemed paradoxical to me that managers who were overtly enthusiastic and proud of their children came to work so negative in the prospect, promotion and encouragement of the people they employ. After all, they were dealing with the children of others. So, when I was asked to give a series of management lectures on the techniques I employed to create successful groups, projects and products I broached this early in lecture one. To the consternation of the audience I asked if they had sons and daughters. For those who said yes, I asked if they were going to break their arms and legs - after all, they could run and swim faster than their parents, so why not disable them? This caused a few shocked looks and I further explained that that these same managers were metaphorically breaking the arms the legs of the children of others – the company employees. All companies and organisations have a responsibility to their shareholders and bottom line but they also have a responsibility to their employees and society in general. When people are under our management, we are responsible for their well-being in the broader context of the company and industry. We are sanctioned to promote the future of employees to the best of our ability, not to identify a potential competitor and threat, to be disabled at every opportunity. Today technology offers unparalleled opportunities for managers and mentors at all levels to get it badly wrong. The worse cases I have witnessed include working environments where people are monitored continuously in terms of their keyboard activity and time spent staring at a monitor. No attempt is made to assess effectiveness. This is crude, wasteful and ultimately demotivating for all concerned. Organisations need to monitor and measure their effectiveness, to challenge working practices and modify operations in concert with technology, markets and customers. But this has to be realised in a positive and reinforcing manner and not by draconian and threatening mechanisms of dubious worth. The workforce has to be carried and encouraged, not demotivated. If we want to get it badly wrong and create a warehouse full of problems it is difficult to imagine anything worse than some of the techniques supported and sanctioned by governments. For example, how would you feel if all your snail mail had been opened and read, your email had been scrutinised and every time you made a phone call you knew someone was listening? Your state of tension and suspicion would be heightened if conversation after conversation gave a glimmer that you were living in some pseudo-police state that monitored your every breath. If the office gossip involved things that only you were supposed to know, your apprehension would quickly accelerate. To say the least it would be disconcerting and threatening, and you would immediately modify your habits – in short, you would become defensive. Amazingly some companies in what we consider to be the free and civilised world have been given the statutory right to snoop on employees' phone calls, snail mail and email by their governments. I am no lawyer but this all seems to me a contravention of a very basic human right – that of privacy. The people responsible for invoking such systems have demonstrated a monumental lack of management skill and understanding and, perhaps worse, they have broadcast a complete lack of human and technical savvy. What happened to all those workshops and management revolutions where people were to be empowered and made responsible, with companies investing in employees? One of my management heroes is General George C Patten who had an interesting "Take that hill!" style of telling people what to do but never telling them how to do it. As far as I can see the only people who might profit from snooping, in the broad sense, are the lawyers. Sooner or later someone will take legal action to slow down and cripple those engaged in the micro-management of individual thought and action. Inverse empowerment does not work, as ably demonstrated by every totalitarian and communist state past and present. And I suspect a lot of time and ingenuity has been devoted to sidelining the efforts of the snoopers who may be watching a virtual human typing on the keyboard, with a monitor viewed by less than 50 per cent of the available attention span. What an opportunity for a non-management fight back. One keystroke GOESTO 3: take last weeks activity and LOOP; EXE Virtual Work ++++ Might it just be that a move back to the simplest form of monitoring might be timely and profitable? Instead of being obsessed by the email content and internet activities of the individual, how about looking at the input and output, number of successful closures and earnings per station? Further, let's compare the performance of individuals and groups and share the techniques to raise the bar for everyone, feeding back success as reward, creating a few heroes and celebrating achievement along the way. Probably a bit to basic and archaic I guess - after all, this is only the 21st century – better get back to counting the pencils, paper clips, sheets of paper, number of coffee breaks... Written on BA17 flying London to Singapore over a black coffee in the middle of the night, trying to advance my body clock and avoid the jet lag of a drastically shortened day. Despatched to silicon.com via a public Wi-Fi service at the SunTech Convention Centre 12 hours later. What do you think? You can contact Peter by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Peter Cochrane is a co-founder of ConceptLabs CA, where he acts as a mentor, advisor, consultant and business angel to a wide range of companies. He is the former CTO and Head of Research at BT, as part of a career at the telco spanning 38 years. He holds a number of prominent posts as a technologist, entrepreneur, writer and humanist, and is the UK's first Professor for the Public Understanding of Science and Technology. For more about Peter, see: www.cochrane.org.uk. For all Peter's columns for silicon.com, see: www.silicon.com/petercochrane.
Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.