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TCPI News Vol. 1, No. 9

September 3, 2001

In this issue:

  1. The Lost Meaning of Partnership
  2. The Cost of Lost Social Capital
  3. The 21st-Century Corporate Survivor

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1.     The Lost Meaning of Partnership

"Those who establish adaptable formations will survive even if they are small. While those who establish unadaptable formations shall perish – even if they are large. So it has been since the beginning of time."
From The Ancient Book of the Huainan Masters
(a 2000-year-old Chinese war text)

Often you can get a sense of things as much from what is absent as from what is present. One word I haven’t heard a lot lately is "partnering." Remember that? Only a few years ago, weren’t we all engaged in forging these relationships that were going to make the future better for companies, for vendors, for customers, and for employees?

While we can’t report solid statistics on the travail and demise of small consultancies, we know that a good portion of our readership falls within that space. What statistical and anecdotal evidence exists indicates that learning and development professionals are once again taking a disproportionate beating due to the current slide in business growth. The way companies are cutting staff and slaughtering vendors (of non-essential human-related resources) you would think they were all on the verge of going out of business. In fact, most companies making cuts are not losing money, they’re just not meeting projections promised to the dreaded analysts. But that’s a subject for other newsletters than ours.

A recent poll taken by Cypress Media, a public relations firm that runs an ancillary training leads newsletter, shows that nearly 38% of those reporting on the increase or decrease in business this year say that business is off 30% or more; 27% claim business is off more than 50%. 

While the sample is small, combined with the anecdotal evidence that’s "out there," we can conclude that small boutique and individual training consultancies are having a rough time.

So where are the partners? Where are those sprawling entities with mission impossible problems who, in the name of partnership and long-term support, flogged the little guys to produce creative solutions within totally unrealistic time lines, that, if requested in house, would have garnered only laughter? And what will they do a year or two down the line when it becomes time to reach out again, and the big company packaged solutions are even more irrelevant than today? They will speak of partnership.

Of course, this isn’t aimed at everyone. Those who have made efforts to support their valued vendors during hard times at any level possible (and you know who you are) will build a loyalty that pays off in the long run. It is the majority, however, that inspires the following partner’s credo from the big company perspective.

"Regardless of what we may say otherwise, your value is temporal. We call you partner to inspire you to work harder in hopes of long-term support, and to encourage you to lower your current fees on the promise of work to come. We expect you to understand that cash management is more an issue for us than for you, so we will hold your wages as long as possible in hopes that you may go under before you collect. Since we still need to appear like we’re doing something, we will periodically request that you provide us with detailed proposals for work we will probably not do. This allows us to then shop around and fill our time interviewing other consultants who have the same partnership hopes as you. Anyway, we paid you so much money already, you shouldn’t need any more."

When I was young, I had an irrational fear about my children running off to join the circus. Now I worry that they will become trainers.

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2.    The Cost of Lost Social Capital

Robert D. Putnam’s new book, Bowling Alone, raises questions about several words that we apply to organizations and our efforts to understand and mold behavior within them. (Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert D. Putnam (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000)).

Applying a new slant on interview data collected during the last quarter century, Putnam shows how we have become increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighbors, and our democratic structures. Putnam warns that our stock of social capital – the very fabric of our connections with each other – has plummeted, impoverishing our lives and communities. As a sociologist, Putnam focuses his attention on general societal consequences, demonstrating that we sign fewer petitions, belong to fewer organizations that meet, know our neighbors less, meet with friends less frequently, and even socialize with our families less often. We're even bowling alone. More Americans are bowling than ever before, but they are not bowling in leagues. Putnam shows how changes in work, family structure, age, suburban life, television, computers, women's roles, and other factors have contributed to this decline.

These connections between community family and work created "allegiances" – felt needs to belong to and protect these entities that nurtured us. The huge swath of firings in the early 1990’s tore up the old compact between company and worker ("Work hard, keep your nose clean and you will be taken care of") and replaced it with a new alliance ("We are committed to you as long as you are perceived as valuable by measures not always clear to either of us"). The millennium has brought us to a new allegiance – the self.

Self-centeredness is not inherently good for organizations. Systems theory has taught us about the interdependencies between sub-parts and the potential for nonsummative results (the whole is greater than the sum of its parts). If workers continue to accept the belief that the real lesson the "Learning Organization" has taught us is that the organization is amoral, cannot be trusted, and shifts in unfathomable ways, then workers will become increasingly focused on WIFM (what’s in it for me) and will only be motivated by immediate gratification of a felt need in the form of tangible compensation, recognition, or life style enhancements. So what are we to do, those of us charged with the responsibility of developing human capital within these organizations?

Putnam argues that social bonds are the most powerful predictor of life satisfaction. For example, he reports that getting married is the equivalent of quadrupling your income and attending a club meeting regularly is the equivalent of doubling your income. The loss of social capital is felt in critical ways: communities with less social capital have lower educational performance and more teen pregnancy, child suicide, low birth weight, and prenatal mortality. Social capital is also a strong predictor of crime rates and other measures of neighborhood quality of life, as it is of our health: in quantitative terms, if you both smoke and belong to no groups, it's a close call as to which is the riskier behavior.

If this argument has merit, is it such a long leap to infer that increasing isolation and self-centeredness in organizations is significantly lowering their potential?

Thoughts, perhaps, to keep in mind as we slash the social elements from our learning agendas, promote "learner-centered" approaches to training, and migrate more content to e-learning platforms. This may be a case where "giving them what they want" is neither good for the worker or the companies who depend on them.

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Learn More

Learn more about Gottlieb and Conkling's book, Managing the Workplace Survivors: Organizational Downsizing and the Commitment Gap.

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3.     The 21st-Century Corporate Survivor

Anyone within brushing distance of education knows about the three "r’s." In performance consulting they take on a new meaning. "Reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic" become recruitment, realization, and retention. Building alignment strategies and competency profiles helps recruit the people most likely to succeed. Process consulting, training, and coaching help workers to realize their potential. The quality of the initiatives that add value to workers’ lives in various ways helps ensure the retention of top talent.

In her article "Luring the Best in Unsettled Times" (New York Times, Jan. 30 2001), Mary Williams Walsh looks nostalgically at the Organization Man, who paid off 30-year mortgages, college educations, and lived the American dream.

"Eight million layoffs later, the old understanding [between company and worker] is dead. Interred with it is much of the conventional wisdom on retaining and motivating the American worker."

The Forbes Body Count as of August 27, 2001 is 602,403 and growing. Yet companies are searching urgently for new ways to foster loyalty and commitment among the survivors. Having torn up the old contract, employers shouldn’t be surprised that workers have little institutional loyalty to give. One recent survey found that nearly half of all managers over 35 speak with headhunters quarterly (Walsh, New York Times).

Training initiatives are disappearing or morphing into indigestible forms in the name of cost savings. The aggregate level of benefits has actually fallen over the last five years, and yet companies will have to continue the "war for talent" as older workers retire from the fray. So how do companies accomplish this feat in and age of impermanence?

Walsh says, "The promise of employer-of-choice campaigns may provides some answers." The concept is borrowed from marketing, and is a form of branding. "Position your workplace in the labor market, as you have positioned your products in the supermarket. Know your customers. Convince them you are different. Build brand loyalty… High-profile companies with workplace branding initiatives ... seek to identify traits of model employees, figure out what these people want in a job and see to it that they think they will find it more reliably at their company than anywhere else."

But beware of false advertising. Walsh talks about some high-profile cases of discontent (including class action lawsuits) arising from a dissonance between the projected image and the reality. Some companies who are pursuing this strategy have found that they don’t have to give workers everything they want. Expressing a somewhat cynical view, Rick Wald of William Mercer says, you just need to "give them more than the competition is giving." It’s hard to believe that this philosophy holds anyone beyond the next better offer.

Walsh quotes a recent study of 7000 corporate officers and managers by McKinsey & Company that found only 7 percent of managers believing their companies had enough talent to pursue the most promising business opportunities – yet only 7 percent said they were updating their recruiting and retention strategies.

Today’s survivors will not fall for branding. The companies that will be somewhat successful in attracting talent and building loyalty will be those who develop a value proposition that engages workers in an honest contract of reward for services rendered. For some it will be money, for others time, still others want to learn and develop. Performance consultants can help build those contracts.

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Are you looking for ways to be more productive?

Read Getting Things Done in Today’s Organization: The Influencing Executive, by Marvin R. Gottlieb (Quorum Books, 1999). This book is written for front-line, middle, and senior level managers, training, and other human resource professionals who need the cooperation of others in order to get their jobs done.

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