If you knew better you'd do better! Right?

by Joe Lacroix

Wrong! The prevailing education and training paradigm may defeat initiatives underway to improve the vitality of the Hampton Roads Workforce. People, especially people in the education discipline, believe that if people knew the right way of doing something, they'd do it correctly. People in the real world workforce know that's rarely true. Work life culture prevails over the "right" behavior, because it changes the very nature of what "right" is all about. Here's an example:

People in a work environment often surrender what is "right" for what will allow them to succeed in their relationships at work - boss, peer, or even subordinate. In many cases, this is a lesson they learn in school, where getting along has everything to do with conforming to the rules - both the written and unwritten! It works the same way at work when people are on the job. However, in the workplace the top boss may need a fresh out-of-the-box idea in order to succeed against stiff competition and there will likely be stiff resistance to new suggestions because of peer pressure from coworkers or influence from first line supervisors.

A dramatic example of this arose when one person had been detailed to a week-long training session designed to help improve the work life culture of her department. She was excited that she had been selected for the assignment, and approached the learnings with enthusiasm. But the day she returned to work she'd been informed that her situation had changed. She had been taken off a visible and challenging assignment because she "wasn't around" even though the project did not begin for another week - she had missed nothing. The disappointment went further when she was informed by her immediate supervisor that, "In the future, you'd do better to avoid going off to training - all you need is on-the-job experience. Do you understand what I'm talking about here?" She understood perfectly!


WorkLife Culture versus Work-Life Programs.

At the outset I need to clarify the difference between WorkLife and Work-Life. The distinction is subtle but critical. WorkLife has to do with the rules that govern on-the-job relationships. The quality of those relationships often determine job satisfaction attributes that are associated with work. The previous paragraph describes a WorkLife issue. Work-Life programs are different. They may provide flexible hours, job sharing arrangements, or even on-site day care for working parents. Often Work-Life programs relieve the pressure associated with potential conflict between working arrangements and the requirements of non-working demands. Both are critical pieces of the worker satisfaction formula. The remainder of this paper will focus on WorkLife issues.


Quality of WorkLife in the Quality of Life Formula.

In the last few months I've read three articles listing Quality of Life attributes as the rationale for business relocation. Hampton Roads was not on any of those lists. The Quality of Life attributes mentioned in these articles ought to have placed Hampton Roads high on the list. I believe we didn't make these lists because our economic conditions are in decline. Further, and more importantly, I believe our economic conditions are in decline because the quality of WorkLife culture in Hampton Roads is far below what it ought to be. Economic conditions will not improve until this vital core element has been corrected. That cannot be done in the school systems, nor the churches, nor in the home. The only place that worklife culture can be influenced is in the workplace.

The Virginia Business Observer reported that Technical School graduates are seeking employment elsewhere because wages and salaries are higher at other locations. The best of our youth are going elsewhere for an improved quality of life and the economic advantages that come with it. I serve on several regional and municipal councils that all agree - business and Industry involvement is the answer. When business wants to reverse this trend, it can do it.

Face it, Hampton Roads is declining in our ability to keep and attract growth businesses. True, we do attract new manufacturing organizations often under the mystique of being "high-tech" because we have an increasing supply of lower-end wage earners, but is that what we really want to boast about? I think not. Certainly we want to continue to expand employment opportunities for our Region, but not at the expense of potential economic growth when the profits don't even stay in this Region.

As long as we continue to supply cheap labor for manufacturing, assembly, or call center workers we'll attract those industries - and they will ultimately add to our problems by providing minimum opportunity for advancement. Hampton Roads will never achieve its full potential by attracting this type of low-end manufacturing and assembly business. This is especially true if those businesses are principally owned and managed by out-of-towners that come here for less expensive labor in order to increase profits.


WorkLife Fatigue.

WorkLife fatigue emerges from a workforce that is fully and continuously engaged to satisfy its external customers. Fatigue comes from not having a break from the "production line." Peer and supervisory pressure is there to NOT serve on reinvention teams, for example, where innovation is desperately needed. Peers often put pressure on coworkers NOT to participate in these needed activities for a variety of reasons, among them being that it may add work to those remaining. Fewer people in a work group will have to do without while some ad hoc team is dreaming up new strategies for success. Because of downsizing and rightsizing, the needed "slack time" for critical revitalization activities may be gone. Many popular authors have studies the adverse affects of a "lean and mean" organization structure on the ability to innovate - the ability is clearly adversely impacted.


Gatekeepers of WorkLife Culture.

The Hampton Roads Partnership has placed much of the responsibility for a new way to make the 700,000 plus Hampton Roads workforce more productive on pre-work education. This approach will not work. The influence new graduates have on the current in-place workforce as they enter it is incalculably small. Supervisors at the front line are not waiting for recent graduates to come up with innovative ideas to "save" Hampton Roads from economic decline. In fact, the opposite may be true.

Most of the front line supervisors I've talked to recently are somewhat frustrated about the talent and attitude that comes off the education assembly line as it is. The new Generation-X has a strike against it before it even arrives at work on day one. There is a new work ethic among younger workers that the current front line ranks resents, and probably would not listen to seriously until those younger workers had been assimilated into the worklife culture - a condition that takes years to achieve.

So, how do you change a worklife culture that appears to be in decline? Definitely not through pre-employment education, probably not through on-the-job-education either. The paradigm must be reversed from education and training to organization learning - from a push system to a pull system. The change emphasis must come from the most difficult level in an organization to change, front line supervision supported by middle management. That won't occur in an out-of-organization classroom. It must occur at work, while working! This is a near reversal of our current or traditional learning context.


A More Realistic Plan.

The following plan does not replace any process that would improve the competency of workers before or after they join the workforce. The capacity for innovation and growth does not come from competency alone. If that were so, and it is not, than all innovations throughout history would have emerged only from the most educated. Many natural attributes also enter the innovation and quality of work life formula - like curiosity, common sense, a winning personality, lofty dreams, commitment, tenacity, or ambition.

Four actions are required to turn the workforce around toward one of innovation and attractiveness:

1. Shift Innovation Boundaries to Provide a Channel for Continuous Improvement. Currently front line supervisors and middle management are held accountable for production, not for innovation. Until senior management finds a way to include these groups in legitimate innovation projects, this group will continue to do as they have always done - and it will be the death knell of growth and progress.

2. Provide Meaningful Qualitative and Quantitative Feedback. The current system of appraisal of work is archaic. It provides feedback to workers not about their work, but about a senior's opinion of their work. As long as the opinion is more important than the real work, current worklife culture will prevail. Meaningful metrics must be found for every job and those metrics alone must comprise a worker's appraisal - their ability to add value to the work demanded of them.

If you don't think that numbers are your friends, think again! I'm advocating counting things that are important - I'm not suggesting that you count everything. Focus on the few actions that really make a difference between success and failure, and keep track of them. Decide what numbers would offer proof of your success and keep edging toward those numbers. When you attain those numbers, decide if a better number would offer an opportunity to improve or if you need to sustain that level of performance while you tackle the next priority. Organizations have just so much energy to go around - don't waste it!

3. Focus on Work Force Capacity Development Priorities. Focus on the priorities that will make a difference. Let everyone know what those few things are that you are trying to achieve. Too many priorities mean that nothing is a priority and everything gets done with an equal lack of luster. When determining priorities, get as close to the "root" as possible so that your solution will have the most profound impact. Spending valuable time wrestling a symptom to the ground will not return much in the way of investment two months down the road. Be sure the priorities are few in number, visible to the workforce, and lofty in potential.

4. Insist on a Well documented and Publicized Learning Regimen. This is not the normal kind of learning one thinks of obtaining in a classroom or from a textbook. The kind of learning I'm talking about emerges from the common dialog between people who work together to achieve a specific result. This dialog ought to come immediately on the heals of a concrete work experience: What went well? What could we improve? Everyone involved in the task needs an opportunity to learn from it, either at the time or shortly thereafter. Examine everything you can about the experience. Elevate the few broad items that can be urgently pursued, and envision a new way of doing the activity you are examining.

Any large complex workforce, whether in a single organization or spread out across a large region like Hampton Roads, cannot be changed through pre-entry education and training. People will learn from their experiences in an organization and modify what is "right" based on the desire to maintain successful working relationships. The task ahead for Hampton Roads can be undertaken only through an urgent application of a system like the one outlined above that also includes education and training "off-the-job" with realistic incentives for those who elect to participate. The alternative will be to continue a dangerous decline that will affect those who live in this region now and those who will be attracted to it in the future.

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