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Thread: Are employees interchangeable parts?

  1. #1
    just me duncan drennan's Avatar
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    Are employees interchangeable parts?

    Are employees interchangeable parts? From a top level management perspective I would guess that we want to be able to think that they are, but does that degrade the value of our employees?

    Paul Graham is actually writing about programming and solving problems, but this part jumped out at me,

    Even more striking are the number of officially sanctioned projects that manage to do all eight things wrong. In fact, if you look at the way software gets written in most organizations, it's almost as if they were deliberately trying to do things wrong. In a sense, they are. One of the defining qualities of organizations since there have been such a thing is to treat individuals as interchangeable parts. This works well for more parallelizable tasks, like fighting wars. For most of history a well-drilled army of professional soldiers could be counted on to beat an army of individual warriors, no matter how valorous. But having ideas is not very parallelizable. And that's what programs are: ideas.

    It's not merely true that organizations dislike the idea of depending on individual genius, it's a tautology. It's part of the definition of an organization not to. Of our current concept of an organization, at least.

    Maybe we could define a new kind of organization that combined the efforts of individuals without requiring them to be interchangeable. Arguably a market is such a form of organization, though it may be more accurate to describe a market as a degenerate case—as what you get by default when organization isn't possible.

    Read the full essay by Paul Graham
    To me this is a question of firstly how we treat people (i.e. are you a person or just a number that can be replaced), and also how we value their contribution. It is more about our mindset towards people.

    If you think that people are interchangeable (and therefore treat them that way), do you degrade the morale of your workforce?
    Last edited by duncan drennan; 24-Aug-07 at 12:21 PM.

  2. #2
    Gold Member Dave S's Avatar
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    Employees Interchageable?

    Very good question. As a Manager of "multiple lanes" (another catch phrase, pointing to someone that multi-tasks), I find that when I hire persons to do a specific job, such as an Auto-Electrician or Mechanic, they will be exposed to each others job roles therefore allowing for a multi-skilled individual, so that, should the task require both inputs, one idividual can complete the task successfully, thus allowing me to utilise others for alternate tasks. Having spoken with my employees regularly about this, I have come to believe that they actually prefer to be skilled in this manner and their view is that it is more an enhancement than a lag. They often excel at tasks outside their specific fields and generally are more productive. Excersize caution, for example, if a task is predominantly Mechanical don't unecessarily use the Electrician as he may not be as competant as the Mechanic and vice-versa. When utilising the Human resource in this manner a particular failure could also cause this employee to lack confidence and special attention needs to be paid to ensure they understand that failure is just another step to success, also one needs to pay particular attention to possible errors and the discipline associated with this, so as to avoid obstruction to individual rights. I do not, however, support regular employee changes as this is negative and counter to what we are trying to achieve and may make an employee feel abused or disregarded. If I am going to change employees it will rather be due to the promotion of someone.

    I guess it's a little different in the Golf Course industry than what would be elsewhere, but I started out in the same manner and I am greatful for this today as it has allowed insite into many different areas and I hope the same for my subordinates.

  3. #3
    Site Caretaker Dave A's Avatar
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    This particular thread has been gnawing at me for a little while. I've made a few attempts to get my ideas down to a post, but not much more than flawed drafts came out. So here goes nothing (again).

    I've had to clarify something like this issue in my own mind lately.

    In the initial expansion from an OMB to an organisation (which I very loosely define as more than two people heading roughly in the same direction), I built a small team of talented individuals. And I kept doing that as we expanded as much as possible.

    But there was something I was ignoring - are they also team players?

    At the really small stage it was not much of an issue. Each individual's area of expertise and role within the team was so clearly separate from the other members of that small team, the few conflicts that did arise were really at a personal level and didn't impact that much on performance of the team as a business unit.

    It was at a point where we had enough people in the organisation so that overlap developed that I noticed trouble brewing. We had people "defending their patch" and people wandering off their allocated turf in a desire to expand their "base." And sparks started to fly at a business level.

    There is a point where making a decision on this is not that difficult. When any particular star starts hurting the overall production of the team instead of contributing to it, you simply know who has to go.

    But there is this pretty large grey area before that rather obvious point is reached. And in that zone making a call on what to do, placate the star individual or the team, is not easy at all.

    Probably the hardest part for me was that it is easy to see this as a choice between individuals, because often on the surface that is where it seems to flare - a conflict between individuals. It was only when I was reminded of my role as the owner/manager that it became clearer.

    My responsibility is towards the total output of the organisation. And that makes the decisions that need to be made significantly easier. It's the output of the team that really counts. Forget about stars and non-stars at this point. you're either adding to the team or taking away. Period.

    There are stars that are team players. They are gold.
    There are team players who are not stars. They are gold too.
    There are stars who break teamwork. Do I need to flesh that one out.

    Hmm. Reading that I know I've not covered this as well as I should. Perhaps I'll try to add more later, or perhaps what I'm trying to get at will clarify in debate on this forum. but if I don't hit Submit reply this time, I might never get to it

    Maybe the only other observation I must make at this point is that the moment a person believes they are irreplaceable, or that the organisation is somehow uniquely dependent on their presence, you're going to get an insight into any dark flaws that may be present in their character pretty soon.

    If none emerge - you've got something pretty rare.
    Seeing opportunity changes nothing. Seizing opportunity and running with it changes lives.

  4. #4
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    Don't start with People start with position

    In my field I have the privilege to go into all manner of businesses, small to large and in all industries. The answer we have come to (and which we have tried and tested) is that you never start by looking at the people you look at the position, the job specification.
    When you started you had an idea for your business, you then decided on what duties/actions was needed. You decided what skills and at what cost was needed. Based on this your recruit a candidate and it is here that things changed.
    Having a face and personality with all the external factors shifts the focus. This is not wrong as managing the emotional state and expectation of your staff is very important for over all morale.
    However when addressing the business and its profitability and needs to grow and develop you keep your eye on the bottom line. What are the duties/actions, skills and at what cost, have they changed? If so to what? If not then the same question begs “is this person still the right person for the job” it does not matter that I really like him/her or if this person has acquired cross skill.
    This does not always result in getting rid of the person as they might now be perfect for a different position.
    Basic point is you did not get into business to look after personalities you did so to make a profit and be competitive. Yes you have a responsibility to the people who work for you but don’t forget the responsibility these people have to you and don’t forget your bottom line.

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    Dave A (17-Sep-08)

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