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Corporate adipose tissue (first appeared in InfoWorld)

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A good friend told me, “I was terminated with 20 minutes left in the day, on a Thursday. They had said I would be severed sometime during the month but they had led me to believe it would be closer to the end of the month. Nice treatment after 24 1/2 years …”

Another company bought his employer a few years before. He had known the day was coming, and he never once expressed resentment over his coming layoff. Elimination of redundant staff is one of the realities of a merger or acquisition. Yes, it’s painful, but there’s no foul — business is out to make good business decisions.

Why was it was managed so badly?

Consider the Portuguese man-of-war. As we learned in high school, although it looks like one animal, it’s actually a colony of independent coelenterates, each of which feeds and reproduces separately.

We’re colonies, too. As Richard Dawkins points out in The Selfish Gene, a body is just a gene’s way of making more genes. Even that is a simplification. An unknown proportion of our internal constituents began as independent critters. Mitochondria, for example, the organelles that make oxygen the key to metabolism instead of a toxic gas, started out as free-living bacteria.

Even though each of us is a colony, we manage to act as a purposeful organism – so much so that we harm individual colony members with callous disregard. (Example: Every time someone goes on a diet they starve or kill billions of fat cells – and just think of how many are destroyed during liposuction!)

Liposuction creates personal change. How about business change?

IS projects have always been about business change, and an increasing number of companies recognize that all IS projects are really business change projects that inject significant new technology into the equation.

Most business changes both create and eliminate jobs within the enterprise. Whatever your role in IS, at some point in your career you’ll help eliminate the jobs of innocent employees who did their jobs competently but whose roles are no longer needed because of the business change you helped the company achieve.

Companies are getting better at managing business change. They’ve learned to redesign processes, integrating technology into the new process design. They’ve learned to train employees in the new processes and technology rather than assuming everything will be self-evident. Most have learned to communicate the reason for a change, not just “here’s your new job – now go do it.” Some have even learned that redesigning the organizational chart comes after redesigning processes and technology, not before.

Sadly, though, many companies still see employees as nothing more than adipose cells … hence the phrase, “Getting rid of the fat.” And if you raise your hand to protest a layoff you risk being branded as soft – the business equivalent of “bleeding heart liberal.”

So here’s some advice: If you have an opportunity to influence how your business will manage a change that requires layoffs, don’t get all righteous about what is ethical, compassionate, or the right thing to do. In business, ethics is a personal matter, and ethical businesses get that way through leaders who act ethically, not through preaching.

Instead, be practical.

Point out that the long-term goal of business change is growth, and the cost of laying off one group of employees and then recruiting a different group is far higher than the cost of retraining the employees you have.

Suggest that when “trimming the fat” the company should use a sharp knife, not a sledgehammer. If valuable employees who support change find opportunities while non-performers and change resistors find themselves on the outside, most employees will quietly applaud when they no longer have to cover for their non-producing peers.

Most important of all, point out that every time the company treats departing employees like the cast-off byproducts of cosmetic surgery, the morale of every remaining employee plummets, and employees who might otherwise support change will become sullen and passive resistors of it, something every bit as poisonous as some colonists in a Portuguese man-of-war.

That’s bad for profits, and even worse when the next big change comes around.