A ManagementSpeak from 2008: “This is an opportunity to expand your value to the organization and build your career.” The translation: Budget cuts prevent us from hiring the people we need, so we’re increasing your responsibilities and workload (and thanks to Peter Bushman for spotting and translating it).

In 2008, and for who knows how long before that, the promise of career advancement … the promise, not the delivery … has been enough to encourage initiative and hard work delivered in unpaid overtime, donated by career-minded employees in the expectation that the promise will be fulfilled.

Making the promise has no budget impact, a fact many managers take advantage of. And as the actual promotion depends on a more senior or management position being open, failing to fulfill the promise is never the promiser’s fault.

Smart leaders do their best to deliver on the promise, and not make promises they can’t keep. They’re smart, that is, if initiative comes in the form of useful ideas and the hard work and unpaid overtime are executed well.

The career-advancement promise is, that is, contingent on the delivery of high-value results. If ideas are foolish and work is of poor quality? That’s a case of more not always being better, and ought to result in a candid conversation. Employees deserve an explanation of how and why their results don’t qualify.

No fraud, no harm, no foul. It’s a formula that can work well for all parties.

But imagine the workplace evolves as suggested in this space last week, with employees eschewing traditional forms of career advancement. It might be wanting just a job and not a career. It might be a more radical shift away from employment altogether, as people figure out how to piece together a rewarding life and the wherewithal to live it by contracting, by driving for Lyft and Uber, and otherwise signing up for the “gig economy.”

Whatever it is, an unfortunate consequence (for management) is less reason for employees to show initiative, let alone to donate unpaid hours to the CEO’s retirement fund. “An honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay,” is more likely to dominate employee culture than “We give it 110 percent.”

On the other side of the coin, if fewer employees have career aspirations that means, if we’re going to be cynical about it, that managers have more opportunities to dangle in front of the remaining employees who still do. It’s simple math: fewer employees will be competing for roughly the same number of career-advancing positions, so their odds improve.

But what if you’re in the workforce and don’t want the Hobson’s Choice of either climbing the career ladder at the expense of living the life you want, or living the life you want without the sense of personal achievement that has, in the past come from career advancement?

Right now the best you can probably do is sign up with one or more IT services firms that specialize in providing contract talent to their clients. As you succeed in your assignments your billing rate will track your level of accomplishment, as will the title next to your name: The Role you’re sold as being competent in, prefixed by nothing, “Senior,” or “Master.” Along with the prefix comes increasing difficulty and level of interest in the assignments you take on.

Bob’s last word: We are, I think, in the middle of a major transition in how businesses and the workforce relate to each other. The current state of this transition is what we’ve been exploring last week and here.

But we shouldn’t confuse the current state with the end point. If current trends continue, my own forecast is that this will all evolve into the reincarnation of the guild.

A guild, in case you’re unfamiliar with the term, is a membership-based home for practitioners of a trade. It has some characteristics of a union, others of credentialing bodies, along with the role services firms now play in finding work for the professionals they represent.

Companies needing staff with a particular set of skills would no longer go through the dysfunctional recruiting process they and the targets of their potential affection are currently afflicted with. Instead they’d contact the relevant guild, which would be responsible for providing appropriately skilled workers, invoicing for their services, and paying the workers for their time and effort.

This doesn’t mean “employment” would be entirely a relic of a quaint and rosy past. I do think we’ll see a significant shift in this direction.

Bob’s sales pitch: CIO.com has published the second of three articles on Technical Architecture in my IT 101 series. You’ll find it here: “Evaluating technical architecture: 11 key criteria and how to apply them.” If you need to catch up, you’ll find the first technical architecture article in the series here: “Technical architecture: What IT does for a living.”

First, some set-up:

In a free society, three forces offset each other to maintain a balance: Government, business, and community.*

Government and business are self-defining. Community encompasses everything from religious and charitable organizations, to organizations promoting social justice such as the NAACP and National LQBTQ Task Force, to those trying to prevent social justice – the Proud Boys and their ilk qualify – to, at the opposite extreme of size and organization, bowling leagues and backyard barbecues.

Depending on how you count, the modern labor movement began during the industrial age with the formation of the American Federation of Labor in 1886, adding labor as a fourth balancer by provided protections and influence, both contractual and political, to workers whose roles up until then had made them, from management’s perspective, fungible, and therefor powerless.

To wrap up this stage-setting: Not all that long ago, during the early stages of the information age (also depending how you count) the workforce could be subdivided into people who wanted jobs and those who wanted careers.

The plan for those who wanted jobs was to exchange time and effort for money. As an incidental benefit it provided a community for employees who wanted to socialize.

The plan for those who wanted careers, whether as professionals or as managers, was to gain a sense of identity: from their affiliation with their employer; from the role they played as part of that affiliation; and on top of that from pride of accomplishment in exchange for their time and effort. Providing a community – the teams career-minded employees worked in – was arguably more of a benefit for these employees than for those who only wanted jobs.

When the business was doing well, leaders and managers generally preferred career-minded individuals, because their career-mindedness gave their manager more tools to motivate them with. During downturns, though, the fungibility of job-oriented workers made them easier to lay off, and to be re-hired if and when profitability returned.

And here we are, in the nascent digital age, where these workplace trends will, and in some places already are shifting the balance from leadership to management as vital skills for running an organization:

  • Remote employees: An increasing proportion of employee (or contractor) responsibilities can be fulfilled from anywhere.
  • One-dimensional management/employee relationships: Remoteness results in an increase in management by metrics, where employee effectiveness is gauged mostly or solely by how many work products the employee creates in a period of time, and their quality.
  • One-dimensional employee/employee relationships: Trust and alignment, the hallmarks of effective teams, is becoming optional, as work is reduced to a series of narrowly defined assignments.
  • Sense of identity from sources beyond employment: Self-definition means how people think of themselves. “I’m a lawyer,” “I’m a physician,” “I’m a programmer,” are all examples of people defining who and what they are based on what they do to make a living. My sense, and I have only anecdotal data to support it, is that other factors, driven, I think, by remoteness and its consequences, are starting to edge out job titles as sources of self-definition.
  • The diminution of “career” as a motivator: To the extent self-definition is no longer built around what someone does to make a living, management no longer has helping employees grow in their careers as a source of motivation and loyalty.

Bob’s last word: Quite a lot has been published about the importance of employee engagement in recent years (for example, here). I wonder, though, given the social forces that appear to be in play, if pursuing employee engagement might not be an example of “fighting the last war” – of engaging in strategies and tactics that made sense in the past but won’t fit the situation that’s emerging.

So if you’re in graduate school and in search of a thesis topic that’s more than just the same-old same old, I’d encourage you to try designing the optimal employer/employee relationship of the future.

Bob’s sales pitch: I’m often asked how a reader can support KJR. The answer isn’t complicated: If you need consulting assistance in line with what I write here, please don’t be shy.

And on a smaller scale there are the Three Rs: Read, recommend, and review my books.

For your convenience, here’s where you can find them.


* Not original, but I couldn’t track down a source.