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.

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

Back in graduate school, in my electric-fish-research phase, my advisor won a National Geographic grant that took the two of us to Gabon. One of the terms of the grant was that National Geographic had first right of refusal for any photographs we took.

At the time I fancied myself a professional-grade photographer, and so it was that we each sent in the best we’d taken while on the trip. My photos were crisp, well-composed, and attractive.

National Geo’s response: “While your photographs are technically well executed, here at National Geographic we like to have a bit of life in the ones we use.”

But you aren’t reading Keep the Joint Running for tips on taking better pictures, let alone getting the tips from someone whose photos earned a rejection slip.

So instead (drumroll) … here are some tips on IT management that are derived from parallels drawn from what I’ve learned about that subject. Some are more of a stretch than others, so I’m including some recent photos to keep your attention.

Tip#1: Know the current state

Green heron at rest

When shooting (for example) a green heron, capture it at rest while you can. Motion is harder; don’t miss the shot altogether.

When figuring out your IT management priorities, make sure you understand your department’s current state – “at rest,” so to speak – before you start making plans for motion … for change where change might be needed.

Tip#2: Notice motion

It’s doing something. Not sure what …

Capturing motion makes for better photos. Recognizing motion in your organization gives you a chance to reinforce that you value initiative right away, when it occurs. Even if what you’re seeing is just random movement, you can still take advantage of it as an object lesson in what you want to see.

Tip#3: Listen

It’s talking! Are you listening?

Observation is an important tool in your toolkit – so much so that for many managers one of their top priorities right now is figuring out how to engage in “management by calling around” with remote employees, for whom management by walking around doesn’t work.

But beyond observation, pay attention when employees take the initiative to vocalize in your general direction. When the sound is coming from a green heron it might be trying to let you know you’re getting on its nerves.

When your employees are making sounds in your general direction they just might let you know something important about what’s getting on their nerves, even if it isn’t you.

You just have to pay attention.

Tip#4: Give your subject some space

Wait! I didn’t get the shot yet!

When photographing an interesting subject (in this case a great blue heron) it’s tempting to go for the close up. But that can backfire – you get the motion National Geographic likes, but at the risk that what it you’re trying to capture in motion doesn’t want to stick around while you take more photos of it.

When managing IT you might be tempted to get the results you need by overseeing the work that’s getting done too closely. Not every IT professional will sit still for managers who get too close, either. They’ll call it micromanagement and even if they’re wrong they’re right, because there are no precise metrics for identifying micromanagement.

Only gripes when it’s perceived.

Bob’s last word: There’s a near-iron-clad law of avian photography – birds have a remarkably precise ability to know the exact focal length of the lens you’re shooting photos with, and the exasperating habit of perching just beyond what that focal length will support.

It isn’t all about the lens. But the right lens sure does help.

Great glass does make a big difference. But patience can make an even greater difference.

With your employees, providing the best tools of the trade is the parallel to shooting photos with the right equipment. It can make a big difference in employee performance.

But as with photography, when it comes to encouraging the best performance, patience counts for even more.

Bob’s sales pitch: It’s time for you to hop over to CIO.com again to read the next article in my “IT 101” series. This time the subject is technical architecture. And if you don’t mind, take the time to let me know what you think of the series so far.