Life at Work
Handling the Reins
Sunday, November 27, 2005
When Peter F. Drucker, the management guru whose work spanned the latter half of the 20th century, passed away earlier this month, it caused a few managers to think. Again.
Drucker was renowned for urging corporate leaders to listen to employees and get out of the way so the workers could achieve company goals. He believed companies would be better if employees had more control over their environments. He argued that companies could attain sustainable profits only by treating employees as valuable assets.
And employees could be valuable assets only if the company created a constant learning and developmental environment.
Drucker, who died Nov. 11 at 95, believed that every enterprise should be a learning and teaching institution. Drucker told managers and executives that their business was to grow and develop people.
But do managers really listen and follow those teachings that sound so . . . right?
Drucker's lessons and philosophies enlightened managers and executives for 60 years and still resonate with today's generation of managers. But what he preached has, in many cases, waned in the face of increasing global competition and workplaces where managers and executives think about shareholders and profits first, before employee development. Drucker would preach against that, vehemently. It is, after all, the supported employee who can help the company compete and increase revenue, right?
"Workplace training tends to be tactical: How do I get that employee through the next hour, the next day? . . . We basically train our employees for a 40-hour workweek," said Lance Camarena, Holland America Line Inc.'s director of training.
Take a cashier, for example, he said. That person is typically trained to use the machine but not in the "soft skills" that advance the person in a job or help the store gain and retain customers. That "other" training would include how to deal with different cultures, fellow colleagues, harassment issues. "What we haven't done is integrated the two, the how-tos, the mechanical pieces of our job with the people skills. That's where the disconnect is," he said.
Camarena tries to strip away his employee's job descriptions in order to train them throughout their cruise-line careers. "We begin our training process with the starting position that you're not just any one thing. That's your title. What is your mission?" he said. A dining steward is not there just to provide food to guests. Instead, he has to provide customer service. He should know what might be fun to do at certain ports and be able to have a conversation with guests about that, Camarena said.
Unfortunately, Camarena said, Drucker's important thoughts have been lost in recent years. Everyone "implies that training is important. Then that's the first thing that gets cut," when a company is facing financial difficulties, he said.
Jim Bowles, vice president of workforce development for Cingular Wireless, said one of the reasons Drucker's training and development philosophy is so important today is because "the needs and nature of people in the workplace continue to shift rather dramatically."
People are different. There are many generations within one workplace, each with different experiences and expectations. It is the company that engages these differences and develops workers' various talents that has a competitive edge, he said.
As for Cingular? "We're not working in an environment now that's void of developmental opportunities. But the nature of what those are has to shift a little bit based on people's expectations."
One of the significant challenges facing a company such as Cingular, said Rob Lauber, executive director of the company's learning services, is that there are constant changes in the marketplace. There was also a huge shift when the company acquired AT&T Wireless Services Inc. The company is learning as it goes, he said, that not only do employees need to be trained in the immediate technology and their immediate job, but they also need to be developed so they can be a better employee over time. That will only help them help the company become more competitive and profitable.
"While in the past it's been seen as necessary evil, more and more we're seeing companies recognize the impact" learning can have on the strategy and success of a business, said Kevin Oakes, president of SumTotal Systems Inc., which creates and sells training software to businesses.
But, he said, the majority of companies still look at training and development as more of a classroom function that takes people away from their "real" job. And they don't understand, he said, that training and development should be something "in the fabric of the company."
However, piece by piece, he believes companies are catching on again. The number of companies with a chief learning officer is growing, and he said a large pharmaceutical company recently told him that SumTotal's application is used second only to e-mail.
Drucker would be so proud.