Ready For The Revolution?

Dec. 21, 2004
Tom Peters sees a major transformation of whitecollar work taking shape. And he has a few notions about what it will take to survive.

Indisputably, the business world has experienced wrenching change in recent years -- driven, to a large extent, by the reengineering craze and the adoption of massive enterprise-wide information systems. Nowhere has the impact been more severe than within the ranks of whitecollar employees. And the end, suggests Tom Peters, is nowhere in sight. The well-known management guru predicts that during the next 10 to 15 years more than 90% of whitecollar positions "will disappear or be reconfigured beyond recognition." He describes a workplace revolution that will have profound implications for career-minded employees, the organizational structures they inhabit, and the managers they report to. Peters, who gained early fame as the coauthor of the 1982 business bestseller, In Search of Excellence, has been doing quite a bit of thinking lately about the "reinvention" of work -- which is the central theme of his latest series of books, published by Alfred A. Knopf Inc., and also a focal point for dialogue on his Web site. As companies have revamped internal business processes, one emerging trend, Peters observes, has been an increased emphasis on multifunctional activity -- projects that draw on the expertise of people from different corporate departments. "You might still be a purchasing guy or a human-resources guy," he says, "but in the future you may be spending 75% of your time working on project teams with people from other functions. You will still have a home in, say, the HR department, but that dimension will become weaker while the multifunctional dimension becomes stronger -- as opposed to the past when the functional dimension arguably was strong and the cross-functional dimension was pretty weak." This raises a key question: How will traditional company departments be affected? Peters guesses that they will evolve into something resembling "professional services firms" -- such as Deloitte & Touche or Andersen Consulting, or even the handyman-entrepreneur who paints houses for a living. One thing these outfits have in common, he points out, is that they have to market what they do based on the value that they provide. They have to be prepared to answer the question: "Is the work worth paying for?" Increasingly, whitecollar workers -- and the managers who head functional departments -- will be forced to meet that value test. "My bias," Peters says, "is that has not been the approach that people have taken in the typical human-resources department or finance department. I don't think that the great mass of employees working in [functional] departments have really had that kind of a yardstick applied to them." But that is beginning to change, he suggests. Executives reshaping organ-izational structures increasingly will be scrutinizing the contributions of individual whitecollar employees, along with the roles they play. "Between reengineering and these so-called ERP systems," Peters contends, "the conventional whitecollar department becomes literally the dinosaur to end all dinosaurs -- unless it can figure out a way to provide some distinctive value-added services for the rest of the enterprise. And it has to demonstrate that by doing work that's worth paying for." In the typical large company, he believes, many departmental managers find it difficult to adopt the sort of mentality that drives professional-services firms. "It is not so much that there is active resistance," he says. "It is that there is a lack of imagination. Too many departments see themselves essentially as mechanics. The HR department is there to make sure that you don't get sued by the EEOC. The finance department is there to make sure that the numbers add up." What most departments haven't been doing, he laments, is energetically searching for ways to increase the value that they deliver to the corporation. But that will change -- at both the departmental level and the individual-employee level. In one of his new books -- The Brand You50 (1999, Alfred A-Knopf) -- Peters recommends that whitecollar employees begin to think and act like independent contractors, not only becoming incredibly good at what they do but also searching for new ways to enhance their contribution to the companies that employ them. In the process, they will build portfolios that make them hotter commodities in the external job marketplace. Peters advises whitecollar employees to latch onto "Wow!" projects that have a measurable impact, or to find ways to transform lesser tasks into such projects. Those who hope to survive the revolution, he asserts, must "grasp the gauntlet of personal reinvention . . . before [they] become obsolete." For example, that means choosing projects that will contribute to personal growth rather than simply doing "what the boss told me to do." Whitecollar employees who do expand their skill base will enhance their job-market mobility. In turn, this will put the onus on employers to "create a climate where really interesting people want to stick around," Peters says. "I think that is exactly what Jack Welch has done at General Electric. Prior to his ascendancy to the throne 20 years ago, GE was a pretty bureaucratic place. Now young men and young women understand that, if they are imaginative and entrepreneurial and work like hell, they can achieve some really exciting results." Since large companies offer access to capital and resources, they're well positioned to nurture good ideas, provided that they can create an entrepreneurial environment, Peters points out. "But it seldom works that way," he laments. "What often happens is that they have the resources, but they become pretty dull and dreary places that can't attract exciting people. And if they do attract them, these people leave quickly because you can't achieve any distinction until you are 48 years of age. "The good news about the great American [economic] boom is that employers are beginning to get this, because there is a true talent war going on out there. Five or six years ago, when the labor market wasn't so tight, it was a different ball game." As the emphasis on attracting talent and performing "work that matters" increases, Peters asserts, companies will need to cultivate a new class of managers able to adopt a professional-services-firm mentality. "The finance boss at Ford," he contends, "is going to have to behave the same way that the boss at McKinsey & Co. behaves. And he is going to have to learn to deal with talent the same way." Functional managers will have to learn "the difference between doing totally acceptable work and creating very new value," he says. And they'll need employees who are "going for the gold, rather than planning to occupy a chair on the 37th floor of the downtown tower for the next 42 years." One of the biggest impediments to rejuvenating attitudes among white-collar workers, Peters admits, is the cynicism that has taken root in the wake of corporate downsizings. "I think that the patterns associated with some of the mindless layoffs in big companies are such that it is going to take a hell of a long time to get beyond that kind of cynicism," he says. "But the only person who loses if you wallow in cynicism in the midst of this much change is you." Where employees feel stymied by corporate stupidity, stealth can be an ally in pursuing "Wow!" projects, Peters advises. His whitecollar revolution "credo" advocates that people learn to "subvert the hierarchy." "Instead of worrying about your boss, find a couple of co-conspirators, hopefully a long way from home," he recommends, "and mount a little project with them -- one that is essentially invisible to the corporate powers that be. Find an interesting project and put a lot of your energy into that. If your idea is worth a darn and blooms in the Fargo distribution center, then you may have an opportunity to go through more traditional channels. . . . In football terminology, you've got to find a hole to run through." IBM Corp.'s effective thrust in e-commerce, Peters points out, grew out of the efforts of an employee working in a small company laboratory in England. "Essentially, it was an invisible project that amounted to following his passion." To survive the whitecollar revolution, he adds, employees might be well advised to treat the corporate hierarchy with benign neglect: "Answer the phone. Be polite to your boss. Wear a dark black suit. And then work on the things you want to work on as much as you possibly can."

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