The world is getting impatient. For results, for success. And corporate training for employees have become shorter; often so short it is non-existent. People and companies are pressing for results and when they do spend, they want the results immediately. And the quality of HR suffers; they are just trying to sift the market and find the talents to hire. Those with experience but are not capable will no longer be able to find work when they are planning to switch. That’s if they are not made redundant yet.
The ones who are inexperienced may find themselves somewhat discriminated against. But if they prove themselves to be capable, they’ll be able to move pretty fast in the private sector. The market will reward them richly; but rarely would companies incentivise them to help train up more people to be like them. Companies would just want to get them for their performance. And drive their results with better rewards and compensation.
Is this sustainable? I’m not sure. I personally don’t think it is going to work. Because the ones who are capable would rise and then eventually grow bigger than the organisations themselves. Or if they are actually keen on upskilling and developing people, they might move out and start businesses themselves because existing businesses out there are not really rewarding employees for developing others and fostering better work environments. Why so? Because collective results are hard to properly attribute to these champions. It is easier to attribute individual results; or allocate achievements to specific individuals.
Scientific management is showing its cracks. I’m not sure how long it will take to manifest in company valuations and the reputation of companies.
As we try to navigate the climate transition, we are working within a framework of incentives and economic structure where incentives are sometimes mis-aligned to driving climate-positive behaviours. Not just climate but sustainability overall. Waste management represents one of the more problematic area. In many situations, the cost of waste management is pretty much socialised with the cost spread out across a large number of people while the economic benefits accrued by only some. Take electronic waste without proper framework in place for disposal and attribution of responsibility to producers, the society bears the overall cost of managing these difficult waste while the benefits are borne only by the users (especially those who are replacing devices extremely often, and the producers who are selling electronic products.
By incorporating producer responsibility, the cost of disposal and waste management should preferably be priced upfront to customers so that they are paying for the lifecycle cost.
The same should be done for various product packaging. After all, the producers are typically the ones responsible for handling the packaging in the first place so it won’t be too bad for them to take on the responsibility. They can then put the cost into the price tag of the users, who would then be the ones paying for those goods that require the particular packaging. The thing about packaging materials and electronic waste is that they have value as recycled materials anyways – which means that if the ‘disposal’ logistics cost can be at least in part offset through the value recovered from aggregation of these materials, it is a win-win.
What about food waste? Food waste should not be the responsibility of the producers since it is the consumers who determine the level of waste based on how much they purchase and eventually consume. Likewise, those in-between the value chain from farm to table would also be responsible for some of the food waste through their utilisation of the ingredients. The way to make them responsible for the disposal cost is to allow only specific channels of disposing food waste and pricing it properly. The cost of disposing food waste will necessarily be the logistics involved, and then offset against whatever residual value the food waste can generate. What kind of residual value is there? After all, food waste cannot be used to remanufactured food (unlike cardboard whose fibre can be used for recycled paper, or e-waste where the extracted metals can be turned back into materials to produce new products).
Food waste can be turned into energy through anaerobic digestion. And the process will generate methane that can be used as a fuel. The fuel potentially displaces fossil fuel and emits biogenic carbon dioxide in the short carbon cycle. Of course, there are plenty of other biofuels that can also be produced from food waste. If we start putting a value on the food waste, does it mean more of such waste would be produced? It is quite unlikely since the value will probably represent some kind of residual value from the primary use of the food. Yet we find CEO of multi-national company Lufthansa thinking otherwise.
The challenge we have today is that the incentives around recovery of residual value from waste. We will need to redesign how we are able to extract residual value, offset against the disposal costs. We will also need to ensure disposal costs are properly priced and applied to the right parties responsible for the waste generation. We need to set up incentives such that waste is properly sorted and pushed into various streams. The cost of mixed-stream convenience needs to be costed to reflect the cost of sorting.
There’s a lot of work ahead. We need people to get on to them.
For most of my life, I had wanted to be an expert. I wanted to be looked up upon for specific knowledge or intelligence, or smarts in some area. There were of course, some areas I was more keen on than others. And as I read more, and gravitate towards specific topics, I wanted more and more to be known as an expert in those subject matters. The problem is that I was curious about many other things as well; in things I would not consider myself expert in (yet).
So then my knowledge starts to broaden, and I get to know a lot more about a variety of things. And I begin to see patterns across the domains. And I begin to think of expertise less like a deep hole, and more like a network of connections across disparate bits of knowledge that others might not recognise as fitting together but you, as the expert, can see it. Precisely because of the lots of learning you had to get there – not by hoarding knowledge but by eventually seeing patterns in the knowledge you acquire.
And then you begin to belittle dense knowledge in any single field or narrow buckets of knowledge that serve specific and narrow purposes. You no longer think that an expert is worth becoming; if you were an expert in just one or a few areas, you are losing out so much more of reality worth exploring. Maybe I just need to be reminded that I never was keen on being an expert, just pursuing wisdom more than mere knowledge. And wisdom is truly a more worthwhile pursuit.
There are imposters around us; they pretend to be doing their work but are actually creating problems for their coworkers to solve. They are starting fires around workplaces that we all have to put out. The only issue is that companies are trying to get people to practise teamwork and they are not trying to sniff out imposters who are just pretending to be teammates. Unless you start playing office politics and all that.
What this means is that if you have been doing well, and keep doing well even though you didn’t seem to have previous experience or built any credentials around it, you’ve already proven yourself. What this means is that if you have some suspicion about yourself as an imposter, consider your intentions rather than your qualifications. What makes you an imposter is when you have drastically different intentions from the rest of the team.
It’s not just your qualifications that gets you there. It’s your intentions as well.
As organisations grow, there’s inevitably a lot of time caught up in meetings and processes to keep people informed, to synchronise and align things. During my time in government I probably spend more than 40% of my week in large team meetings that quickly consume 5-8 man-hours just trying to coordinate activities or update bosses.
I experience that process of bloating as I journey with growing organisations I’ve been with. And I often feel helpless about it. It seemed to me as though the bureaucracy inevitably comes no matter how much we are able to delay it. Technology tools can help to a certain extent but it also creates the convenience and reduce the excuse of coordinating more frequently.
In my perspective, there is this continued struggle between coordination, management and actually getting things done. The bigger and more complex a project is, the more time and resources gets devoted to such work. The question is, what are big projects and such grand scale for? Why do we always focus on scale economies without recognising the downside it has on productivity of our people? Is scale really to capture economies or to feed egos.
What do you view your salary as? Is that a measure of your earning power? Or the return on your education and preparation? The cashflow returns on the asset of your human capital (there’s further capital accumulation through learning on the job). Is it always about trying to increase this return? Or is there anything about getting more days of leave each year? And more benefits?
And do you think you can ask for more? Who is in the market for your labour? And who are you competing? If you consider that your employer is merely paying an ongoing subscription on your full time services as an employee, would that help you think about how much you’re going to ask for?
Why does it seem that the work you do to earn that salary also matters a lot? What actually drives that perception? If you earn $6000-$8000 a month as a construction worker, would you take it up? Assuming you’d be trained from scratch. What kind of work gives you the sense of balance between your salary and the output being produced? How are they shaped by your own thoughts and the people around you?
Many questions and it takes a lot of adulting to answer them. Some of us might never even come to arrive at the answers despite a lifetime of work.
Professional services are inherently somewhat personal kind of service that depends a lot on the team delivering the service – not just because of the expertise required and involved but also the extent the team actually understands and care about the problem that clients have.
When one enters a professional service environment, it becomes easy to sniff out industrialism when you note that the bosses are just acting as managers, thinking about how they can increase more sales, upsell customers and mainly care about the metrics involved for sales but not delivery. And then when it comes to delivery, the culture is about doing the minimum, leveraging irrelevant previous work, failing to live up to promises.
We have all seen the big consultancies deliver such stuff. Perhaps especially the big four. Mariana Mazzucato talks about it in the Big Con. Workers need to sniff out industrialism in this sector and learn to opt out of it – by leaving or changing the way they serve. Clients need to sniff that out by walking away. The reason why such industrialism perpetuates is because clients sign up for them – they put procurement departments, try to boil everything down to basic metrics and uni-dimensional issues, and negotiate lower prices, driving vendors to cut back on service.
We’ve had decades of doing more, extracting more productivity out of our assets, workers and even vendors. Like the big fossil, you might think you’re winning, until you realise you’ve just driven the world to its end.
There was a time when I gave very indirect feedback. Especially when it comes to negative feedback. It was probably an artifact of my work in the government where people are just way too afraid to offend. And often, the boss could be the one making a mistake and no one wants to embarrass him/her. So it was perhaps a big change for me when I joined a French firm. The french were known to disagree passionately about things; and also give pretty direct negative feedback.
Fast forward 2.5 years at the firm. I got feedback from fellow countrymen that I was too direct in giving negative feedback. Upon reflecting and scrutinising the way I gave feedback, I think it wasn’t so much an issue with the directness but how far I was criticising the work rather than the worker. I might not have been delicate enough to recognise this. Going forward, I’d have to pay more attention to structuring these feedback. And there’s a model I came up with which I’d like to share. It follows this framework:
Start by discussing expectations and standards
Then bring up observations on the work done. Note, it is the work and not the ‘performance’ of the individual
Get the individual to compare and share what they think are the gaps
Discuss how you can help them with the gap
It is not easy to follow this framework. Because we are quick to start sharing our observations and how things can be better. What is missing is the point about standards and expectations. Even if those are implied and not made explicit, there has to be some way of aligning it.
I’ve been based out of Australia for almost three months now. The transition was smoother than I had expected and as a Singaporean who have studied abroad both in the US and UK, Australia is an easy environment to fit into.
Yet there is one cultural element in Australia that makes it so radically different from most of the other places I’ve been and lived in. It is the respect and remuneration that is given to heart and hand labour. Vocational skills, trade skills are properly valued. Plumbers, technicians, work men are well respected and rather well compensated. It is a place where I have seen the most female construction workers at work sites. The work environment for these people labouring with their hands are generally good.
Same goes for heart labour. The caregivers; the nurses, those social workers. They are given great deal of respect and these jobs are not looked down upon. It is markedly different from Singapore in that sense. Last year in Singapore, Lawrence Wong made a speech about valuing heart and hand labour more in Singapore. The government was concerned about pay gap and inequalities but as a culture, there is a lot to learn from Australia when it comes to respecting the trade skills.
One could argue the prices would rise; food in Singapore may no longer be cheap. And it might cost way more to get someone to deliver goods or to fix stuff around the house. Well, we do pay a lot more to our corporate workers, and we do pay a lot for tuition teachers – why should head labour necessarily earn more? The government could lead the way by setting higher standards when it comes to some of these trade work. They can also pay more for the services they procure in the heart and hand sectors.
One of the interesting arguments coming out of Mariana Mazzucato’s The Big Con is that because consulting firms are reliant on a continued stream of business from their clients, there is a conflict of interest as they would not be interested to help clients build the capability to solve problems by themselves.
I’m concerned about this argument because that argument can be made in many other situation such as a lawyer not wanting to help client get out of legal trouble or doctor not desiring his patients to recover, etc. It opens a whole can of worms and at the end of the day, boils down to a matter of professional ethics and the standards we need to uphold within the industry and sector.
the need to motivate and retain his good employees as well as
to uphold the interest of his client base.
There may be inherently some industries that are better off for the customers if they were not subject to complete free market type conditions.
Perhaps consulting firms should all continue to stay in the form of partnerships and not allowed to get too big. Likewise, financial advisory might be better off as an industry of freelancing individuals. They can be subject to strict industry and professional body standards rather than be firms operating with huge overheads.