Sunday, February 17, 2013

Linchpins and Call Center Hell

I recently spent an hour on the phone trying to figure out some information about my health insurance.  I called my Human Resources Hotline (HRH), which is contracted out to a Human Resources Hotline Services Provider (HRHSP).  I selected an option, and got another contractor.  There was a slight wait, and then the Human Resources Hotline Services Provider Help Agent II  (HRHSPHAII) pleasantly informed me that I chose the wrong option.  Since the contractors who handled my inquiry were in another agency, she could not directly transfer my call, and I would have to go through the menu again. 

This call caused me to reflect on how incredibly complicated organizational structure has become.  Manufacturing led the way in creating long supply chains of highly-specialized work.  It has become so specialized that floods in Thailand affect supply chains everywhere.  The services industry has followed manufacturing, as any interaction with health insurance providers shows.  In fact, the very language of services indicates this specialization.  There are no HR departments, insurance companies, or banks any more--only HR contractors, insurance providers, and financial services organizations.

Adam Smith showed that everyone gets more stuff when we specialize and create divisions of labor.  But we're reaching the limits of specialization and hierarchical organization.  After offshoring simple tasks for decades, manufacturing now requires specialized skills.  This has caused manufacturing to come back closer to home.  Service industries like human resources can't possibly become any more specialized, as my latest phone call shows.  Only industries like construction, fast food, or elderly care can still use unskilled labor.  There are, of course, places where labor can be further deskilled, especially education and health care, but we're hitting an asymptote.

I recently wrote that you're not that smart.  The corollary is that no one is that smart.  Systems have become so complex that no one can understand it all.  This has its disadvantages, but it's a huge opportunity for people who can make sense out of the complexity.  The most valuable people in a world like ours can navigate complex systems.  They're the ones who make order out of chaos, bridge divisions of labor, and don't say "It's not my job."  If you can't do any of these things, your job will be offshored or automated.  You can't compete with the Wal-Mart or Foxconn workers of the world.

This is Seth Godin's argument in his recent book Linchpin.  (I typically do not like self-help business books, but Godin has a background in computer science and philosophy, so I thought I would check him out.)

I think Godin is right in many respects.  I've been in meetings or conference calls where no one made useful distinctions, explained what was going on to others, or suggested courses of action.  Someone needs to take ownership and not simply wait for orders to come.  Hierarchies and divisions of labor work when problems can be fit into the existing system.  When they don't, someone needs to figure it out.

Godin says you have to choose to be a linchpin, a genius, an artist.  This still seems a little bizarre to me, but there is a choice involved in taking ownership of a problem.  When everyone shrugs their shoulders, you have to choose to step up.  I think many people are afraid to make this choice, since they might fail or get criticized.  I used to be intimidated in meetings, until I realized that no one really knows what is going on.  If your company is working on problems no one has solved before (and it probably is if it's not going out of business soon), then no one knows what the solution is.  We're all just trying to figure things out.

The interesting thing is that, once you start contributing to figuring things out rather than just taking orders, you have a lot more control over what your job looks like.  There is a base set of things you have to do--documentation, fixing bugs, etc.--but the rest of your job is up to you.  You get to decide what problems look interesting.  At least, this has been my experience.  I've taken on things no one else wanted to, and I've helped solved problems no one else even saw as problems--they were just business as usual.

What makes me nervous about Godin's advice is that it can sound like you just need to accept your job and put a smile on your face.  It may be true that your work might be more rewarding if you took it seriously, but it might not.  Many people have dead-end jobs with stupid rules and terrible bosses, and it's hard to be choosy in this economy.  Perhaps there is some area in their life where they can be linchpins, but it's probably not work.  I count myself lucky to work in technology, and I don't take it for granted.

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