Only in government would it be necessary to create a bureaucracy and new jargon to involve employees in operating decisions at work.
I had almost forgotten “the robust vision laid out in Executive Order [EO] 13522, Creating Labor Management Forums to Improve Delivery of Government Services.” That created “a national Council . . .and nearly 1000 forums around government” and authorized “pre-decisional involvement with unions in all workplace matters to the fullest extent practicable, without regard to whether those matters are negotiable subjects of bargaining.” That is until I found the brief discussion of the EO in the Analytical Perspectives volume accompanying the FY 2015 Budget. (emphasis added)
This of course is 20 years after the term ‘empowerment’ came into common use. It’s also now more than 40 years after Volvo adopted ‘autonomous work groups’ in a plant in Sweden. Those are now self-managed teams and experience confirms that in a reasonably stable work environment a supervisor is an unnecessary cost; employees are fully capable of managing the work process.
Managing Employees as an Asset
My experience as a consultant has taken me into hundreds of organizations. When I started employees were treated as a cost and with all costs the idea is control and minimize. Through most of the last century workers were treated as interchangeable – if an employee quit, he was easily replaced. That philosophy continued through the 1990 recession.
It was not until Michael Hammer co-authored the book, Reengineering the Corporation, in 1993 that industry began to rethink the role of workers. Since then we have seen a revolution in the way work is organized and managed. The phase ‘intellectual capital’ emerged to refer to the knowledge workers bring to their jobs, and subsequently replaced by human capital. ‘Participative management’ was replaced by empowerment.
Most important is that the smart employers – for example, those recognized as Great Places to Work – now view employees as assets, not costs. A Google search on that phrase found 244 million hits!
And as with other assets, the goal is to more fully utilize employee capabilities. Enlightened companies invest in their assets because they expect it to pay off with better results.
The Great Places to Work companies consistently outperform their competitors. Yes, many have generous compensation programs but a supermarket chain has been on the list for years. I shop regularly in one of the stores and there is a decided difference in the attitude of employees. The level of compensation is not the issue.
Recent research shows mid-level managers have a greater impact on performance than any other factor, including top management. Managers are the primary reason workers quit – or retire on the job – and conversely are responsible for creating a work place where employees are engaged and committed to the success of their employer.
The NGA Story
When the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) was formed in 1996 they developed totally new systems for managing people. The HR team conducted focus groups to understand manager and employee concerns. They established a steering group composed of employees from across the agency to develop a framework for the new systems.
Those groups were the starting point for continuing employee involvement. A group of 100 additional managers and staff were asked to participate on eight teams to flesh out new HR practices. Feedback was solicited several times from stakeholders.
This helped trigger “buy-in’ or ownership. Individuals who played a role often became champions for the new systems. The involvement also helped the planners to anticipate special concerns and issues that if ignored could become problematic. The planners became trusted sources of information for co-workers.
Following the planning they initiated an aggressive employee outreach along with training for managers on everything from process instruction to soft skills training (e.g., providing feedback and coaching). The comments and questions in focus groups were used to tailor communications.
NGA also formed as many as 30 occupational advisory boards to consider issues related to performance management for each job family. High performing employees frequently serve as Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) in planning and maintaining performance systems. In two or three meetings high performers can define performance criteria including the competencies needed for job success.
A Broader Approach is Needed
There is certainly nothing wrong with labor-management councils. They can change the climate for labor relations. “Works councils” are integral to labor relations in several European countries.
But formalized submission and approval processes inevitably slow the adoption of new ideas. They also limit the flow of ideas. Thousands of federal employees are not represented by unions.
Government needs to involve employees at all levels in decision making. Their knowledge is simply too valuable to ignore. Decisions are generally better and made faster by people who have a hands-on understanding of problems and who will be directly affected by the actions. With knowledge workers, ignoring their expertise is certain to be at least frustrating.
A wealth of anecdotal stories confirms employees welcome those opportunities and gain considerable satisfaction from the experience. They take pride in knowing their input was important.
NGA has won awards as an employer of choice – prior to the sequestration of course.