Brother, sister, can you paradigm

Brother, sister, can you paradigm

Gary Kemper

Words by E.Y. Harburg/Music by Jay Gorney (C) 1932 Warner Bros. Inc., (Renewed)

Someone has just pinned a big red button on you – a big red button that says, “I am self-employed!” What’s your reaction? If your response is,”Oh, no, you must have me mixed up with someone else; I still have a job with Acme Corp,” maybe you haven’t talked with your HR people lately.

Employers – at least those in the U.S. – aren’t coy these days about how they see the relationship between themselves and the people who get the organization’s work done. In more and more companies the connection is said to be “contingent.” Webster defines contingent as “likely but not certain to happen, dependent on or conditioned by something else.”

Especially when it comes to “knowledge workers” (that’s us), this something else is, increasingly, an immediate and definable need. And the likelihood (if not the certainty) is that when the need is ended, so is the work. Result: The traditional job, as defined by a box on an organization chart and a multi-page position description, is headed for the shredder.

Doubtful! An article in the March 20, 1995, issue of Fortune magazine offers this explanation: “Job security is gone, maybe for keeps … businesses have redrawn their boundaries, making them both tight (as they focus on core competencies) and porous (as they outsource non-core work). As a result, work follows a contractor-subcontractor model, not one of vertical integration.” (“Planning a Career in a World without Managers” by Thomas A. Stewart.)

Unless you work for a communication consultancy, the work you do is probably not one of your employer’s “core competencies.” Which brings us full circle: It doesn’t matter much whether we’re all prepared to see ourselves as “self-employed,” it looks like the paradigm that has structured the way most of us work is crumbling fast. Depending on how you see it, each of us is now offered the opportunity – or faced with the necessity – of redefining our relationship with the workplace. Ready or not, it seems we must design our own paradigm.

Perhaps we can share the task: Let’s build a guild

Paradigm design is probably not a task any of us wants to tackle alone; we’ll benefit immensely from each other’s support. One “mutual assistance” model that has immediate appeal as well as strong historical precedent is the guild – in our case, perhaps a transnational virtual guild that offers these benefits:

* Definition of appropriate relationships between employee and employer, along with the “business clout” to make those definitions persuasive.

* Continuous lifelong education opportunities, including aclranted degrees in organizational communication, through operation of or coordination with a virtual university program.

* Delineation of acceptable standards and practices for, and accreditation, in various communication specialties.

* Portable “employee” benefits, including health, disability and life insurance at “large group” rates in countries where they are needed, as well as tax-advantaged retirement plans.

Knowledge workers in other eras have formed guilds for very much these same purposes. The roots of guilds can be traced back at least as far as Egypt, where master crafts people and artisans who built the Pharonic civilizations were members of close-knit associations. More familiar, perhaps, are the craft guilds of Europein the Middle Ages; these alliances of highly skilled workers became indispensable threads in the tapestry of medieval society.

Pulling together to present a strong, united front in the face of challenging circumstances is a compelling idea. This was true when the first pyramid was built, it was so when the foundation for Notre Dame was laid, and – given what’s ahead – it may be an especially good bet now, as well.

Worldwide change makes ‘knowledge’ today’s key resource

According to social theorist Peter Drucker, whose forecasts over the past 50-odd years have been accurate time and again, the entire world is in the early stages of a major historical transformation. He asserts that this change will be comparable to, if not greater in effect than, the emergence of urban civilization itself, or of the Industrial Revolution, both of which radically altered most “work” – how it was seen and how it was done.

During previous upheavals, a new economic order formed around control of needed resources – labor or raw materials or capital. Those who controlled the resources were that order’s “elite.” According to Drucker, the key resource of the epoch we are entering is knowledge.

He says, “Knowledge workers will give the emerging knowledge society its character, its leadership, its social profile … they are already its leading class. And … they differ fundamentally from any group in history that has ever occupied the leading position.”

(“The Age of Social Transformation,” The Atlantic Monthly, November 1994.)

Knowledge workers are different

We “own” our tools. Except for the hardware associated with our work (which we may own as well; home offices are proliferating), we carry our tools around in our heads.

We gain access to our tools – and therefore work and social position – largely through formal education. Drucker notes, “Education will become the center of the knowledge society, and the school its key institution.”

We are willing and able to go on learning throughout our lives. To progress in our careers – which will almost certainly mean something very unlike “getting a promotion” – we acquire more and more knowledge, particularly advanced knowledge, well past the time we are handed our last formal degree.

We spend most of our time on project teams – teams that are started and staffed, serve their purpose, and then are settled up and shut down. We may report to three or four supervisors (team leaders) in one year, even when we’re drawing a paycheck from a single company.

We are “between assignments” from time to time, even if we’re at the top of our field. This is true whether we work for one employer or a series of employers, or serve as a full-time consultant.

That may mean we are often, or always, responsible for our own “benefits package.” It almost surely means that only a few of us will become “fully vested” in an employer’s retirement plan. Also, we have a tough time allocating our “downtime.” Recreation? More learning? Seeking our next project? Stress is high.

Is a guild the right Rx for knowledge worker stress?

When our careers are defined less by who we work for (“I’m with Chrysler”) than what we do (“I’m in financial PR”), we’ll almost surely be much better off if we have a support organization whose sole business it is to look after our professional interests.

For example, say there is no agreement among your peers about suitable terms of employment in various situations (e.g., full-time permanent, full-time temporary, part-time, consultant). Will you know what to ask for? Will you have criteria to evaluate what’s offered? Maybe not; it will be better if you have a “compensation and conditions” schedule in hand, that both offers you guidance and has strong influence in the marketplace.

When you have three or four different “bosses” each year, who will provide a formal performance review? That routine critique will need to be replaced with a method for self-evaluation, so that you can be sure your tools – the knowledge you bring to bear as the task requires – are always appropriate and well-honed.

And when you do spot a deficit, or identify some new knowledge you must have to move up, what then? You will want ready access to classes that are designed specifically for your requirements, perhaps even tailored somewhat to your individual situation. And you won’t be able to take a year out to spend on campus, either; you’ll need to work by computer.

Is there such a thing – an education system that provides some of the very best instructors, meeting with you in a virtual classroom that is shared by your peers around the world? Just ask Keith Lumsden, Ph.D., director of distance learning for Heriot-Watt University’s M.B.A program (Edinburgh, Scotland); Heriot-Watt has offered one of the world’s top-rated M.B.A.s “on-line” for 10 years. They “would be delighted” to discuss adding a Master of Organizational Communications to their distance learning curriculum.

With a potential worldwide pool of business communicators numbered in the tens of thousands, no doubt other Electronic University Network members (the University of Wisconsin and Rogers State College in Oklahoma, for example) also would be pleased to discuss adding courses we might need to their programs.

Finally, what about those “employee benefits” that many of us have so long taken for granted – health care, disability protection, life insurance? For workers in some countries, these will need to become “portable” – transferable as we move from job to job. And, an “added” retirement package that follows us wherever and however we work will be welcome just about everywhere.

It takes a sizable group of people under a single organizational umbrella to energize the competitive impulse among insurers, brokers and investment managers. A large transnational guild of communication professionals – well-paid knowledge workers all – should provide the needed stimulus.

Now, there’s one paradigm on the table: the guild. It has a powerful precedent as a framework for promoting the professional and individual interests of knowledge workers. Societies in which guilds have played a part – sometimes a very important role – found them largely beneficial, as well.

But surely, given the seriousness of what we face, the guild can’t be the only organizational model we’ll want to consider. No doubt there are other possibilities we should evaluate. Therefore: Sister/brother, can you paradigm?

Gary Kemper, ABC, is principal, Kemper Communications, Burbank, Calif.

COPYRIGHT 1995 International Association of Business Communicators

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning