Wage Slaves


I recently had the good fortune of meeting Katz Kiely and learning about the Behavioural Enterprise Engagement Platform (BEEP) that she’s building. After that meeting I listened to Katz’s ‘Change for the Better‘ presentation, which provided some inspiring food for thought.

Katz’s point is that so much human potential is locked away by the way we construct organisations and manage people. If we change things to unlock that potential we have a win-win – happier people, and more productive organisations. It’s not hard to see the evidence of this at Netflix, Amazon (especially their Zappos acquisition), Apple etc.

The counter point hit home for me on the way home as I read an Umair Haque post subtitled ‘Slavery, Segregation and Stagnation‘. His observation is that the US economy started based on slavery, then moved to a derivative of slavery, then moved to a slightly different derivative of slavery. Student debt and the (pre existing) conditions associated with health insurance might not be anywhere near as bad as actual slavery, but they’re still artefacts of a systemically coercive relationship between capital and labour. Coercion might have seemed necessary in a world of farm hands and factory workers (though likely it was counterproductive even then), but it’s the wrong way to go in a knowledge economy.

Adrian Cockcroft puts it brilliantly in his response to (banking) CIOs asking where Netflix gets its amazing talent from, “we hired them from you and got out of their way”. He goes on to comment:

An unenlightened high overhead culture will drag down all engineers to a low level, maybe producing a third of what they would do, working on their own.

Steve Jobs similarly said:

It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.

So the task at hand becomes to build organisations based on empowerment rather than coercion, and that starts with establishing trust (because so many of the things that take power away sprout from a lack of trust).


2 Responses to “Wage Slaves”

  1. 1 Julian

    Reminds me of an observation from Salmon Khan’s “one world schoolhouse” where he points out that the western education system is based on a Prussian model that was designed in style and substance to produce an obedient but more educated working class who could be more productive, but still responded to hierarchy and demagoguery. One can see how this leads to the type of organisational structure described.

    It’s definitely changed over the last decade from my vantage point. The success of firms that empower employees is a strong evolutionary message; that when not mistranslated into procurement requests for bean bags, can be the basis for positive change.

  2. 2 Rob Jones Jr

    This is a great post. Perhaps what’s lost in the quick-and-dirty world of disposable resources is the respect for the importance of every piece of a complex machine or process.

    Slavery existed because the manpower was important. Having a workforce equated to power. These people were invaluable resources and were just stolen. Self-proclaimed leaders who cheat and steal can become more powerful than those that don’t. Yet without the respect and admiration for the workforce, it becomes a time-bomb.

    If a component is valued, nurtured and protected, we know it can perform fantastically well for years. If that component exists in a system that allows it to move freely and is lubricated, the system performs with remarkable precision. People are like components, with the added value that with freedom they can push themselves to become even better and influence other components to be better.

    So why would an intelligent person abuse these components? bang on them, completely stress them, starve them or diminish their importance? “Ignorance” would sadly explain it. Ignorance that greatly debits the greater good, so that an individual or a group can gain immediate payoff. Win the race, wreck the best car, and get another. A shrewd way to operate until you cannot get the best car anymore.

    How nice it would be if CEO’s were like proud classic car owners who admired every piece of their wonderful machine. How cool it would be to believe in the empowerment and increased value from every resource investment. Most of us are willing to pay for the important contributors to our quality of life, yet CEO’s are more than willing to lose or throw them away.

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