The Crisis of Meaning in the Knowledge Workforce

Gran Canaria - Valsequillo in the winter ...If you have been reading this blog for a little while now, you may remember how there have been numerous ocassions where I have discussed how I am one of those folks who doesn’t really buy into both the whole generations or digital divide arguments. Gen-Yers, Gen-Xers, Baby Boomers, etc. etc., to me, are all part of the knowledge workforce and, if anything, instead of talking about different generations at work, I always tend to think that it is mostly about embracing and facilitating different working styles within the workforce. But what happens when each and everyone of those work styles don’t have a meaning, nor a purpose, for what they usually do? Well, we have got a crisis. A crisis of meaning.

That’s the main premise that Roger Martin, Dean at Rotman School, talks about at the Big Think Web site under a thought-provoking, and rather evocative, short video clip under the title “The Crisis of Meaning in the Millennial Workforce“, which lasts for nearly three minutes and which I would strongly encourage you all to have a look in order to find out a bit more on the state of things within today’s corporate environment, which surely would sound as a key issue of why we are potentially going through the current turmoil with this financial crisis.

Now, Roger talks about that crisis of meaning for the younger knowledge workers, i.e. that generation of millenials. But, like I mentioned at the beginning of this blog entry, I don’t think it’s just a problem with millennials themselves, but more with the knowledge workforce in general, and with each and everyone of those working styles I mentioned above. So if you go ahead and scratch the word millennials and, instead, you put there Gen-Xers or Baby Boomers, or whatever else, you would still obtain a very similar result: an urge for each of those working styles to define a larger purpose or meaning for what each and everyone of us do in our day to day work.

We could probably say that one of the common themes permeating throughout the short video clip is that one of employee motivation, engagement, or participation in today’s corporate environment; or the lack of, better said, something that seems to be a rather popular topic at the moment, and which I will be covering shortly as well in a separate blog entry, as it really heated up a fantastic conversation over in Google Plus earlier on in the week on corporate culture(s).

But here is a good definition of that lack of motivation from the general workforce that Roger mentions in that video:

“Okay, so let me get this straight.  I’m supposed to come to work for you and work every day with the singular goal of maximizing the value of faceless, nameless people who can blow us off in a nanosecond if they had a bad hair day?  Am I right thus far?”  The truthful answer is, yes.  And the millenials are just saying, “Like, you got to be kidding me.  Seriously?

Like I said, scratch millennials and insert there whatever other moniker and it would still be spot on! Employee engagement and motivation are really two hot topics within the workplace at the moment. They always have been and will probably be. But perhaps that’s because we may have been looking into this crisis of meaning issue from the wrong end and we could probably very much need to apply some fresh thinking that would help us address the issue in a much more profound way to finally find that solution for it. And in this case, I do believe that Dave Pullin (Wish I could find the right Dave Pullin links to point you to him, but alas I couldn’t find them out just yet…) pretty much nails it as to put on the table what the real issue is at hand and what we, each and everyone of us!, could do to address it and fix it for those younger generations who have already started to enter the workplace. To quote:

You have the problem 100% backwards. It is NOT “How do we motivate people to devote their existence to the interests of business”, it should be “how do we motivate business to devote their existence to people”.

Business has become the problem.

People want jobs but no business regards itself as having an obligation or objective to create jobs. People want rewarding jobs but business wants to pay the least they can get away with. People want fulfilling jobs but business couldn’t care less whether jobs are fulfilling.

People want healthcare, but we have HealthDontCare Businesses that want profit but couldn’t care less about people’s health. People want as much health care as they can afford, or to be healthy at the least cost, but we have Health “Insurance” businesses whose objective is to maximize the cost and minimize the healthcare[Emphasis mine]

Etymologically speaking, some people say that crisis means change, decision, choice, judgement, etc. Well, perhaps we do need to go through this crisis of meaning to really evaluate, once again, whether knowledge workers need to adjust to business or whether the business needs to adjust to knowledge workers. Something tells me, deep inside, whether we would want to admit it or not, everyone, that we already know the answer to it. We probably have already made up our own minds, but thing is, the challenge here is, is it *the* right decision, *the* right choice?

Dave, once again, reminds us of what it may well be all about with a final brilliant sentence, extracted from the above comment, that I thought was worth while quoting over here as well:

Business is an artifact invented by humans for a purpose. But now it is humans that must serve the purpose of the artifact

Something tells me that it’s probably a good time now to remember, and to reflect, about where our real place at work is at the moment and where it should well be. Somehow, I think we all know the answer already, don’t we?

Have a good one everyone!

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11 Comments »

  • Bob Marshall says:

    Super, insightful post. Thanks for sharing this! :)

    FWIW, Familiar’s purpose (my own software house business, ~15 years ago now) was expressly: “To bring people together to share in discovering what personal fulfilment means.” Nothing in there about writing / delivering software. Nor about being the best, making boatloads of money, having happy customers, etc. (All that came, though. cf Obliquity).

    I am resolved to revisit this ethos with my new (proto) startup.

    - Bob @FlowchainSensei

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    • Luis Suarez says:

      Hi Bob, you are most welcome! Thanks a lot for the great follow-up commentary as well! :) That’s just such an amazingly inspiring corporate mantra! I wish the business world would embrace such kind of mentality, once again, and give the world another chance at doing what it does best: get the most and the best out of each and everyone of us!

      This is very much along the lines of a wonderful conversation a bunch of us are having at Google Plus, where we are talking about corporate culture and a Culture of Ethics, which I think would fit in rather nicely along with your comments above, Bob!

      We need more of that mentality in today’s business work! Good luck with that new endeavour! I am sure you would be fine, though! :)

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  • Jacob says:

    I know you don’t buy into the generational argument but unfortunately it exists within many organizations. As you know I’ve been putting together case studies on emergent collaboration for various companies and I keep hearing that as a recurring problem. The American Hospital Association and Oce are two companies that immediately come to mind who experience these problems.

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    • Luis Suarez says:

      Hi Jacob! Thanks much for dropping by! Seriously, it doesn’t! It’s different working styles at work that are at play over here. I have been working with baby boomers for years who are incredibly social while using social networking tools and Gen-Yers who are terrified of just being online even! And for which the mobile phone and email are their main method of collaboration and knowledge sharing.

      This hasn’t got anything to do with ages or different generations, but with applying different models of thinking and decision making. I would be within those organisations you mentioned above there would be plenty of cases where the heaviest users of social networking tools are folks about to retire, who would want to leave a legacy behind, transfer some of their knowledge to younger employees, and so forth.

      It’s not a generations issue, really; it’s about knowledge workers wanting to work smarter, not necessarily harder, and in this case, much more openly, publicly and transparently, amongst several other social traits

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  • JP Harris says:

    Thanks for the post. Your observations are valid but I fail to see how I as a manager or leader can do anything that substantially changes this. Yes, of course, I can operate locally to inspire the teams and individuals who I touch but if we are all working within the same, classic, organizational structure then ultimately what is changed? We are still serving the artifact this will always trump.

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    • Luis Suarez says:

      Hi JP! Thanks much for dropping by and for the feedback comments! I think you are bringing up the core issue at play in this discussion: how further up within the organisation can you go to help inspire the creation of that hybrid management / leadership networked environment that combines traditional hierarchies with networks and communities.

      Quite an interesting and tough challenge, for sure. However, in today’s current working environment, where more and more businesses depend on the knowledge work of their workforce, how soon before the latter feels ostracised for the work they are doing and neglected / ignored by those above, without remedy?

      Can a knowledge organisation survive in today’s corporate environment by having their knowledge trapped in micro-managed silos where strict corporate rules are imposed to work on exceptions after exceptions? To be honest, I don’t think it will survive much longer, and today’s current global events are another proof of that.

      So, what we can do, as managers or non-managers, to help accelerate such hybrid model? Well, bring up the topic with the decision makers, top management and top executives to help them visualise themselves as part of the change agents group that’s help shape up the new work model, one where trust, openness and transparency, as well as agility would rule how folks interact. It’s what I have been calling as well differentiating between managers and leaders.

      We are going to need both, but in a more porous organisation where knowledge work flows, more than being trapped altogether.

      This blog post by Kathy Sierra on “Manager 2.0″ is ever so relevant in today’s corporate environment and a good starting point as well.

      Thanks again for the feedback!

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  • Kathryn Howard says:

    Absolutely spot on with the observations of “crisis of meaning” and the disconnect between what people care about in the workplace and what businesses care about.

    This crisis has been around since the downsizing of the late ’90s when so many workers (good ones and bad) were unceremoniously and brutally dumped by businesses around the globe.

    This trend has repeated several times since then – a behaviour that would indicate a lack of respect by business towards the people that run it.

    Lack of respect is always reciprocated. I figure the crisis won’t be resolved until respect is restored on both sides.

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    • Luis Suarez says:

      Hi Kathryn! Oh, how wonderful! Many many thanks for dropping by and for sharing these insightful comments! Goodness! On Respect, you are spot on! And in so many ways! It’s something that a bunch of us have been advocating for all along: how we need to bring back into the corporate environment not just respect along, but also (social) trust; and working both ways, too, like you are suggesting! Never before have we been having such a tremendous opportunity to bring both of those characteristics back into the business world with the emergence of social networking tools.

      It’s a constant nurturing of personal business relationships that needs to start happening again, not at a knowledge workforce level, but also on a business level. It’s what will bring back both respect and trust and help us resolve our own identity crisis at work.

      So needed!! Thanks much, once again, for sharing these great comments and adding further up into the conversation! :)

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  • John C says:

    Agree. This is not a generation gap.

    Sharing and collaborating has been an ongoing struggle since the dawn of man. We could site where wars were started and wars were lost because of poor knowledge management.

    Within the US, and most parts of the world, our education systems recognize and reward the individual. Students compete against each other for the highest grades, and hoard knowledge.

    Within the workplace, no matter what age, people engage in Social Channels. But can a knowledge worker really stay engaged solely on the Social Channel 100% of his/her time? We all know that the is is “no.” Thus, we can assume they spend time in other content repositories (ie: KB, Sharepoint, his computer, email, Shared Servers, , CRM, shoot-from-the-hip, etc …).

    With this in mind, I believe the real culprit is the extensive “content” options that exist. No matter what age, it is human nature to take the path of least resistance.

    Leadership MUST define the Knowledge Pathway for the worker, and identy the “expected” content repositories to use, plus provide a bit of freedom for other channels such as Social Media. Essentially, Leadership MUST get everyone rowing in the same direction.

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    • Luis Suarez says:

      Hi John! Thanks a lot for dropping by and for adding further up into the conversation with some excellent observations. Indeed, sharing and collaborating in whatever the environment have always been quite a challenge and I am wondering if that of it is all due to that mentality you have mentioned above about working against each other, competing with one another, hoarding our most powerful “weapon” our knowledge, just because all along we have been told that “Knowledge is power”, so if we release that knowledge, we are releasing our power.

      I am hoping that our leaders realise the harm that kind of mentality is having within the corporate environment and would be expecting that we switch from that individual competitiveness into recognising and valuing group (team, network, community) performance above the individual one. Something tells me that sharing and collaborating would be a completely different thing then!

      I agree with you as well that some times we do have too many places to go to share our knowledge and that surely keeps adding into the confusion. Having knowledge workers decide where they are going to go to share that knowledge is not good enough. There needs to be executive leadership on establishing what would be consider key essential resources and lead by example. And social tools is probably one of the critical ones for those activities of knowledge sharing and collaborating, specially, nowadays that the workforce is more virtual and distributed than ever before.

      I, too, hope we all keep rowing in the same direction! That one where the river of knowledge flows nicely :)

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