Home » business
Category Archives: business
I have trained people in business software in quite a few different environments – in classrooms, over the Internet, and one-on-one. In all these circumstances there is a need for consistency, thoroughness and, above all, applicability. To achieve this, there needs to be a systematic approach.
When the subject of the training is an in-house application or process, the trainer needs to use and abuse the system to encounter all the possible errors and entries the users might input. The trainer can only recognize the possibilities and prepare the users for them. The next step would be to design the series of steps the users would use to learn all the phases of the process. This should include improper input so that the users can get accustomed to the error messages and how to correct the situation. Next, write a teacher’s manual and student manuals. The student manuals should contain screen prints of what they would expect to see, as well as the steps to be done; and they should have plenty of white space for note taking. The best venue for this type of training is a computer lab or classroom, using a test system, so users can try different things without harming live data.
This type of training should be offered to employees yearly. Those who have had the training may want to brush up, and new employees should be required to attend.
When the application or process is changed, fresh training should be designed and offered, with fresh user manuals that stress the new aspects, but cover the material thoroughly as well, as is done in regression testing. This allows the trainer to show the new aspects, but it also creates a manual for new hires. The trainer’s manual would incorporate the changes.
If the application to be taught to business employees is over-the-counter, the approach is a little different. The developer of the training should meet with the hosting company and find out how the application is being used by the employees to be trained. For instance, if the application is Microsoft Excel, are the employees using it as a database, accounting ledgers, number crunching or analysis? And the host company should inform the developer of what version is being used.
Over-the-counter applications afford the training developer an opportunity to pre-design courses into modules. This way the developer can mix and match according to the needs of the business. For example, if the application is Excel, There would be an introductory module which explains the nature and terminology of the application. A separate module might be on the properties of cells in regard to protection and formula reference. A third module would be on the many functions in Excel and when and how to use them. A fourth might be on macros and the programming language to write them.
By discussing the needs with the host company, the training developer can customize the training using the pre-tested modules, and applying the practices specifically to the company’s users. This not only makes bosses happy, but employees develop enthusiasm when they see how it applies to their own work.
Trainer and student manuals are still needed in the same format as mentioned above.
The developer should check in with the host once or twice a year to see if other employees need the same training or if there is another aspect that the employees could learn. In any training such as this, it is a good idea to have all students fill out an open-end questionnaire to gauge how well the training went, and to get input about good ideas for change. This questionnaire should be unsigned; it is for the edification of the trainer and developer, not for evaluation of the students.
If the training is successful and well-retained, the developer will be asked to return. If, on the return, previous students are in the classroom, they appreciate consistency of presentation. And if this is a return visit, students are especially attentive when they notice their suggestions were followed.
The developer needs to save training modules for a wide variety of versions for the same application, because different businesses use different versions. Once the basic format for training has been determined, it is simply applied to the new version or even a new application. This helps prevent errors.
Many companies, on the wrap-up of a project, have a “lessons learned” meeting where they evaluate the problems encountered. These problems can be runaway expenses, poor cooperation from a sector of the project, incorrect choice of products, poor communication, whatever. Then steps are taken to avoid the same problems the next time. This should also be done with business training. Immediately after a training session ends, read the evaluations, take note of any notations in the trainer manual, then make the changes in the manuals and test them, while things are fresh in your mind, and you won’t forget to cover or correct anything.
When you have a systematic approach to developing business training, no matter what the subject matter, things go more smoothly. New assignments do not seem so daunting, and attention can be focused on the learning environment.
Often, in the face of a bad business decision, people write it off as “the Peter Principle”. Yet not that many people know what the Peter Principle is or how pervasive it is in the business world. The concept was coined by Dr. Laurence J. Peter in an article in Esquire magazine’s January 1967 issue. This was a serious, if humorous, viewpoint on modern business practices. The article generated a lot of interest, and Dr. Peter ended up collaborating with Raymond Hull to create the book “The Peter Principle: Why Thing Always Go Wrong.”
Simply put, the Peter Principle contends that in most businesses employees are promoted until they reach a position which they are incompetent to perform. At that point the company recognizes its mistake and freezes the person’s promotions and leaves him there. This comes about because companies want to reward people who are doing a good job, and the rewards can come as raises, “perks”, or promotions, or any combination of the three.
In Information Technology, this is a constant battle. People who are technologically adept are rarely good with other people. Yet a company will want a technically intelligent person managing the others. So eventually the people who started out building computers in their basements get a formal education, and get chosen to lead the others. Bristol-Meyers Squibb once took this stance – each manager was asked to rank his or her employees, and then the department would promote according to those rankings. A person who is very good at telecommunication may be very happy in his job, and much prefer to get a raise while continuing his job rather than end up supervising others. But the company had not made room for that eventuality, assuming that all employees aspire to becoming supervisors and managers. Knowing how to troubleshoot a network does not necessarily require knowing how to manage budgets or people, and yet when a company prides itself on hiring from within, the inevitable happens – the people are promoted until they get into a position they cannot handle.
Another example of this was Michael D. Brown as head of FEMA during the hurricane Katrina. As commissioner of judges for the International Horse Association, Mr. Brown’s abilities shone. So George W. Bush rewarded him with the role as the head of FEMA. Unfortunately, this was a worldwide public fiasco demonstrating the Peter Principle.
Even in a mom-and-pop organization, this is often a problem. Pop hires Mom’s nephew as a salesperson, and ends up letting the nephew manage the Haberdashery department, since he is, after all, family. Then all the salespeople who used to work with the nephew leave.
Sometimes the employee’s ambition overreaches his abilities. This person will work very hard, put in overtime, steal other’s work, whatever is needed to gain the notice of the higher-ups, and eventually get the position he desires, only to find he is at a loss as to what to do, and ends up spending all his time covering up his incompetency. A similar effect is seen in courtship; both man and woman make a great effort to be attractive until the knot is tied. And then it unravels.
Nitin Borwankar suggested in an essay entitled “The Peter Principle of Innovation” that the same thing occurs in young companies, where the ambitious lions open up new avenues and improve old ones. Once reaching success in the industry, these companies often settle down and become ordinary. Smart entrepreneurs then sell the business and find something new to create.
What can one do when saddled with a person who has managed to work his way up to incompetence? Companies seem to have several approaches. The most common is to allow the person to remain in that position and work around him. It’s too embarrassing to management or a company to demote such a person back to his level of capability. So both the company and the person in the position remain unhappy and unproductive. Dr. Peter suggests what he calls a percussive sublimation”, where the employee gets promoted to another position – but in another division. In other words, pass the buck.
What can be done to avoid this situation? Estee Lauder used to have a simple plan – women hired as secretaries were regularly given more and more responsibilities. Each time the woman’s title was embellished a little and her salary a little. If an employee foresees this happening, sometimes he or she will sabotage his or her reputation of competence to avoid being offered the promotion. If the Human Resources department of a company is sharp enough to spot being on the verge of committing the Peter Principle, they can hire from outside the company and find alternative ways to reward the productive employees, such as free health insurance, dental plans, company cars, stocks or raises.
Just because the Peter Principle has become a byword doesn’t mean it should be embraced. Rather, let it stand as a shining example of business policy gone wrong.
The fish-and-pond analogy has been around in business for a long time. It’s a good way to view one’s position within a company. It’s impossible to select one over the other, since it depends on a lot of factors – the economic environment, the physical environment, a person’s ambitions, a person’s financial and emotional needs.
A small fish in a big pond would be exemplified by lower or middle management in a global organization. If a person is ambitious, and the position is in the corporate headquarters city, this affords the person a wide range of possible promotions leading to the top management levels. The pay scale is good and there are bonuses available. Eventually, when reaching the top level, the person becomes a member of the industrial/political/military complex which can lead to a political career with a corporate backup. The person has opportunities to travel the world and to learn many big corporation venues, such as company planes and teleconferencing.
All that sounds very appealing. But it is a world of office politics and high competition. There is no guarantee that the person will advance. And in hard economic times, low and middle management are targets for corporate “downsizing”. No longer do companies have loyalty to loyal employees. The person can become so entrenched in one niche that it is difficult to find re-employment. The person needs to not only know the responsibilities of his/her employees, but also business acumen – and how to handle office politics. This person has to be thrifty, even with a good income, to not be overly in debt in the case of losing his/her job; there may be quite a dry spell in between employment. This type of person must be rather confident about his/her ability to manage the position without a great deal of accolades from upper management. Since this little fish may have to change residence as s/he climbs the corporate ladder, s/he needs a supportive family, willing to move; this is difficult with teenagers.
A big fish in a small pond would be upper management in a small organization. Smaller businesses are more local, often within one state, and have a more horizontal organization chart. Management is small in proportion to employees. This is good for a person who has a need for recognition and a bit of job security, since there is less competition and more power. This person may act as a spokesperson to the local newspapers and as the company’s representative with other companies. Employees and management all know each other so there is no anonymity; this offers positive feedback for a good manager. It is possible to make positive changes in the organization without getting strangled by red tape. This is a person who, if so far successful, will probably survive any culling of employees during economic crisis. Small companies have more appreciation of their management, and tend to prefer not changing horses mid-stream. Rather than part with more money, small companies tend to reward this person with “perks” such as a company car or even a home.
The big fish will be paid less than an equivalent in a large company, and must understand the entire company’s lifeblood to maintain support and appreciation. There is little chance that this person would advance into the military/political/industrial complex, but there would be a good chance for advancement within the company due to his/her visibility. This person needs to be more circumspect about his/her behavior. As in a small town, all employees’ demeanor is watched – and judged. No corporate jets, no Nobel prizes. And there would be a cap to promotions; if the person is still ambitious, it may require a lateral move locally to open avenues for advancement.
Small companies tend to hire from within or locally, preferring a “known quality” over an “interloper”. Whether a long-term resident of the area or someone who moved to the area to take the job, this person has a need to keep the job. This may require careful and politic compromise.
There have been quite a few attempts to regulate the Internet, but it is virtually impossible to do. E-mail is the most sacred cow of all, just as the United States mail is protected. Privacy is a given right in this country – or so it would seem.
Internet service providers (ISPs) have stepped in where a government cannot. The United States Postal Service requires licenses for bulk mailing, but does not control what is actually mailed. “Junk mail” still fills our mailboxes. Most ISPs will block a member who is obviously sending out junk mail, called “spam” in the electronic world. But again, content is sacrosanct.
Corporations, on the other hand, have the right to read, censor and block content. This right is written into contracts and handbooks. There are a lot of reasons for this. The right starts with the fact that the computers, telephones, e-mail and mail room are the property of the corporation, not the employee, so the company has the right to regulate how their resources are being used.
Corporations are understanding of the fact that employees cannot always restrict their personal lives to after-work hours. Phone calls to vendors and businesses have to be handled during the same business hours that the employee is working. And some e-mail also has to be handled during working hours. While it is understood that not all personal business can be handled during the lunch hour, a company is even more concerned that overuse can cut into productivity. To avoid frivolous use of the resources, companies impose restraints, such as blocking certain Internet sites, and deleting incoming e-mail with specified words in the subject line such as “joke”, “funny” and “sex”.
Some companies use a similar filtering system for outgoing e-mail, to prevent the employee from sending trivial personal mail via the company’s service. The load on mail servers is heavy as it is and unnecessary e-mail might overload the servers.
But corporations have business reasons for watching employee mail as well. Many companies will not allow an employee to forward company mail to personal mailboxes nor allow employees to access company mail except on company computers. This is because a great deal of a company’s confidential business goes through e-mail, and security of that information can only be reached by controlling what comes in and goes out. This is the primary reason that companies reserve the right to not only monitor the subjects of e-mail, but also to monitor the content of that e-mail.
A company will start monitoring an employee’s e-mail if:
- the company suspects the employee of leaking confidential information
- the employee appears “disgruntled” and may be undermining the company or fellow employees
- the company is looking for legitimate evidence in order to fire the employee
- the employee appears to know a firing is about to occur
- the employee has “given notice” of resignation or appears to be looking for work elsewhere.
Since companies are well-versed in monitoring methods which are transparent to the employee, and since the employee doesn’t know if she or he is under suspicion, deserved or not, it is wise to limit use of company resources, especially e-mail. Using one’s common sense when sending e-mail still leaves room for getting necessary personal business taken care of, while staying productive and discouraging family and friends from sending unnecessary e-mail, will only evidence a good employee worth keeping.
Illustrations courtesy of Microsoft clip art
Good management policy includes a regular process for performance evaluations. In many cases, this includes a self-evaluation by the employee being reviewed as well. The ethical aspects of the performance evaluation are based on the power of management to have this review on record permanently and to affect the employee’s complete ensuing year of employment as well as future years.
It is possible to set an employee up to ensure punishment. Since the annual review can affect the employee’s income and even job security, this gives the manager a lot of power – and gives the employee a lot of angst. On the plus side, if an employee has good reviews for four years of employment, then the fifth review is poor but also by a new manager, the record of good performances will often signal an anomaly to be looked into, to evaluate the new manager, by higher management.
Properly done, this review should not only be management’s method for evaluating the employee’s past year of work, but should include goals set for the coming year, to offset weaknesses in the employee’s repertoire (technical training or even a management seminar, for example) and to give the employee an opportunity for professional development, in hopes of both raises and promotions. This is an ethical challenge for the manager as well, since some managers want to keep the employees at their present state, rather than allowing them to grow and possibly threaten the manager’s job. The manager must have the well-being of the employee in mind throughout the review, both for professional development and for dealing with grievances or complaints. There must not be retribution just because an employee puts in a grievance; this would violate good labor practices.
Legally, a self-evaluation may be required by the employee’s contract, including a system of promotion, demotion or termination based on some sort of point system. If a manager has a difficult or undesirable employee, s/he must determine if these criteria are met before taking any action. If the grievances and/or complaints are on record, during the annual review of the employee’s performance, the manager can apply a reaction to these complaints, including termination or denial of a raise or promotion. Without proper documentation, this information is not allowed to be in the review nor may it impact the review or results. If the employee can write his/her own personal review before the one with the manager; this allows the employee to give his/her side of any controversy; it also protects the employee from any theft of intellectual property by management or co-workers. Moreover, it gives the employee an opportunity to inform management of any extra work or education s/he may be engaging in.
Ethics or morals are equally a responsibility of the employee in his/her personal review. This is not a time for complaints about co-workers or management. This is a time to make sure the management is aware of all attempts (and successes) to meet the goals of the previous review. And it is the time to let management know of any personal goals the employee pursued on his/her own or is interested in pursuing. It is a good time to recognize weakness (without beating up oneself) and to offer solutions to handling or overcoming those weaknesses. For instance, the employee may have discovered that there were a lot more reports expected from him/her than s/he anticipated, and the employee is not good at writing them; the employee could request a class in business writing to correct the situation. This self-evaluation will go on record too, so it is not the time to lay blame or lie.
I personally went through this type of dilemma when I was working for the state of Connecticut in a college, and ended up with the Boss from Hell. Having twenty years of experience with great managers and supervisors who encouraged me to grow and learn, and rewarding me with raises and promotions, I was blind-sided by this turn of events; he was not my first supervisor in this position, so he was concerned about establishing himself. I soon discovered that he was threatened by me for my technical knowledge, far greater than his, and my talent for writing, using vocabulary that should be common, but wasn’t for him. He actually had told me that he would take credit for anything done by his direct reports. He also demonstrated prejudice against me that I couldn’t prove. To top it off, since he was a poor manager, he told me I would also report directly to another manager. Since this was a state job at a college, there were lots of laws and rules already in place. We ended up in a series of grievances, brought mostly by him but also by myself. all of which he “lost”, and I was well protected by the contracts in place and the union. His testimony at these meetings proved my log of workplace harassment. However, his annual reviews were still thick with complaints about me that were unfounded. I tried to get help or find a solution for his complaints, such as taking a course on Crisis Management to counter his complaint that I had poor people skills (he agreed that this should fix the situation – till after I took it). When he had given me poor reviews for two years, I came up for tenure, and he presented the reviews, and yet another one, to convince the committee that I was not qualified for tenure and it was denied. I was given a series of tasks to earn tenure which were impossible as long as my direct supervisor was going to deny I achieved them. Therefore, when a much better opportunity came up, my union negotiated a break of my contract and had my record sealed so that this person’s mistreatment of me would not reflect on my future employment.
This should have been an ethical – and legal – dilemma for the supervisor involved, but he appeared not to have much in the way of ethics to practice. Only the legal system within the education department of the state protected me at all.
I also faced an ethical dilemma; I wanted to hit back, since I was never in such a poor work situation before, and I was very angry with this person. But I figured that my record follows me, and so I didn’t want to “sink to his level”. I only did the actions that the union recommended to protect me without violating ethical nor legal issues.
I hope this example is an exception to the rule. In a lot of other places I’ve worked, the performance evaluations were something to look forward to – where can I go now? What opportunities are available to me? Have I earned a raise? I’ve noticed that the larger a company is, the better the chances are that the evaluation will be productive. Perhaps they have found a way to weed out unethical management.
In conclusion, the performance review can be a management tool to guide and reward employees, or a weapon for retribution. If following ethical, moral and legal guidelines, it can build a bridge between supervisor and employee, and the company itself will flourish.
Many people confuse the meanings of the terms out-sourcing and off-shoring, or use these terms interchangeably. They both involve a company using a third party to manage parts of the business process, but the methods, reasons for doing so and the ramifications of doing so are quite different.
In short, out-sourcing is the hiring of people from another company or individuals, all from the same country, to work on a permanent basis. Off-shoring is the practice of moving entire business functions to another country. Both practices have been in existence since World War Two, and claim to save costs, but in recent years they have become rampant and the effects on the populace have become a cause for concern.
This article will concentrate on businesses in the United States for simplicity’s sake, but the practices are equally present in other western countries, particularly Europe. We will refer to the company which is doing the off-shoring or out-sourcing as the client company and the company performing the services as the contractor.
Out-sourcing is the act of one company contracting another to provide services. Smaller companies do so because they cannot afford, particularly in starting up, to keep employees full time to perform these services. These services are overhead, and not usually a part of the main business mission. NCR is probably the most well-known contractor, handling payroll and the management of payroll funds. Other services usually out-sourced are janitorial, information technology, billing, data entry, claims processing, landscaping, catering, telephony, even human resources. In all cases, the client company pays by the hour of work, does not pay for sick days or holidays, and covers no other benefits such as a paid vacation, dental or health insurance. If these benefits are offered to the employees at all, they are offered by the contracting company. The contractor charges the client by the hours the employee works, and adds a percentage above the employee’s rate for its own profit and costs. With technical employees, the contractor not only pays a larger per-hour rate for the employee, but often doubles the cost to the client. This is justified by the amount of expertise, education and certification the employee needs to have.
The function to be outsourced has expanded to many areas of specialty, including network management, sales, call centers, accounting, shipping and e-mail service. The contractors can even be covering business-mission work that can be separated. Certainly, if the work is temporary (as in an upgrade project) and not part of the standard business processes, a client company can maintain the productivity of their employees by out-sourcing such projects. In the pharmaceutical companies, contractors are hired to run clinical trials, analyze clinical trial data, and present the data to the FDA for drug approval.
Client companies claim that out-sourcing saves money, time and aggravation. Management wants to concentrate on acquisitions, production and the business mission rather than overseeing whether all the waste paper baskets were emptied. Clients also claim that you can add $200,000 a year for benefits when using an FTE (full-time employee). Beyond medical insurance, there is the overhead of human resources to manage employee training on such things as how to select benefits, stock plans and business-related training. Accounting expands for FTEs, as the client maintains separate tax and withholding accounts. The client may not have the correct personnel to perform a special project, or their personnel are already fully occupied. Contractors are “expendable”; they can be cancelled at will without going through union-protected systems, if only to make another acquisition. Stockholders are supportive because contractors are overhead rather than a standing expense. Some companies are actually laying off specialized personnel then offering to hire them back as contractors.
Another advantage of out-sourcing is that the contracting company specializes in its own field, thereby having more high-quality employees specially trained. Often the contractor will add training which is specific to the client’s needs. The contractor is streamlined for its business and up to the minute on advances in its field. Contractors would be personally responsible for all equipment and tools necessary. Examples of contracting companies include IBM, HP, and ACS. Efficiency saves money. By this definition, out-sourcing is still keeping jobs in the country.
But it must be understood that there are many disadvantages to out-sourcing. Employees must be rotated in and out of the client company to avoid federal regulations which demanded that anyone working for the client for over a year must be hired in to receive the same benefits as FTEs. Many client companies do not specify the citizenship of the employees contracted, so they may be inadvertently hiring from outside the country. Many contractors are handling company-confidential information, without the incentive of full-time employment to keep their interest in maintaining this confidentiality. Knowing that they are only going to be at the client for three to eleven months, employees do much lower-quality work. The client companies tolerate that in favor of the cost savings unless it has an impact on the core business mission. The practice of hiring the lowest bidder can often lower the quality of the product. Employees working for contracting companies may have no benefits at all, and there can be months between contracts. Originally the employees of a contracting company were hired by that contractor as FTEs and therefore got benefits and paid “down time”, but that is no longer true. This puts a strain on the unemployment budget of both the contracting company and the government. It is entirely possible that a client company out-sources just about everything, but even if only parts are out-sourced, there is no employee loyalty, poor communication (everything has to go through the contracting company) and a distinct loss of control.
Of even greater concern is the practice of off-shoring. This is defined as moving business functions over to another country, sending a lot of revenue the other country. While businesses claim greater profits and productivity, a recent study by Businessweek raises a lot of doubt about the advantages to the client country. A lot of the statistics claimed by the client companies cannot be verified. While labor is certainly cheaper, profits appear to be going to the upper management rather than a lowered price for the consumer.
For the client company there are many advantages. Labor is certainly so much cheaper that it negates any tariff costs. Contracting companies can offer even lower costs because they are not required to protect workers as completely as they are in the western countries, even to the point of running “sweat shops”. Certain consumer-protection quality assurance can be skirted. Clients can redirect costs to higher-skilled American workers for the specialties they are better at and pay them better with the saved costs of non-core, mundane labor overseas. Countries such as India, China, Brazil, Russia, the Philippines and Mexico bid against each other to bring the revenue into their contracting companies. Products are manufactured cheaper and faster. Thanks to the Internet, communications all over the world are faster and virtually transparent. Off-shoring is a good way for a company to gain a foothold in a global market.
Just as the savings may be significant in off-shoring, so are the disadvantages. For the client company, there are still communication limitations, and regularly management needs to travel to the contracting country to guide and correct production. Company-sensitive information is not as secure. Customer satisfaction and the client company’s reputation can plummet. A few years ago, lead was discovered in Disney toddler toys. Disney was held to task for the sick children and circumventing US quality control laws not only by the federal government but also by the consumers. The publicity from such an occurrence could destroy a client company altogether, whether the error was intentional or not. Prospective workers in the client country are in an uproar because they are losing so many jobs, running out of unemployment income, and cannot afford to have both parents working at low-rate jobs and still afford child care. Despite early education in contracting companies in English, the language barrier is a serious detriment to accomplishing anything internally or with the consumer. Even in English-speaking contractors, differences in idioms and culture can affect the efficiency of the work.
Consumers and displaced workers can still impact a decision for off-shoring.
In Canada very recently, the Royal Bank of Canada brought in temporary foreign workers from India and had existing Canadian workers train their replacements. The Canadian workers were then laid off because they “didn’t know the work”. The movement of Indian workers into Canada as well as the off-shoring of work to India became well publicized. In response, large numbers of Canadians are moving their money, mortgages and other financial business out of big banks and into credit unions. Canadian unions are footing the bill for a class action lawsuit on behalf of the displaced workers that want it, and offering to help the other workers in whatever way they can. Boycotting is indeed the most common and most effective method consumers have to protest and influence businesses to stop off-shoring.
There are a great many examples of off-shoring and its impact. Small and not-so-small companies are being driven out of business, citizens are losing job opportunities. Contracting companies are educating their workers in this country, then bringing them home to compete with the cost of living for equally-educated and skilled labor in this country. The contracting countries have workers willing to work twice as hard for one-fifth the pay.
Off-shoring is becoming the way to do business in the western world, and its impact is far worse than it appears. Both out-sourcing and off-shoring can be a good idea if handled wisely, both for the client company, the employee and the consumer. Increased profits should be redirected into creating local jobs in which the client country is strong. Some of those profits should go into educating the populace in the work that is needed and which pays in a range that would allow a worker to support a family and a home.
Some American companies are seeing the reward of advertising “made in America”.