The Convergence of Technology and Individualism.
"I am 31, single, and work for a young company producing software for the Internet. I consider contract work a blessing, but not without some drawbacks. Being my own boss, in a sense, gives me a feeling of independence and self-worth. I can take care of myself in this unforgiving competitive world of business; however, I must keep my skills current in an era of ever-changing technology. The companies I work for expect me to perform from day one.
At times, I would like to be a full-time employee to gets the benefits, perhaps stock options and maybe a promotion. Of course I would give up my flexibility and would be expected to work long hours. But this has its risks too. For one, I might be put into a slot where my skills would atrophy. For another, the company might not be successful. I just read a Wall Street Journal article about what a dot com company that doesn't succeed is Worth. 'Not much.'
Of course I could always leave; companies don't mean much to me anyway. I love what I do, but I have never really been satisfied with any of the companies where I have worked. It is very important that my views are heard and valued, and sometimes they are not. But it is exhilarating when I am working with a team of professionals and we are all treated as equals.
I am considering joining WashTech, which is an alliance or union for people like me. It is an advocate for better working conditions. I wouldn't join a regular union because they protect the incompetent. Who needs a grievance procedure when one can quit and find another job the next day? My resume is on the Web all the time."
If Mary Lou were a full-time employee with skills that are in demand, her story wouldn't be much different. The allegiance is to job and skill and not to the company.
I am not saying that Mary Lou is today's typical worker. She isn't, but she represents a growing segment of free agents, now 26 percent of the work force up from 22 percent in 1998 according to a poll by EPIC/MRA, a Lansing, MI, research firm. This is a new phenomenon in America's corporate history, and it raises questions of how it came about and what it means for companies.
Philosophically, individualism has roots in the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther proclaimed that theologically: "A Christian man is a perfectly free lord, subject to none." This was a searing departure from Catholicism where priests grant absolution from sin. In his book, From Dawn to Decadence, (the source of the previous quote) Jacques Barzun notes that John Locke asserted that men had rights: namely life, liberty and property. Fed by such philosophers of the Enlightenment as Rousseau, the rights of the common man exploded into the individualism and terror of the French Revolution.
Meanwhile in the United States a citizenry wedded to individualism and liberty was rapidly growing. One critic quoted by Barzun said that Emerson and Thoreau exhibited "the imperial self." However, the ethos of the times in both America and Europe had to contend with, and was somewhat offset by, the industrial revolution and the factory system. Frederick Taylor's scientific management, which "swept the world" according to Peter Drucker, and the Gilbreaths' "one-best-way" left little room for individualism at the work place. Mass production dampened individualism and ushered in collectivism--unions.
Now, the New Economy and its reliance on technology have breathed new life to individualism. There is a confluence of technology and the Zeigeist of individualism. The worker, contractor or employee, faces unstructured tasks requiring analytical and synthetic thought processes that he or she must master as an individual. As Drucker suggests, "knowledge workers own the means of production." It is in their heads.
A point may be made that individualism in today's society has gone too far. Some grade school teachers believe that as long as the communication is understood, no attention needs to be paid to grammar. Complaints are heard about people who persist in talking throughout a movie, oblivious to or ignoring the distraction that they cause others. Fashionable boutiques find it necessary to post signs to keep people from slurping a soda while browsing. Is this individualism run amuck, or is it no longer individualism, but solipsism?
No matter what it is; it poses a challenge for management. Companies can no longer expect loyalty that implies a sentimental attachment, but must attain allegiance and commitment to the task at hand from the Mary Lous of the world. This means recognizing their independence and yet melding them into a team. Although the notions of a team orientation and individualism might seem to be conflicting, they are not. Strong teams are built by valuing dissimilar options, treating team members as equals, and acknowledging their contributions. Today's knowledge worker requires flexibility and a degree of autonomy--needs that can be met within a team structure. Indeed, without autonomy workers cannot fully employ their talents. Flexibility, a top priority among contract workers, allows them to balance their work time with their personal time.
Management must not only meet the needs of contract workers to fully engage their talents, but the work itself must be seen as having value and conferring professional growth and learning. This way, companies can at least get allegiance, perhaps even emotional involvement, to the task at hand.
WILLIAM C. WADDELL, D.B.A., is president of Foreplan Business planning in Lomita, CA, and a member of the Los Angeles County Quality and Productivity Commission. He is a former executive editor of Business Forum.
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|Title Annotation:||companies and contract employees|
|Author:||Waddell, William C.|
|Article Type:||Brief Article|
|Date:||Jan 1, 1999|
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