A couple of days ago, I was talking to a guy who works for Oracle. He told me Oracle changes fundamentally every 8 months or so. He has survived all of these transformations. And his job has changed each time, sometimes quite dramatically.
I started thinking about how different this is from the world of work as my father understood it. Certainly, my father, a printing executive, watched technology, managerial philosophy, and consumer preference change his industry several times. But between these changes, there were “breathing spaces sometimes as long as a decade.
I started casting around for a rough and ready typology that would help capture some of the ways the managers world has changed. How about these three “stages?
1. Task completion
2. Problem solving
3. Pattern recognition
In the case of task completion, the managers role is clear. Someone had established a “job description. The tasks are well defined. The managers job is to look for efficiencies, to increase productivity, to keep the machine running. In a manner of speaking, this manager is “hardware. What he or she does for the corporation changes only as and when the corporation installs new “software. This is someone elses creation and someone elses choice.
In the case of problem solving, the managers attention shifts from supplying solutions to figuring out what his or her job is. This takes the ability to see what the matter is, and deeper intellectual resources with which to put it right. This regime was defined by the “manage by objectives revolution in managerial philosophy. Now the corporate was installing the final objectives and saying, in effect, “you figure out what things you need to do to make these happen.
In this case, the manager will be required to retrofit assumptions as required. The manager is now operating on the world and the manager, and the intelligence of the corporation has devolved a little to the individual. He or she is the locus not just of practice but idea. The manager is now responsible for changing the “operating system as required.
In the case of pattern recognition, the manager lives in a world streaming with dynamism. There can be no task completion, until problems are solved, and there can be no problem solving, until the manager has grasped what the world is becoming. This demands that assumptions (the software) are being reworked almost continually. We saw this sort of thing in the late 1990s when people in the Silicon Valley spend a lot of time trying to figure out what value was being created and how to monetize it.
Pattern recognition requires that we ask Theodore Leavitts famous question, “what business are we in, not occasionally but continually. And this means it is no longer, as Leavitt made it seem, a moment of Brahmin reflection, performed, once or twice a decade, preferably in the company of an HBS professor. It was now an everyday task, something to be done by an Oracle employee all the time.
Indeed, and this is pattern recognition level 2, the Oracle employee must now must engage in pattern recognition not just to do his job, but to keep his job. He needs to have an inkling what Oracle is going to be the next time around if he wants to keep his job.
I was describing this issue to Wodek Szemberg (TVO and CBC Ideas) and it suddenly seemed to us that this sort of managerial challenge might mandate the Liberal Arts as the best educational preparation for the contemporary manager. Naturally, the Liberal Arts have been hijacked by every kind of lunatic and it is now not always a preparation for clear and creative headedness. But we may find that b-schools and the humanities need to spend more time in one anothers company. Yeah, thats it. Send Oracle back to the oracle.
Leavitt, Theodore, [reference forthcoming]
p.s., today, the lobby of the hotel is jammed with media all waiting for an outcome on the hockey negotiations taking place in the hotel.