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Gustin Partners | July 02, 2014 |

It’s the People, Stupid

By Thornton May
Futurist, Senior Advisor with GP, Executive Director & Dean - IT Leadership Academy

I have been told that a Presidential campaign is “crazy time” with distractions and surprises galore. Focus is a key ingredient of electoral success. Some readers may recall James Carville hanging signs around the 1992 Little Rock, Arkansas Clinton campaign headquarters exhorting the faithful to stay focused on:

1. Change vs. more of the same

2. The economy, stupid

3. Don't forget health care

I would like to borrow the now embedded in our cultural memory line “It’s the economy, stupid!”, modify it a bit and exhort leaders to rediscover the essence of what leadership is all about – PEOPLE.

At first glance this might seem quite banal. You might say, “Thornton, of course leadership is all about people.” But if you parse expenditures associated with the ~ $ 4 billion dollars humans spend annually on IT into three buckets – Technology, Process and People – you would find that People is not – repeat IS NOT where the lion’s share of the money goes.

Daniel Barchi, one of the shining lights in the health care IT field [CIO at Yale New Haven Health System and Yale Medical School] recently shared with the AIIM Executive Leadership Council that success with the $19 billion currently allocated to making electronic medical records [EMR] in the United States a reality requires 80% focus on people; 15% focus on process; and 5% focus on technology.

The Myth of Control

At the very start of the industrial revolution control was very much top of mind. Josiah Wedgewood [1730 to 1795], a pioneering industrialist operating before the turn of the 19th century truly understood technology change. Changing technology [e.g., steam and electricity] expanded the realm of what was possible. It allowed one to re-think existing processes – how work gets done. Wedgwood understood how change would impact markets, institutions and individuals. Wedgwood understood the mind of his market. He was the Steve Jobs of his day and his Wedgwood Pottery pieces were the iPads and iPhones of the day. Everyone had to have them.

Wedgwood [as most capitalists of his age] did not understand the mind of his workers. Professor John Merriman, the Charles Seymour Professor of History at Yale University tells students that Wedgwood thought long and hard how to make all the pottery workers he employed respond in the very same way. He wanted to ensure that they did not just get up, wander off, or start talking to themselves. Wedgewood wanted to “control” his workers. His goal was to train his workers so thoroughly as “to make such machines of the men as cannot err.’ He puzzled over how to get them all to work at his single command. His dream, his fantasy – he wanted a set of workers who responded as “fingers on two hands in response to his commands.”

The Ford Assembly line which was perfected in the years 1908 to 1915 automated the ‘one, best way of doing things.’ Historical scholars compare early industrial age factories with prisons. Factory architects referenced and emulated the Panopticon of Jeremy Bentham [1791], where the prison supervisor could see all cells without being seen as the model guiding the physical design of the work place.  A defining element of early commercial architecture was the factory gate - managed ingress and egress. Workers were ‘checked in’ and had limited ability to check out.

Workers viewed factories as prisons and owners/managers/foreman as jailers. The ‘locked in’ aspect of work was brought to national attention following the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire [March 25, 1911] in New York city when 146 garment workers – mostly women died – because the doors were locked to prevent workers from taking breaks.

Control is not what it used to be

Control is not [and never should have been] a managerial metric. Control is not the logical end point of high value organizations. Control as a concept should be banished from the executive lexicon.

Readers may be surprised to learn that the success of one of history’s greatest megalomaniac “control freaks”, Napoleon came from his giving control away and empowering his lieutenants. Instead of emasculating his corps commanders by jealously micromanaging his entire army, Napoleon decentralized his command and control system by organizing his army into self-contained units, led by competent corps commanders who operated with only minimal instructions from Napoleon himself.


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