« December 2009 | Main | February 2010 »

January 27, 2010

Not Only Do I Quit—I’m Suing You

Blog cartoon 1-27-10

[Cartoon courtesy of Grantland Cartoons]

A beleaguered employee wishes he could sue his company more often than he’s able to. Take the horror of doing the same work (only more of it and of a higher quality) than the workmate sitting in the next cubicle over, and yet being paid $10 to $15 thousand dollars less annually. What if the one being paid more (while doing the lesser amount and lesser quality) of work is a man and the other (harder-working/lower-paid) is a woman? Sounds dicey for the company, but you’d be surprised. Most companies can get away with it, I suspect. A friend of mine in that very situation has decided to bide her time and make requests for promotion rather than seek legal action. One protection many of your companies enjoy is pure dumb luck—you pay your workers so little they can’t afford an attorney.
Another case I heard about also left the employee powerless. He suspected a manager at a former company had spread defamatory gossip about him at his new company. With none of his new colleagues willing to go on the record that they had spoken to his ex-manager in a non-job reference context, there was nothing he could do. But even, for the sake of argument, if at least one was willing to verify the defamed employee’s suspicions to human resources, what could the defamed one have done?  He likely would have had no recourse anyway.
Companies are told to be wary of employee lawsuits, but with all the employment-related horror stories I’ve heard (and occasionally experienced), I’ve never known anyone to feel they had the capacity to fight back by suing their company. Consider, for instance, the survival strategy of many companies during the Great Recession/Great Recovery. They’ve laid-off countless workers, which is fair (albeit cruel) game, but they’ve also doubled or tripled the workload of existing employees with no pay increases, not even a cost-of-living adjustment. They know they can get away with it because in this economic climate non-heiresses will do nearly whatever it takes to hold onto their jobs. I assumed it would be illegal to increase workload exponentially without increasing pay, but I believe what these companies did is perfectly legal.
Since, in reality, few, if any, of your employees will sue you, what would be a better focus for corporate paranoia?  One idea I have is employee engagement. Most legal concerns are much more of a threat to employee motivation than to your legal security. You can legally get away with doubling or tripling workload without increasing pay, but can you afford the toll it will take on the morale of your workforce? Think of the bitterness you’re engendering. You would be lucky if your bitterest looked for a new job when the economy recovers; unfortunately most of them will remain until their demoralized lack of productivity gets them fired, or worse yet, leaves them languishing on your payroll indefinitely. When coming up with strategies to survive the unstable economy, reflect on the burden you may be placing on workers. If it’s substantial, think about offering them compensation you can afford, whether it’s additional vacation time or enrollment into a development program that will reward them with a promotion down the line in exchange for sticking with you through unbearable times.
Be sure to note unfairness in your pay scale in work groups. Does the current pay structure reflect reality?  During the height of the recession, work groups were consolidated, with some work groups perhaps inheriting an employee with a higher title and salary than the employee(s) already in the work group. If enough time has passed to evaluate and compare work performance, ask the manager of the work group in question to spend time thinking about whether the pay structure needs rearrangement. You might find the fairest thing to do is swap salaries and titles between two workers if one is out-performing the other. After all, why should a low-performing employee keep a higher title and salary than a high-performing one just because that’s the package the manager received him in when he joined the work group?
Another thing that’s legal, but most employees probably would agree shouldn’t be, are staggering pay differentials between mid-level workers and the CEO and executive board. Curiously, there don’t seem to be any laws restricting corporate leaders from making more than a specified percentage of their average employee’s pay. But that’s no reason to assume workers won’t notice the poorly performing CEO made $20 million last year while their salary stayed stagnant at some $40,000 despite a tripled workload. You and/or your Board of Directors might want to think about putting executive salary parameters in place that rise and fall commensurate (or much closer to commensurate) with employee pay.
As one source told me her mother used to say, just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Not to liken your CEO to a three-year-old with his fingers knuckle-deep in chocolate cake batter, but sometimes it’s for the best if at least some of the corporate goodies are kept out of reach.

Is your company concerned with the potential for employee lawsuits?  Are you doing anything this year to safeguard yourself against workers happy to sue you, or do you feel the risk of employee lawsuit is overblown?

January 26, 2010

Launch of Training and Collaboration with Virtual Worlds

            Training and Collaboration with Virtual Worlds(McGraw-Hill Professional; January, 2010) is unique in many regards.  For the first time it provides detailed data, including financial and technical information, on how some of the world’s most recognizable global brands are using virtual worlds technology as their business platform, and how your business can use it, too -- for training, collaboration, team-building, marketing, branding and much more.

            Previous books on Second Life and virtual worlds concentrated on entertainment value and use by hobbyists.  Not this one.  In Training and Collaboration with Virtual Worlds the authors make an experience-based case for, and describe best practices of Second Life as an effective tool for business survival and growth.  The book is written for management-level decision makers to learn how virtual worlds can add significant value to your bottom line.

            Nothing could be a better venue for launching a book on using virtual worlds, then a virtual world itself.  On Friday, February 26th, at 1 pm Eastern Time (10 am PST aka "SL time") authors will present their new book during a special launch event to be held in Second Life.  For those who will not be able to join us in Second Life, the event will be streamed live on the web. The launch will cover what you could learn from the book plus new developments that happened after the book was submitted to the publisher.

            In order to access live book launch in SL or on the web, you need to register at http://www.ahg.com/launch_register.htm.  Access is limited, so please register promptly.  If you register and find out you are unable to attend, please, do let us know so that another person has an opportunity to be there.

More information: http://www.ahg.com/launch.htm

Registration: http://www.ahg.com/launch_register.htm

Visit the book site -- www.TheVirtualWorldsBook.com-- to find detailed description and materials that will help business and training professionals stay abreast of new virtual worlds developments.

January 20, 2010

Big Project, Not a Big Production

Blog cartoon 1-20-10

[Cartoon courtesy of Grantland Cartoons]

It’s not a nice thing to say, but I don’t like projects. Not a nice thing to say because there are people who make it their whole career—many of whom read our magazine—to manage projects. As a creative person, there’s something mind-numbing about planning a project, especially all the inevitable bureaucracy involved. You don’t mean to tell me there are people who savor that stuff, do you?

What I like is envisioning the project, focusing on finishing the tasks that need to be done, and helping others who are mired in project muck. These preferences of mine lead me to wonder whether a project leader is necessary.  I hate to ask (I don’t think it’s very smart of me to risk offending readers), but could someone plead the case of project managers to me—why they’re necessary and what their proper function is?

Here’s another thing that will make people mad: I don’t think the leaders of projects do as much work as the worker bees of the project. I also, despite my creative/visionary personality traits, don’t believe in the “envisioner” project role. I think the best people to do the envisioning are the people who will be responsible for carrying out the work. First, they’re the ones whose time and sweat are at stake. And second, they’re the ones who know what will and won’t work since they’re the ones with the professional or technical know-how.

I had lunch with a friend a couple years ago who was in a really good (uncharacteristically good) mood, and the reason was she had just earned her professional project manager certification. Of course I’m a nice friend, so I pretended to be impressed, and I was to some degree. She manages a team of IT workers at a large financial institution here in NYC, and has to push around people who don’t speak the same language as her (or at least they don’t speak it too well).  Her company has software releases for their branch offices or banks (not sure which it is they have), and there were times she was so busy with her project managing she had to stay at the office nearly all night with the IT workers she project manages. I can’t blame her for wanting a professional designation for that.  I’ve never (knock wood) pulled an all-nighter at the office, so I don’t need a professional designation yet (what would they call me, anyway?  Professional Long-Suffering Journalist?).

Instead of saddling one person with project management, why not make the management of the project a group endeavor, with no one person charged with organizing and selling the work?  I’ve heard it said that every work group needs a leader, but I’m not convinced that’s so. What if the high-flying (over-paid) executive charging a work group with a seemingly unmanageable project, asks each member of a work group to do a specific task? When “projects” are broken into small pieces, they cease to be projects, right?  And they’re not intimidating or unmanageable. I guess you’d argue the executive assigning the work is the project manager in this scenario, but I don’t think so. I think to have a project manager you need to have a gigantic chore set on your desk with no direction as to how it should get done, and have it be left to your discretion who does what. When an executive or manager has end goals in mind for which he asks individuals in a team, rather than one person, to help her meet, there’s more of a chance each person in the work group will pull his/her weight, and more of a chance everyone will know who is responsible for what. If the project falls through, there isn’t one person (the Professional Project Manager) to blame. Instead the executive can pinpoint exactly who slipped up.

Since project management isn’t going away, and most companies won’t do what I’m suggesting, are there ways to make projects less burdensome? The very word “project” gives me the creeps. Who wants a “project” anyway?  It sounds like a long uninspired process full of things nobody feels like doing. I suppose if I have to not only take part in a “project,” but be managed by a Professional Project Manager, I’d like not to hear too much about the “project.”  Basically, I’m asking to be left in the dark, and out of the loop. I’d like to just be given my chores, told when I’ll have to finish them, and told where new ideas are needed. I definitely don’t want to hear about what everyone else is supposed to be doing (I’ll just get annoyed when I notice they’re not doing it), what the end goals are (I’m liable to think they’re silly or wrong-headed), and the bureaucratic process for getting everything done (the counterproductive red tape will anger me). 

Gossip is fun and entertaining, but a danger of projects is once they’re labeled “projects,” office politics arise, and that nonsense can be dispiriting to employees with idealistic feelings about their work.  Do any of you project managers out there have good ideas for keeping office politics out of a “project,” thereby limiting counterproductive, demoralizing distractions? 

I see office workers, including myself, as horses. I’ve heard, and seen in the movies, horses going through disaster sites like fires with blinders on the sides of their eyes so they stay focused on taking the rider where he needs to go. I think that’s what employees often need.  The things that go on in a corporation are liable to spook the most stoic of workers.  The funny part is real horses will throw their riders off when they get spooked, and that’s exactly what happens in an office environment. Work horses plodding along get spooked and buck the project manager—and the company that put them on the path that frightened them.

What kinds of projects will your company roll out this year?  Are you worried they might not go well?

January 13, 2010

Tentative in '10

Blog cartoon 1-13-10
[Cartoon courtesy of Grantland Cartoons]

Employers are nothing if not circumspect when it comes to plans, meaning more cowardly than anything else. Few are truly worried about the business; more often the concern is those at the top won’t make as many millions as they did last year. The horror of making one million less than you had banked on!  Can you imagine?

Nevertheless, many workforce managers are finding their way these days thinking about what their executives expect in the way of this year’s circumspection. How careful (meaning miserly) do we need to be this year?  “Circumspect” enough to double or triple the workload of employees to launch money-making strategies without adding additional manpower? 

When it comes to full-time workers, it’s a tall order to expect companies to add more when we’ve not yet fully emerged from the effects of the recession, but it might be a good idea to hire help for “revenue driving” ideas. I was just talking to a colleague the other day about how worthwhile a special project manager is. We had one in a past company, and while the inhabitants of that position weren’t always spectacular (one I suspect was a borderline alcoholic), it was great getting to focus on the tasks we were hired for rather than getting sidetracked by marketing duties. With the rise of marketing via social networks, it seems these days everyone is a marketer. Since your company doubtless has a “revolutionary” social media strategy it’s planning to roll out in ’10, think about whether your want Dana the Woman with Seven Cats and a Bat in the next cubicle over to spearhead it, or whether it may be worthwhile to pay a few thousand to a trained marketer.

When it comes to part-time or temporary workers, the beauty is, both from a payroll and a human relations perspective, you don’t have to live with them for long. As I’ve often lamented on this blog, human interactions in the workplace aren’t always the best (stolen lunches; childish competitions; lying supervisors), so in addition to the fabulousness of not having to pay the special project person long-term, you don’t have to worry about the individual stepping on any valued worker’s toes. Believe me, as one whose workforce toes have experienced pinching, it’s a relief to remember Joe the Unproductive isn’t here for good (especially if his title and salary are higher than yours; happens sometimes).

Sometimes, of course, if you’re a company with multiple offices you can direct special project people just to the regions you need them most, and more importantly, pick desirable regional offices to transfer employees to as a reward. Let’s say your company is based in New Jersey, and you have a booming office that’s just opened in Malibu, CA, do you think a young up-and-comer might enjoy a relocation to benefit the company and her quest to become a surfer?  In other words, when you think about offering targeted manpower additions to your employees, think about how you can get the most bang for your buck by using the new positions as internal incentive rewards programs. Relocation isn’t a chore for the young, upwardly mobile, open-minded, and unanchored (no family of their own yet).

The emergence of green jobs to be hip, if not socially conscious, is another way to direct manpower funds to a specific kind of work role, while also exciting your youngest employees. I’ve heard workforce generational research suggest that Gen Yers are especially excited by the idea of “green” companies. A couple, or at least, one new job role that can be called “green” is something you can use to attract new high-potentials to your payroll, and, like the prospect of relocating to a better place, a great incentive to present high-performers players.

Another thing at least some of your recruits will have that you don’t is bilingual ability. That’s not because you’re lazier than they are or less educated. It’s simply a function of an ever-greater number of Hispanics entering the workforce. With many of these individuals from bilingual households, you could use their skills to launch one, or even a few, new positions centered on reaching out to the Hispanic market. It’s a growing market of consumers, so why not make the most of the bilingual skills under your own roof?  Many of your employees with the ability to speak Spanish probably will think of it as a great opportunity—maybe even a reward—to use their skills to tap a market that includes their family and friends.

Business travel is one of today’s big no-nos, but why should that be?  Sure, it’s expensive to travel compared to using a trusty online meeting service, but think about how much your employees can learn from cross-country or (better yet) overseas business travels. Aside from learning about markets different from their own by face-to-face/culture-to-culture contact, many of your employees would love a chance to travel. You pay them so little, how else can they see the world but for business travel forays?  It’s not frivolous if you choose wisely—picking only those workers who deserve to be rewarded and sending them on trips with a true value-add from face-to-face interactions. Be sure not to limit these travels to salespeople. Many of those workers already get hefty commissions and bonuses. Use posh travel opportunities as a reward to those who work just as hard in unsung positions.

When all else fails, you can just ignore your workforce. With bad financial times lingering for so long, many of you have tried so many approaches to being “circumspect” and “prudent,” that enforced ignorance of your employees’ activities and performance status may be all that’s left to try. The good part about the ignoring strategy is it usually doesn’t involve additional manpower. Imagine the job role: Chief Executive Ignorer.

What employment trends have you already noticed this year?  Any that particularly concern you?

January 12, 2010

Rethinking Traditional Constructs with New Media

In this age of "new media" new approaches to old constructs need to be developed. 

One example is that the classroom experience...or some part of it has moved online as a virtual classroom. Another example is that texting has now replaced voice mail messages as the number one use for cell phones. As learning and development professionals, our goal should be to leverage technologies available to create new and enhanced experiences for our learners.

For example, it is possible to teach an online course using a Facebook page as the central location for posting information and ideas.

Yet, another, more recent example is that of a virtual book tour replacing a physical book tour. In a virtual book tour, the stops are on different blogs instead of different cities. 

In the elearning blogosphere, Tony O'Driscoll and I are conducting a virtual blog book tour for the launch of our new book about a new technology for learning and collaboration. The idea is  to build a discussion around the topic of virtual worlds for learning and to get feedback on the topic and subject through the tour. You can learn about the Blog Book Tour here. The idea of a blog book tour could be extended to a virtual book club in which members share information about the book via a Facebook page or a series of blogs. 

As an example, we've created a Facebook Fan page for Learning in 3D where readers can exchange ideas and information about their impressions of the book. Imagine the value of having employees within a large company read a business book and connect for a monthly book club meeting virtually...perhaps even in a 3D virtual world.

The real benefit of newer technologies is that they can enhance and contribute to the learning we provide our colleagues if we use them in new and innovative ways. For example, use Twitter to engage learners in discussions about specific topics mentioned in class. Use a hashtag so that learners can search on the results of the conversation after it is over. Again, as an example, we are using the hashtag #lrn3d to aggregate the discussions around the book "Learning in 3D" you can view the results by going into Twitter and searching on the #lrn3d hashtag. 

This simple examples of rethinking traditional learning and developing constructs with new media provide a rich toolkit from which we learning and development professionals can provide our learners with the right knowledge at the right time.

Karl Kapp is the Assistant Director of Bloomsburg University’s Institute for Interactive Technologies and a professor ofSignature2  instructional technology. See his own blog, Kapp Notes for information on the convergence of learning and technology. He is the author of the book Learning in 3D: Adding a New Dimension to Enterprise Learning and Collaboration. 

January 08, 2010

Virtual Worlds Development Trend

            As virtual worlds are making inroads into enterprise programs, their use is shifting from relatively simple programs, accompanied by multiple announcements, blog discussions, and other media buzz to more sophisticated, internal, more productive and unannounced programs.  The first generation of virtual worlds' adopters was eager to share their experience with the world.  The second generation is putting this experience to use creating more targeted and sophisticated programs.

            This trend is accompanied and helped by the creation of new generation of tools.  The buildings for corporate meetings give way to instruments that allow you to conduct the meetings effectively and receive tangible results.  Lectures and conversations with students near a virtual campfire give way to simulations that facilitate learning by doing - something that you cannot achieve by other e-learning methods.  Excitement about 3D-world gives way to 3D models helping trainees to understand complex concepts, processes and procedures.  Some of most interesting tools are listed at http://work.secondlife.com/en-US/worksolutions/

            One of these new productivity tools is Collaborative Knowledge Management (cKM).  It is built to facilitate synchronous collaborative work with any type of information by visualization and providing shared team access. Using cKM, a team of employees can create and/or review flow or deployment chart, mind map, and just about any diagram of a business processes, procedure, or structure.

            Unique technology allows employees to access cKM both in Second Life and on the web. Both interfaces are completely compatible. Second Life part works best for synchronous collaborative work. This effect cannot be achieved by using competing entirely web-based knowledge management and collaborative software and platforms. At the same time, web interface can be used by individuals without Second Life access to review information and make quick updates.

            More information and real life examples of cKM use can be found at http://www.ahg.com/Second_Life/knowledge_management/Enterprise_Knowledge_Management_and_Collaboration_Solution.htm

January 06, 2010

Something I’ve Been Meaning to Speak to You About…

Blog cartoon 1-6-09
[Cartoon courtesy of Grantland Cartoons]

Employee surveys often remind me of one friend asking another if she’s fat. Is the kind (and smart) thing to do ’fessing up that her friend looks like she’s been working as a taste tester for a fast food restaurant for the last six months?  Or is it better to tell her she looks fine and nothing is wrong?  When a company asks you for your “true” and “honest” reflections on working for it, do you think they (or should I use the de-humanizing “it?”) expect you to tell the truth?  More importantly, what do the employees you’re rolling out the survey to think your company wants to hear?

I believe I’ve mentioned before on this blog that I once went overboard with employee survey truth telling, informing one of my previous employers that their pay scale and compensation strategy reminded me of how workers were treated in the “The Grapes of Wrath.”  Did I go too far?  Did I indulge too much in melodrama?

How would your company’s executives receive such a comment?  I wondered after submitting my survey responses, which I was assured would be kept anonymous, how my feedback would resonate, or, indeed, if it would resonate at all. Insulting (and horrifying to book lovers) as it is, I even wondered whether those reading the survey results knew the story of “The Grapes of Wrath.”

The way your company responds, or doesn’t bother responding, to employee surveys, and especially individual comments, says more than the feedback they receive. By “responding” I, of course, don’t mean talking individually to an employee about his/her comments, as doing so would violate the anonymity promise any reliable survey should offer.  I mean, instead, the action executives plan to take when they receive feedback such as my “Grapes of Wrath” reflection. If they can’t take action to correct the perception, if not the actual problem, what have they said to the company’s human resources and management team in regard to the comment? Surely, such sour feelings from an employee deserve some thought, don’t you think?

In case you’re wondering, I did not get fired for my bold observation. As expressive as I was regarding my feelings about the company’s approach to compensation, I was much more reticent about what I thought of my supervisor and boss.  As my supervisor at the time was a sociopath (not sure if I’m using the proper psychological designation; poetic license), who misrepresented me to our boss, and took joy making the lives of those under her miserable, my hesitancy to be honest in this area was unfortunate.  What if I could have told (and maybe even proven) the horror that was my work group’s supervisor?  I imagine the products my old work group delivered, and the state of our work lives, would have improved immeasurably. While I trusted the anonymity clause to protect me from retribution from the company’s executives and salary decision-makers, I couldn’t chance it with my supervisor. She only had five of us working under her, so if the HR department called her in to discuss her status as a sociopath, it wouldn’t take her (and our boss, whom she had tricked into thinking she was a nice person) long to figure out who said she was busy boiling workforce bunnies.

Boiling workforce bunnies aside, companies often overlook the most important and frequent employee survey of all—the exit interview. You can argue exit interviews can’t be taken too much to heart because the sample of respondents is skewed. Few leaving a company had a good experience. How many, after all, are ambitious enough to leave a good deal?  I also wimped out in my exit interview because, as much as I hope I’ll never have to use my former supervisor and/or boss as a reference, I just may have to some day. What if the supervisor I was fleeing found out I told HR she’s likely a sociopath with a compulsive lying problem?  Do you think that would lessen my chances of having her point out my industriousness and competence to future employers? 

In my exit interview, the HR rep was perceptive enough to see I was holding back feelings, and so diplomatically prodded me to agree my supervisor and boss weren’t the best communicators with their staff members. What kind of training does your company give HR personnel in reading the findings of exit interviews and other employee surveys?  Just as importantly, what preparation do you give them in interpreting the results for managers and executives? Along with reading the results to those with the power to make changes, HR and trainers should work with managers and executives to talk out possible improvements based on the feedback. Since those improvements likely will involve learning and development, trainers should be made part of the process.

Do your employees feel at liberty to tell you the company’s executives are loathed, their supervisor is brutal, and their chances of staying longer than the next viable job opening are slim to none?   Will they tell you the truth about how you look from behind?

How honest do you think the feedback is that you receive from employee surveys?  Can your managers and executives handle the truth?

January 05, 2010

Training and Collaboration with Virtual Worlds

    Training and Collaboration with Virtual Worlds: How to Create Cost-Saving, Efficient and Engaging Programs (published by McGraw-Hill) is now available in the bookstores and online.

            If you have read on virtual worlds, you will find this book to be quite different.  There is no hyper-excitement about the new and "cool" media, discussions on how to change your clothing, appearance, or how to build corporate campus.  There are no suggestions to rush in and "establish presence" until it is too late -- something that still dominates "positive" articles and presentations on virtual worlds.  At the same time, you will not find angry outbursts about complete worthlessness of virtual worlds for corporate use -- something that dominates the "negative" end of the spectrum -- either.

            Instead, you will find objective material and hard data that will help you understand the new media.  You will learn in what areas virtual worlds can add significant value and where the use of virtual worlds can be counterproductive, how to start your corporate program, what do you need to make your project a success.

            The book sums up best practices and recommendations from real life corporate experiences in virtual worlds. Experts from Cisco, EMC, IBM, Intel, Michelin, Microsoft, TMP Worldwide, University of Kansas Medical Center, World Bank, and CEO of Linden Labs hold nothing back frankly discussing their corporate Second Life projects, methodology, financials, timelines, and results.  The authors pay special attention to security issues and concerns, as well as real-life implementations and use of simulations to achieve competitive advantage and high ROI.

          Finally, you will find a lot of practical information: which virtual world to use, available entry options, recommendations on contents creation, existing tools, and programs.

            Virtual worlds develop fast. They change corporate training and HR even faster. The book site and wiki at http://www.TheVirtualWorldsBook.com/wiki will help business and training professionals stay abreast of new virtual worlds developments.