Coevolving Innovations

… in Business Organizations and Information Technologies

A colleague pointed out an article in the New York Times, “At I.B.M., a Vacation Anytime, or Maybe None“, by Ken Belson (online on August 31, 2007, subscription maybe required). The article starts with the lead:

It’s every worker’s dream: take as much vacation time as you want, on short notice, and don’t worry about your boss calling you on it. Cut out early, make it a long weekend, string two weeks together — as you like. No need to call in sick on a Friday so you can disappear for a fishing trip. Just go; nobody’s keeping track.

That is essentially what goes on at I.B.M., one of the cornerstones of corporate America, where each of the 355,000 workers is entitled to three or more weeks of vacation. The company does not keep track of who takes how much time or when, does not dole out choice vacation times by seniority and does not let people carry days off from year to year.

Instead, for the past few years, employees at all levels have made informal arrangements with their direct supervisors, guided mainly by their ability to get their work done on time. Many people post their vacation plans on electronic calendars that colleagues can view online, and they leave word about how they can be reached in a pinch.

My colleague joked that we have “unlimited vacation”, and that he would see us after he returned in a month. (He’s actually a manager, and I doubt that I’ll go another week without seeing an e-mail from him!)

The article also cites Best Buy, Motley Fool, and Netflix as other companies where counting every hour isn’t the practice.

Although the idea of putting the burden of scheduling vacation onto the employee might seem a bit strange for many people, there’s three deeper ideas within this practice.

First, in the age of knowledge work, it’s difficult for a supervisor to judge effort. Although the immediate coworkers of an individual might be able to subjectively estimate how much (or little) he or she is contributing, the supervisor isn’t necessarily as expert in the subject matter as the worker. It’s also impractical to apply the same procedure to judge the choices made by a senior employee with 25 years experience, as compared to a person with 2 years of experience. When choosing between measuring ends and measuring means, it works better for the employee and supervisor to negotiate the desired ends at the beginning of the planning period, and track against it — possibly with renegotiation — as time brings in more information.

Secondly, the article doesn’t say that employees aren’t supervised. There’s an administrative cost for recording and monitoring employee hours centrally. Following this logic, it means that employees enter data into a central database, and the central database sends a report to the supervisor. As business professionals complain more and more about the amount of e-mail that they have to wade through, perhaps it’s a better idea just to suggest to managers that that they should communicate frequently with their employees. If an employee is going to be away from work for more than two weeks, and the manager doesn’t know that he or she isn’t available, then there’s a bigger issue than data integrity.

Thirdly, I believe that recording hours is an artifact of an industrial age mentality. We turn machines on and off. This doesn’t mean that human beings work the same way. I’m reminded of a professor who was famous for a particular theorem. He got the idea for that theorem while pushing his daughter on a swing. If anything, the fact that human beings can’t stop thinking is a reason that professional work relies on highly-skilled workers rather than those who work mindlessly.

A good test for thinking about the current business world — e.g. an economy oriented more towards services than towards products created in industrial production — is to harken back to the agricultural era. When most workers were farmers, the work day was sunrise to sunset. The workgroups were either families or close-knit communities, so the reputation of an individual as a hard worker or slacker developed as a result of long-term observation. The first farmer who was asked to work in a factory from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. must have wondered about those wasted hours of sun in the summer, and the lunacy of trying to commute to work in the dark in the winter. Farmers can choose their own hours, with the relationship between the amount of effort they put in and the crop or livestock mostly obvious at harvest time.

Knowledge workers typing into a keyboard don’t have the same physical demands as farming, and they’re not constrained by daylight. In the short term, micro-managers may want to count hours, but from a broader perspective, it’s not hard to figure out which workers are producing for the company, and which aren’t.

September 1st, 2007

Posted In: services