Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Tapping employees’ potential: Drucker and beyond
Amy Joyce

Peter Drucker’s philosophies enlightened managers and executives the world over for 60 years and still resonate with today’s corporate crowd. But how relevant are his teachings in the face of increasing global competition and workplaces where head honchos and managers put profits before employee development?

WHEN Peter F. Drucker, the management guru whose work spanned the latter half of the20th century, passed away recently, it caused a few managers to think. Again.

Drucker was renowned for urging corporate leaders to listen to employees and get out of the way so the workers could achieve company goals. He believed companies would be better if employees had more control over their environments. He argued that companies could attain sustainable profits only by treating employees as valuable assets.

Workers as assets

And employees could be valuable assets only if the company created a constant learning and developmental environment.

Drucker, who died at the age of 95, believed that every enterprise should be a learning and teaching institution. Drucker told managers and executives that their business was to grow and develop people.

But do managers really listen and follow those teachings that sound so ... right?

Drucker’s lessons and philosophies enlightened managers and executives for 60 years and still resonate with today’s generation of managers. But what he preached has, in many cases, waned in the face of increasing global competition and workplaces where managers and executives think about shareholders and profits first, before employee development. Drucker would preach against that, vehemently. It is, after all, the supported employee who can help the company compete and increase revenue, right?

"Workplace training tends to be tactical: How do I get that employee through the next hour, the next day?" says Lance Camarena, a director of training.

Take a cashier, for example, he says. That person is typically trained to use the machine but not in the "soft skills" that advance the person in a job or help the store gain and retain customers. That "other" training would include how to deal with different cultures, fellow colleagues, harassment issues. "What we haven’t done is integrated the two, the how-to’s, the mechanical pieces of our job with the people skills. That’s where the disconnect is," he says.

He tries to strip away his employee’s job descriptions in order to train them throughout their cruise-line careers. "We begin our training process with the starting position that you’re not just any one thing. That’s your title. What is your mission?" he asks. A dining steward is not there just to provide food to guests. Instead, he has to provide customer service. He should know what might be fun to do at certain ports and be able to have a conversation with guests about that, he adds.

Relevance remains

Unfortunately, Camarena feels, Drucker’s important thoughts have been lost in recent years. Everyone "implies that training is important. Then that’s the first thing that gets cut," when a company is facing financial difficulties, he says.

The vice-president of workforce development, says one of the reasons Drucker’s training and development philosophy is so important today is because "the needs and nature of people in the workplace continue to shift rather dramatically."

People are different. There are many generations within one workplace, each with different experiences and expectations. It is the company that engages these differences and develops workers’ various talents that has a competitive edge, he says.

"We’re not working in an environment now that’s void of developmental opportunities. But the nature of what those are has to shift a little bit based on people’s expectations."

One of the significant challenges facing a company such as Cingular, says Rob Lauber, executive director of the company’s learning services, is that there are constant changes in the marketplace. The company is learning as it goes, he says, that not only do employees need to be trained in the immediate technology and their immediate job, but they also need to be developed so they can be better employees over time. That will only help them help the company become more competitive and profitable.

Training as investment

"While in the past it’s been seen as necessary evil, more and more we’re seeing companies recognise the impact" learning can have on the strategy and success of a business, says the president of a firm which creates and sells training software to businesses.

But a majority of companies still look at training and development as more of a classroom function that takes people away from their ‘real’ job. And they don’t understand that training and development should be something "in the fabric of the company."

However, piece by piece, companies are catching on again. The number of companies with a chief learning officer is growing.

Drucker would be so proud.

— LA Times-Washington Post