Business as usual no longer applies. The routine is now the exception to the norm, and the familiar has become almost exotic. In short, the workplace is in a constant state of flux and stretch. What is perhaps startling is that it is nevertheless succeeding: Steady increases in productivity, profitability and quality are being achieved. Why? Basically, there are two reasons: the sharp edge of global competition and performance improvement training. As far as the future is concerned, all that is evidently needed is more of the same—keep upping the ante and sustain the learning. Right? Perhaps not.
There are two problems, one practical, the other conceptual. The workforce may encounter the law of diminishing returns. It may not be possible to continue to reach increasingly competitive goals, especially with fewer employees and the thinning out of managers. Offsetting shifts may have to occur. In fact, the signs of a new clever desperation are already beginning to appear. Companies are turning unexpectedly to variables never used before. Outsourcing abroad is only the most recent and sensational example, but the same principle was at work when Circuit City replaced its entire commission-based sales force with fixed-pay employees at lower average salaries. More ingenious outsourcing variations undoubtedly will surface as companies seek to remain viable and competitive and as consultants of human resource outsourcing increase their expertise and visibility.
Can training pick up the slack and close the gap? Perhaps, but only with a kind of training that is shaped by the new dynamics and metrics of the workplace. One key shift already emerging is knowing more about those being trained. Thus, diagnostically driven training has surfaced— targeting training to hit the hot buttons that motivate employees, as revealed by extensive psychological and learning styles tests. That certainly will bring greater precision and efficiency to effectiveness. But valuable though such findings are, they are essentially piecemeal. They lack a larger conceptual framework within which such data can be processed and upgraded to information and to workforce patterns. Such coherence would go far toward applying test findings against performance objectives. The framework being proposed here involves the re-examination of the basic relationships between goals and roles.
Traditionally, goals are elaborated, roles are stated. Goals are many, roles singular. The goals may alter or vary, but the role remains intact. Moreover, goals and roles are not perceived as possessing a dynamic or changing relationship with each other. Rather, they are reassuring reflections of each other. Ideally, they are a mirror match. A job title or role is linked with an appropriate set of goals, which essentially define the role. For example, performance evaluation is always set against goal achievement not role change. In short, goals are where the action is. Because the focus is always on the action side of the equation, the role is regarded as a static given.
That focus made sense when goals were manageable and achievable and were not stretched and strained to meet higher performance levels. Even then, and later when such efforts were successful, there was no need to employ closer scrutiny. Congratulations were the order of the day as managers expressed confidence of future replication. But what made such achievements possible was an unexamined and even undetected dynamic between goals and roles, and when the nature of that secret interaction is known and tapped, it will yield a model for more targeted learning and performance improvement, even upgrades.
The job classification process is both clarifying and imprisoning. It follows the paradox celebrated by Robert Frost’s famous “Mending Walls”: “Before I build a wall/ I would like to know what I am walling in/ And what I am walling out.” Job titles are acts of positioning. The detailed list of objectives that inevitably follow and accompany each job title firmly establishes the role parameters. Indeed, when spillover occurs and is spotted as part of the evaluation process, it is often interpreted as a basis for a promotion or reassignment of greater responsibility. But only then is role change contemplated or acknowledged as part of the process of goal achievement. But typically and otherwise, all attention is fixed on goals, not roles, and hence on goal change, not role change.
But times have changed. Goals have undergone at least five major transformations:
- Most current incremental increases are without end. They may even occur daily and subsequently may not be evenly spaced. Except for their constancy, they are not predictable in scope or degree. Like computer advances, they require constant updating and sometimes abrupt shifts brought about by paradigm changes. Constantly upping the ante, incremental stretch goals have become the new norm.
- Often the incremental is not singular but multiple, fan-like not linear. Add-ons suddenly are affixed. Variations on threads are developed. Direction is altered. There is little or no white space on the calendar. The pace is breathless. Immediate tasks and needs regularly interrupt. Evaluation occurs every Friday, sometimes daily or tied to specific dates in order to capture the goals of the week. Flight plans or repairs have to be undertaken en route. All must remain in motion. Everything is in a state of transition. Multi-tasking is now a generic task for all. Everyone has to become a juggler.
- Individual and teamwork priorities are driven by alignment with divisional partners near and far and with company objectives. Organizational flow systems are nested within the larger big picture of vision and mission and serve as employee road maps of coincidence. But the priorities change, routinely and regularly. For large companies, the challenge is how to rapidly change the direction and momentum of an enormous battleship.
- Structural reconfigurations into more open and fluid forms and functions increase cross-training and job rotation. In the process, even the lowest employee as a cog becomes many cogs. The overall shape of an organization comes to resemble a river flowing through it rather than a series of mechanical boxes. Accordingly, employee stretch goals become increasingly fluid, open-ended and unfinished. Every job becomes a variation on a theme.
- Finally, employees are asked to contemplate the discontinuity of job processes and functions. They are stirred to create alternative cost-saving and more productive ways of doing more with less. Every aspect of the process has to become grist for the mill of innovation. The assumption is that everything, broken or not, needs to be fixed.
Although at any given time not all the above transformations may be operating together, sooner or later they all will impact the workforce. To be sure, the list may be so daunting and intimidating as to require moving the conventional last phase of all the job descriptions—“And do whatever is necessary to accomplish the above”—to the first position. Such a generic catchall presented from the start would at least serve as a more accurate and appropriate warning preface of what has become increasingly undefined. But the key obstacle is a misplaced focus: fixing on or faulting the flux goals when they are not met. The predictable explanation is that they exceed the parameters of the job description as well as the skill sets required to succeed. But when success occurs, we are so delighted that we give up being defensive, but still fail to ask why and how.
So it is back to basics. Every goal houses the role required to accomplish it. If they are not in sync, employees complain that they do not want to be unfairly judged. So they become territorial and defensive and complain, “That is not in my job description.” Currently, that disparity is ignored by hard-pressed managers who respond with, “Welcome to the new world.” But what may be overlooked is a symptomatic mismatch. The kind of goal changes required cannot be accomplished without role changes.
The current achievement of changing goals has come about by changing roles. We have been so fixed on the goal side and its measurement and training that we have failed to recognized that a secret reciprocity exists between goals and roles. Certain goals cannot be accomplished without role change. Employees often unknowingly have to shift into high gear and alter behaviors and attitudes in order to reach their more demanding goals. But by failing to understand and value that new dynamic between goal and roles, managers and trainers not only ignore the remarkable growth potential of employees, but they also lose sight of what is deeply at work in performance improvement and its evaluation. To overcome those limits and to develop a more comprehensive and interactive basis for both training and assessment, two critical questions need to be answered: What kinds of goal changes require and even compel role changes? And what kinds of role changes emerge?
Clearly, not all goal changes stir role changes. Even some incremental ones, which are only different in degree but not in kind, still may be manageable and achievable and thus may not require role change. But the five cited earlier do. The task now is one of linkage to display, as in the taxonomy in Figure 1, the matched goal-role relationships.
From these partnerships between goals and roles, five conclusions may be in order:
- Most current training focuses on goal transformations, not role change.
- Most performance evaluations fail to factor in the changing relationships between morphing goals and morphing roles.
- All changing goals cannot be met without changing the roles required to achieve such objectives.
- Job descriptions create static expectations of a dynamic goal-role relationship and need to be totally redone.
- The ultimate and cumulative impact of goal-role metrics is the transformation of the workforce.
The correctives are clear. Training has to pair goals and roles, and link emerging roles to reaching morphing goals. Performance evaluation has to mirror and reinforce the training by measuring the emergence of roles appropriate to goal attainment. Job descriptions have to be brought in alignment by spelling out the unfinished nature of whatever it takes. Finally, learning and human resource directors have to contemplate that given the transformation of performance goals on the one hand and the corresponding emergence of higher-level roles on the other hand, the upgrading required is more a matter of kind not of degree. Finally, when the roles are reviewed, what dramatically emerges is a new workforce definition of rank-and-file workers not as employees but employee-managers. That role change has to become the object of training and evaluation if productivity and return on investment are to be maintained and the law of diminishing returns avoided or minimized. As to what happens in the process to middle managers and CEOs and vice presidents, that is another story to be told separately.
Irving Buchen is vice president of academic affairs at Aspen University. He can be reached at email@example.com.