Musings of an anonymous geek

June 29, 2005

A Problem With Traditional Corporations

Filed under: Me stuff — m0j0 @ 9:32 pm

I’m not faking some deep knowledge of how decisions flow through huge organizations or anything, but I have certainly seen my fair share of middle- and upper-management decision making go on, fairly close up. Also, I’m not, in my little essay, professing knowledge so much as seeking responses from those who might be able to help me understand or come to terms with what goes on.

The main statement that I make is that our economy, in stark contrast to our political system, attempts to achieve “arete”, or excellence; to create a classically defined aristocracy. Free from the ties of our political system, which, in its most idealistic form, seeks to make everybody equal, corporations have no such pretense, and can be free to set about pouring resources only into those areas or people they feel have the most potential, leaving the rest to collect their paychecks and be mediocre at performing tasks that only require mediocrity. How they make these decisions is where my confusion lies.

There’s politics, and then there’s the economy. The two are constantly at odds, because they have extremely different needs. If companies suddenly decided to run themselves according to the doctrines of our country’s founding fathers, they’d soon float to the top of the sea of corporations. By “top” here, I don’t mean the profit-capital-of-the-world top that normally gets thrown around corporate board rooms. What I mean is that they will float to the top because they are dead and bloated, waiting to be skimmed up and flushed down the toilet.

Corporations are not designed with equality in mind. They are structured to build heroes. Sure, they want to build as many heroes as they possibly can – but doing so requires them to make some compromises and decisions. The first decision they have to make who might have the stuff of heroes, and who doesn’t. Those who don’t have the potential to transcend mediocrity are relegated to “helping the team” by performing those tasks that, in order for the company to be successful, somebody must perform.

Those who do have what it takes to be leaders attract investment from the company in their careers. They get paid higher salaries, better benefits packages, more training, and better perks, for several reasons. One is to keep them happy so they’ll stick around. Another is because because they feel like there can be a good return on their investment.

This all flies in the face of our political structure, which seeks equality for “all”, where “all” can be defined in different ways depending on your political leanings.

So that’s the background.

I’ve always kept an eye on the job market, even when I’ve been happy in my job. I’m not sure why. I guess I’ve never considered myself absolutely indispensible. Of course, any job ad should be taken with a grain of salt, but what I find somewhat paradoxical about the hiring process is that they want people who can think “outside the box”, and yet they seem to fail in thinking outside the box when it comes to hiring. Hear me out:

Corporations want independent thinkers to a degree. At the same time, they want someone who can act in the interest of the corporation. Sometimes these wants are diametrically opposed. For them to just say they want an independent thinker is dangerous, because they’re not likely to be structured in a way that really and truly fosters independent thought. A truly inependent thinker may not always be thinking what’s best for the company. So they want a creative thinker who can take their thoughts and apply them to the business at hand. This is called “thinking outside the box”.

To be fair, the companies aren’t asking for something significantly downgraded from “independent thought”. Truly creative thinkers are rarities. Those who can apply creativity to a business problem are insanely rare. Those who can link completely abstract ideas from outside the business realm to issues of the day are insanely rare — and those who can do all of that and communicate their ideas in some coherent fashion are just unheard of.

The reason that this is unheard of in today’s business climate is because of the attitude of students toward education, and the attitude of academia toward education.

Students today look at getting a degree like they’re pledging a fraternity; they’re not sure why they’re going through these mechanical motions, except that those before them (that is to say, their future employers) went through it, and so now they’ll have to go through it, because those who came before them basically said so. The evidence of this attitude couldn’t be more obvious. How many times do students prod professors for reasons to learn what they’re learning? “When will I need to understand the square root of -1, anyway?”. Further, how often do you think students look for compromises along the way – even going so far as to ask the professors to participate in the compromise by providing a review sheet for an exam that basically is the exam, so they won’t have to do actual work? This happens at least daily.

There’s no seeking of enlightenment, there’s nobody seeking any great degree of well-roundedness, and there are only very few who are seeking to do more than just get by. Most undergrads are simply there to mimic the positions of their professors, and to regurgitate verbage in the hopes that they will be marked “right”, simply because there isn’t a reason to mark them wrong that will get past the higher ups in the university setting. There are those who break these rules, and I hope that these deserving individuals become success stories.

However, as a group, undergrads are, even after graduation, not well prepared to think outside the box. Indeed, most people who’ve gone through a four-year program take great pride in what amounts to the shortcuts and compromises they were able to get away with in pursuit of their degree. The pursuit of a degree and the pursuit of an education or enlightenment are thereby decoupled.

I’ll forego my thoughts on academias attitude and just briefly say that, not all, but also not a few of them are there to produce degree holders for payment.

So these are the folks being hired from ads that seek people who can think outside the box.

The paradox is that hiring managers themselves can’t think outside the box enough to achieve the arete they’d like to, because their seeming inability to recognize potential leaves them to rely on the mechanics of an educational system they’ve been led to believe has their best interests at heart (the students believe the same thing of the institutions, by the way). This reminds me of a really great bit of dialog from the movie The American President, where a White House aide and the president are debating the outcome of a recent poll:

People want leadership, Mr. President, and in the absence of genuine leadership, they’ll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership. They’re so thirsty for it they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand.

President: Lewis, we’ve had presidents who were beloved, who couldn’t find a coherent sentence with two hands and a flashlight. People don’t drink the sand because they’re thirsty. They drink the sand because they don’t know the difference.

My big question is which character best describes corporations? Is there a sense among corporations that they’ve been misled and so now they’re stuck with sand? Or do they not understand that there might be some better way of discovering potential in people? Maybe they feel that they’re doing the absolute best a company can possibly do – that they have access to exactly the talent they need? It would be saddening to believe this.

I can’t help but think that, as a result of the educational system being their sole preferred supplier of labor, they wind up pouring resources into individuals they feel can become heroes based on some outside opinion, only to find that they never had the potential to get past some mediocre version of mediocre.

The bottom line is that to recognize potential in people, the corporations themselve have to think outside the box of the formal, mechanical educational system. I have to believe that this ability alone would be a major competitive edge to any company that can do it.

I’m sure there is someone out there researching better ways to make hiring decisions where formal education is a factor in the hiring process, instead of the main factor. In the meantime, I, for one, am pledging.


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