Working on the Information Assembly Line

Cogs in the machineThe report on the rise of small businesses noted in Rick’s recent post got me thinking about why people leave or avoid corporate jobs in favor of something more personal. Many of us aren’t interested in working for large globo-corp companies that may be headquartered far away, staffed by thousands of employees you’ll never know, with a mission that may be tough to directly connect to your daily activities. The supposed “security” of these large employers is an illusion we just don’t buy into anymore.

Nobody dreams of being employee #10,239. Today’s knowledge workers in large companies can spend their day taking data from someone, doing something with it, and giving it to someone else — without any personal connection to the final product, customer or result.

I recently interviewed a candidate to replace me before I left my product management job at a mid-sized software company. He had been laid off by our area’s largest technology employer (along with hundreds of his marketing colleagues). It was shocking to hear this smart guy tell me what he actually did there — spending all of his time on an activity that was only one of many I was responsible for. He was one step in a huge workflow, with a narrowly focused job in a niche of a niche. It was like a 21st century assembly line of information, and he handled step 16 of 212. Yes, he was paid well, and I heard the benefits and stock options were great. And he and his co-workers all got laid off in one fell swoop.

What can employees do to ensure they don’t get stuck in a highly specialized role, not gaining (or losing) skills that broaden their capabilities? And with the rise of small businesses, as well as technology, tools and communities to support independent workers, how will these mega companies entice top talent to work there?

This entry was posted in Career, Corporate Culture, Develop, Employment, Growth, HR, Motivation, Talent. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Working on the Information Assembly Line

  1. Ron Davison says:

    I think that once a person finds himself (or herself) doing work that seems to be of little value, he can pretty much expect a layoff notice soon. Corporations are slow to respond to market signals and they do a sloppy job of it, but eventually if they’ve assigned people to do menial work they eventually lose business and those menial workers. The worst part? The person laid off has to find work coming off of a job that was not particularly impressive.

  2. Rick Turoczy says:

    Ron,

    “I think that once a person finds himself (or herself) doing work that seems to be of little value, he can pretty much expect a layoff notice soon.”

    If only that were so. I’m going to have to disagree with you there.

    In my experience, companies wait too long to fire people–layoff, reduce, RIF, or choose your favorite euphemism for firing. So, that when the time comes, it is no longer a question of keeping talent and eliminating waste. Instead, it’s a hatchet job to simply reduce the sheer number of employees (subtraction), indiscriminately.

    I know plenty of talented folks who have been the baby in the bathwater. They weren’t doing menial things; they were valuable. But the company needed to “reduce headcount” and chose to do it “equally across all departments.” So what these folks wound up being, more than anything else, was unlucky.

    I agree with Amy. (Shocker.) I think people making the choice to leave is the only “safe” route. Taking control of the situation instead of letting it take control of you.

  3. Pingback: Please welcome Amy Winkelman | More than a living

  4. I have to agree with Rick that it’s up to the individual to push back against being pigeonholed into a highly specialized job in which you wear only one “hat,” instead of the many hats you inevitably wear in a smaller company or project.

    It’s not that focusing on one thing is bad, but it can’t go on for too long or you back yourself into a corner. Companies like employees who do one thing very well, over and over, and often resist when those people want to move into another role. It reminds me of that old (good) advice: “don’t get too good at that or you’ll never do anything else.”

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