Monday, September 6, 2010

Retained and Sustainable Value

The colors in the picture above are surreal due to the photo enhancement software used to transform a dark photo into one that highlights the details of this art deco arch over a doorway in Vancouver Canada. There’s something about art deco and craftsman work that has retained its value over time. During that period craftsmen’s tools were limited and this kind of workmanship took time, talent and experience. Today, I have no information about whether this work of art in both wood and metals was a single person’s contribution or a team contribution. However, it is a massive installation over a huge double doorway and has withstood the test of time and weather. It has retained and even increased its value.

Our tools have changed since the days when pieces like this were created. New tools allow us to work faster. However, working fast sometimes forces the craftsman in us to skip over the details that would create art out of work… forcing us to leave out the retained value that could be demonstrated through our work.

Interestingly, the performance improvement field is beginning to address sustainability and retained value. New work in the triple bottom line or TBL is looking at not only financial sustainability of organization but at social and ecological sustainability as well. (Check out these TBL visuals, as well... look at lots of them to get a real sense of this direction). It is an interesting way to look beyond making some individuals filthy rich to making sure that the work of an organization is sustainable.

However, on the front-line, most of us involved in performance improvement work are still tied to pettifogging tools that measure transactions rather than value. What do I mean by “measure transactions rather than value”? Well, consider the learning objective, one of the world’s most ubiquitous tools for measuring individual change (learning). Do follow that link. It’s amazing. Wikipedia, the new standard for dictionaries, does not include a definition of the term “learning objective” but references them in a dozen different ways. And, as might be expected, Blooms Taxonomy is the first one listed. There is no mention of the other taxonomies developed. Most people are unaware that there are taxonomies for the affective domain (social/emotional), fine motor and gross motor. Bloom’s taxonomy is all about knowledge and thought. In its way, it is a limiting to an organization as is the old-fashioned bottom-line accounting… and as complex. However, unlike accounting learning and performance improvement have not embraced the specialization required of complexity, we have simplified to the point of dumbing down the learning objective. Objectives have moved us into a mode where the single transaction is all that is important and any degree of integration between transactions is devalued.

Consider a very typical scenario, the service-oriented call center. Here a low-paid employee answers an incoming call. To answer the call they have to select the right combination of keys on a keyboard, listen through a headset, imagine a person on the other end of their phone line, decipher the problem the person is presenting, collect a variety of data elements such as name, address, phone number, and account number, validate that thy have understood the problem definition correctly, negotiate changes in that definition until the customer is happy that the problem is defined correctly, propose a solution or set of solutions, get the customer to agree to those solution actions and take those actions. In the case of a technical solution like a computer problem, this may also require that the call center employee walk the customer through steps to solve their own problem without being able to see the customers’ computer screen, keystrokes, or results of their actions. Whether or not the interaction resulted in a favorable outcome, the employee still has to document the end result, whether follow-up is needed, whether the event is closed or left open, the customer’s satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) with it, and then end the call on a positive note. For this complex set of tasks, the typical call center employee is allowed three minutes and the event is called a transaction.

That is a very complex set of skills that include greeting, data gathering, active listening, paraphrasing, negotiating agreements, decision-making, parsing out specific details, asking questions, visualizing a person that one can not see, visualizing the other person’s actions, acquiring verbal feedback from the other person about their actions (i.e., interviewing the caller about their actions), summarizing actions and results, and closing the call. The call center employee must then translate that information in to data that is entered into their computer system and they must complete the call within a timed period such as 3 minutes, which is also data automatically handled by the call management computer system. It is the data that lasts long after the call has ended.

When we get a call center employee who can execute this dance, we judge the company as being successful. When we get one who can not execute it, we judge the company as unsuccessful and question whether to continue our business with and through that company. Getting this dance right is or should be very important for companies using call centers. So their learning objectives and job descriptions tend to look like this:

• Demonstrate effective communications skills
• Demonstrate effective time management
• Able to describe the call response process
• Identify various classes or types of customer problems
• Demonstrate the ability to resolve customer issues to customers’ satisfaction by receiving a 4.0 or higher rating average
• Know how to handle angry or abusive callers
• Enter data accurately

These learning/work objectives leave out the complexity of the dance and narrow the work down to it lowest common denominator. It leaves out the art, artistry and sustainable value of the work. No wonder few call centers actually get the value that they need to get from this service. We can chalk it up to pay but the real culprit is work definition.

What’s the alternative?

Well, what might happen if we admitted that our work is complex enough to be an art form? If we start out to create works of art with sustainable value, might we define the work differently? Might we take a page out of the triple bottom line and define work based on finances, people and ecological impact? Might we look for integration points as the real learning issues knowing that we can build skills in any one skill set but that integrated skill sets require more sophisticated learning? Might we consider learning to be our opus work of art (or OPIS)?