Ten years ago, I was working in the people development team of [insert name of global merchant bank here].  During our first team meeting, my boss expounded upon her vision for HR:  she saw a world in which we, as training and development practitioners, would be regarded by the organisation at large in the same way as IT specialists.  When I enquired how it would benefit our team to be universally loathed for our poor personal hygiene and ‘Death Metal’ T shirts, she explained patiently what lay behind her poetic analogy.  Her point was that we carried essential specialist skills and knowledge that the average manager did not have and, just as they wouldn’t consider setting up a new computer system without calling in IT, so in her brave new world they would not contemplate tackling a personal development issue without consulting us.  

Ten years later, outside of organisations, reliance on personal transformation experts is at fever pitch; in a typical town centre these days you can get your energy centres balanced by professional Shamans called things like Brother of The Forest (Desmond from Epping to his relatives).  But at work?  Well, my erstwhile employer’s concept of HR is currently quite sexy (to its proponents at least, in the same way that a locust is sexy to another locust).  The ‘trusted advisor’ banner is now being waved by Shared Services enthusiasts, who as I speak are probably somewhere in your organisation transforming HR staff into ‘HR Business Partners’.  These dynamic individuals form an expert internal resource and, I’m told, act like internal consultants (which I assume means they arrive in your office with laptops and stay for six months while you try and work out what it is they’re actually doing).

I rather like this idea of taking people out of the line and putting them somewhere where you can ring them up like emergency plumbers (although I understand HR specialists come slightly cheaper).  It would be useful to apply this concept to line managers in general.  Wouldn’t you prefer, next time you want an appraisal, to choose a line manager from Shared Services, selected specifically according to your appraisal requirements?  Or if you had nothing to do, you could pick a Management Business Partner at random to give you a task that fitted your own personality and behavioural style.

Why don’t we go the whole hog and take everyone out of the hierarchy?  The organisation would become a primeval soup of managers, workers and functional specialists who could engage each other on an ad hoc project basis, using the best person available to perform each specific task.

Now, if you work in an organisation, this idea may bring you out in a cold sweat, but to anyone working independently, it sounds rather like our job description.  What’s so weird about bringing somebody in for a specific task that plays to their strengths?  Even in this allegedly ‘turbulent’ age (don’t get me started) there are many individuals, managers and managed alike, who find cubby holes in the org chart and hide in them very successfully, relentlessly underperforming and safe in the knowledge that to prise them winkle-like from their refuge would be too much hassle for their colleagues.

But before I get carried away and start sounding like a tabloid editorial, there are considerable benefits to at least imagining that you, as an employee, are in fact an independent supplier to your organisation.  Every time I work for a client going through some kind of upheaval, I see looks of fear on everyone’s faces; the classic organisational model supports the assumption that your job will never change, that uncertainty does not in fact exist.  But suppose you were to work on the assumption that every day of your working life, you might suddenly find you had been reorganised out of existence – and that every other employer would follow the same model? 

I suggest you would put more energy into focusing on the value you add, on your own distinctive qualities, on where your skills might be best put to use.  You would treat everyone you met in the organisation as a potential customer, finding out exactly what their needs are and seeing if you could find a way to meet them.  Were you to adopt this approach tomorrow, you would probably find yourself progressing further and faster in your career than if you hang around waiting to be told what the organisation would like you to do next. 

So put a sign on your desk saying ‘I am a shared service’, and see how many new friends you make.  I shall form a consulting firm to promote this scheme. It will also do emergency plumbing on the side (well, you’ve got to keep your options open).


© Phil Lowe, 2006.  All rights reserved.