Published on: May 3, 2018
This commentary is available as both text and video; enjoy both or either ... they are similar, but not exactly the same. To see past FaceTime commentaries, go to the MNB Channel on YouTube.
Hi, I’m Kevin Coupe and this is FaceTime with the Content Guy.
There was an opinion piece the other day in the Boston Globe, authored by three post-graduate students, that left me simultaneously vindicated, depressed, and a little hopeful.
Two of the authors attend major MBA programs - one at Harvard and the other at Stanford - and they wrote that their courses “often treat front-line workers (and, increasingly, contractors) as an expense to be tolerated instead of as an asset to be valued. Their concerns and contributions are rarely discussed on campus. And when they are, the conversation tends to focus on values-driven leadership or the potential for workforce automation, not the need for a balance of power between executives and workers.”
This doesn’t really surprise me. I’ve been long making the point here on MNB that too many companies, especially in retailing, see front line employees as costs, not as assets. Which strikes me as an enormous mistake, because front line employees are exactly that - not just on the front lines in terms of the store experience, but also in terms of interacting with customers and setting the tone for the store experience.
Can you think of a more important job in a bricks-and-mortar retail store trying to compete with the online experience, or just the bricks-and-mortar retailer up the street or across town?
The story argues that we’ve adopted an ideology that places shareholder and executive voices far above all others. It wasn’t always that way; part of the way that the country emerged from the Great Depression, the authors say, was through “policies that empowered organized labor, made taxation more progressive, and strengthened the social safety net.” The feeling then was that the economy would move faster and be stronger if everybody was on board, including front line, rank-and-file employees.
Was there creative tension as this balance was created? Of course? Did organized labor perhaps become intoxicated with their own power and forget that businesses had to be thriving in order to hire more people and pay them more money? Sure. But the argument in the story is that now we’ve moved way too far in the opposite direction, and, as they see it, business schools - rather than raising the bar and challenging conventional wisdom - have bought in completely.
The authors quote a recent survey of 10,000 Americans concluding that 80 percent of Americans — including 73 percent of Republicans — say that “companies don’t share enough of their success with employees,” while “sixty-two percent said they distrust corporations.”
That’s not good for the economy. That’s not good for business. That’s not good for the culture.
I feel vindicated and depressed because I’ve been arguing all this - albeit without the academic credentials and intellectual brio of MBA students - for years. Hell, last week’s FaceTime, from Dorothy Lane Market, where checkout personnel are engaged and part of a superior and compelling shopping experience, essentially was making the same point from another angle.
Why am I a little hopeful? Because these MBA students see the problem and are addressing it, and I hope there are a lot more where they came from.
“Business schools must change their culture to one where the nature of the executive-worker relationship can be debated. How can we, as future shareholders and managers, restore dignity to, and share power with, frontline workers? What are the human consequences of hiring workers as poorly paid contractors instead of employees? How can we adjust the teaching of accounting, investment, and operations so students are less likely to reduce labor to a dehumanized input? If MBA students don’t engage with these questions, we risk blindly propelling another economic crisis.:”
I know one thing. This is something that I’m going to try to talk about a lot this summer when I’m teaching at Portland State University. It just seems important.
That’s what is on my mind this morning, and, as always, I want to hear what is on your mind.
- KC's View: