Karl Marx Was Right About Employee Engagement
“Division of labor” drives both economic production and technological progress. Adam Smith illustrated the basic principle in his classic tome Wealth of Nations with a description of a pin factory, where each task was divided into standardized steps to be completed more cost-efficiently by different people. And the economist Leonard Read relied on the same idea with his classic story of why no single person alive knows how to make a simple, ordinary wooden pencil.
Division of labor explains why innovations come in networks, because every new idea results from the combination of two or more previous ideas. And applied to national economies, the same principle explains the theory of comparative advantage, which is the primary mechanism underlying the benefits of free trade.
But carried to its logical extreme, division of labor has a dark side as well. More than 150 years ago Karl Marx postulated that sooner or later workers of the world would unite against their capitalist oppressors, because having their labors divided into meaningless, repetitive and highly specialized tasks was alienating. Marx believed that workers would soon become disconnected not only from the completed products that gave their work meaning, but from themselves and from their essence as human beings, as well.
Today, we would call such alienated workers “disengaged.” Employee engagement is one of those fashionable management terms that can have a range of exact meanings, but Hay Group’s definition is good enough: “a result achieved by stimulating employees’ enthusiasm for their work and directing it toward organizational success.”
The division of labor, scientific management and the alienation of the worker are all concepts that pre-date information technology by more than a century. Today we don’t need efficient workers to be mere automatons, robotically inserting Tab A into Slot B twelve hours a day at the pin factory in order to collect their pay, because that kind of work is easily automated. But technology is a two-edged sword.
Even Information Workers Can Become Disengaged
Whenever we forget about the human need to be engaged and interested in the work to be done, technology can alienate even the information worker. Dan Ariely, in his book The Upside of Irrationality, tells an interesting story of his own research assistant, Jay. Jay is an information worker, in that he spends most of his day managing Ariely’s research projects and budgets. But according to Ariely,
…accounting software he used daily required him to fill in numerous fields on the appropriate electronic forms, sending these e-forms to other people, who filled in a few more fields, who in turn sent the e-forms to someone else, who approved the expenses and subsequently passed them to yet another person, who actually settled the accounts. Not only was poor Jay doing only a small part of a relatively meaningless task, but he never had the satisfaction of seeing this work completed.”
Perhaps you recognize the kind of work Jay is required to do, and how stupidly, thoughtlessly disengaging it is. In that direction lie sloppiness, error, lack of productivity, resentment, and – ultimately – rebellion (i.e., “active” disengagement).
On the other hand, if we just use technology more thoughtfully – and especially the interactive and social technologies that now connect us so effortlessly – we can re-integrate the mechanical tasks assigned to individual people. This will help engage them in their work and simultaneously improve their enthusiasm and output. For example:
- When a customer service representative is allowed to handle a complaint as a “case,” to be tracked from first call all the way to final resolution, or
- When a line engineer at an automobile assembly plant is asked to lend his expertise in handling a technical support problem, or
- When a clerical worker at a bank suggests how to streamline an application process.
For marketing, sales and service executives, the benefits of trying to engage workers by re-integrating their jobs can be quite significant.
TD Bank North, for instance, used an internal social networking tool to query employees about their frustrations. And according to Wendy Arnott, VP of social media and digital communications, the result was that one clerical worker’s simple idea was “expected to represent our biggest single productivity improvement in the coming year.”
The clerk’s idea? Convert one of the bank’s paper-based enrollment processes to an online process. The idea was quickly endorsed by hundreds of co-workers.
Your rank-and-file employees are likely to be the most knowledgeable of all when it comes to understanding the problems customers encounter when they deal with you – the obstacles, the hindrances, and the annoyances that make your customer’s experience anything butfrictionless. By tapping their expertise you’ll not only be able to improve your offering, but you’re more likely to engage your workforce, as well!
There is, of course, way more to employee engagement than anyone could possibly cover in a single post. It’s a big topic, even has its own groups on LinkedIn, including the group titled “Employee Engagement,” and another called “Employee Engagement and Organisational Culture Professionals.” Or take a look at Colin Shaw’s post just the other day, on the link between employee engagement and customer loyalty.
So let’s all do our part to keep Karl Marx in the grave where he belongs, and avoid a proletarian revolution! Let’s make it a critical aspect of our management style to encourage our workers to find real meaning in their work, by showing them that we take their suggestions seriously.
Not only can we improve the quality of our offering and make our customers more loyal, but we can improve our employees’ lives as well.