Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Songbird's Razor

A person's worth to society is indirectly proportional to their ability to change industries without changing occupations.

I got an email from an old college buddy this morning, informing me of his new job and contact information. Sam (we'll call him that so I don't lose the annual Christmas cards and occasional semi-funny emails we still exchange) has recently changed jobs for the twelfth time in the last twenty-or-so years, and while he is has roughly the same job as before (albeit with a different title and most likely a comfortable increase in salary), he has made an incredible leap in industry: from office manager of a large law firm to department manager in a very large hospital. As far as I know, this is at least the ninth different industry in which Sam has worked in his professional career. His past jobs (all managerial) have been in such diverse industries as the restaurant business, computer manufacturing, school administration, structural engineering, auto sales and insurance.

Sam and I were both business majors in college. But while I specialized in IT (basically, I'm a programmer with some training in business principles), Sam specialized in ... nothing. That is to say, his specialty is simply business. And over the past twenty-some-odd years he has manipulated that specialty to switch from job to job, company to company and industry to industry. Always climbing the ladder, always increasing his managerial status, but never really learning anything other than business. I have to assume he is a decent manager, but what does he do? I've asked him that in the past, and all he does is laugh and shake his head. I get the feeling that even he doesn't really have an answer to that question.

So what is Sam's worth to society, at least in terms of his productivity? Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Nothing against him personally, but his chosen profession is not really a profession at all. It's a con. He can change industries and positions over and over without ever really learning any useful skills, other than how to work the system. And businesses are full of people like Sam these days — people with no knowledge or skills but lots and lots of experience.

On the other hand, look at skilled workers such as a carpenter, a plumber, a fireman or a doctor. All valuable to a productive society, but all with jobs tied to a specific industry. A doctor can change industries from medicine to plumbing (he might even get a raise by doing so), but his occupation will change. A carpenter who switches to the computer industry will have to learn a new vocation, a new set of skills. But a strictly business manager like Sam seldom does anything related to the industry — it is a self-promoting and self-promulgating vocation in and of itself.

Now that is not to say that all managers are useless. Few businesses of more than five employees would run smoothly without management. Without restaurant managers, MacDonald's would quickly run out of napkins and lids for super-sized drinks. Without store managers, Kroger would likely forget to restock those little white powdered donuts that I wasn't supposed to be snacking on at midnight last night. Without site managers, road construction crews would never accomplish anything because all those shovels would keep falling over and getting in the way of the one guy who actually knows how to dig.

Specialized managers are a must in a productive society, but the requirement there is that the manager knows the industry and the job intimately. Someone like Sam would only complicate the problems, never bringing reasonable solutions to the table.

I guess that is the reason people like him seem to move up the ladder so easily. If they cannot contribute to the solution, then promote them to get them out of the way. Especially if the manager in question is a good schmoozer. Schmoozers never die, they just get promoted.

The sad thing is, I fully expect to hear one day that Sam is running for political office. What else is he good for, other than passing old jokes around the Internet from time to time?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"...all those shovels would keep falling over..."

Heh. I always wondered why it always took a 3-to-1 ratio of shovel-leaners to actual-workers on those road crews. Now I know!

3/21/2006 10:04 AM  

Anonymous Pete said...

As an office manager, I (rep)resent those remarks! Actually, I've know my fair share of no-skill managers. Your "schmoozing" comments are right on the money. In big firms especially, the schmoozer all too often gets the raise, promotion, or whatever. The hard workers are rarely touched. Why promote someone that is being productive when Joe Blow over there doesn't really contribute anything anyway, but he's a really cook guy?

3/21/2006 10:59 AM  

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