From Where I Sit: RIP Dilbert

Posted on:

By Tim Springer, Ph.D.
Published in the June 2009 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

I have always been more than a little miffed by the popularity and success of Scott Adam’s creation, Dilbert. While often humorous, it galls me that the punch line in many Dilbert strips is the workplace or Facilities Management (FM). Last year marked the 40th anniversary of the cubicle, while 2009 celebrated the 20th anniversary of Dilbert. I think it’s time we eliminate the raison d’etre for Dilbert. But to do so, let’s examine the causes for Dilbert’s popularity—dull, boring, and stupid jobs and the workplaces where they happen.

Every major change in workplace has been in response to a change in the way work gets done. Private offices, bullpens, cubicles, hoteling, free address, remote work, “alternative” officing, tele-work—all were driven by changes in the processes and behaviors of work.

True knowledge work is still relatively rare. Consequently, too much of office work is mind—and butt—numbingly dull. Dull work leads to dull workers and workplaces. There are several reasons this is so:

  1. Demographics. In 2008, the first wave of baby boomers (BBs) turned 60. The impact of the “pig in the python” group to the general population and society has been well documented; however, there may be more subtle effects. The sheer numbers of BBs in the workforce (amplified by the simultaneous entry of unprecedented numbers of women to the workforce in the 1980s) means large numbers of BBs have spent their entire careers as worker bees. Consequently, the U.S. economy has enjoyed a 30 year run of educated, cheap labor.The corollary of this is that in many instances, this abundance of labor was applied inefficiently and ineffectively. Work processes could remain unimproved with negligible penalty to business performance. Supporting evidence is found in the few instances where tighter labor markets resulted in an explosion of innovation and changes to work—schedules, location, rewards, environments, and processes. While not as cheap as some offshore markets, the abundance of workers in the 45 to 60 age range has allowed business to use labor as a cheap alternative to other options (see below). Pockets of wholesale unemployment among BBs have been well documented, and most people know of at least one hard working 50-something who has been laid off and found it difficult to find similar employment. Unfortunately, this trend has accelerated during the present economic downturn and has even begun to affect the following generation.
  2. Technology. On the surface, technology has radically changed work. Yet, a close examination of work processes reveals that much of what is classified as work (i.e. that which humans do) is simply the last “x” feet or inches of a long process that cannot yet be fully automated. Consequently, in many circumstances, people are treated as “bioware”—the part of the system that, because of economics, is most efficiently and cheaply handled by humans. And like other forms of “ware,” bioware can be replaced or upgraded with another cheaper version. Because of the human ability to adapt, we have been used like caulking to fill the areas that cannot yet be cheaply or efficiently taken care of by technology.
  3. Economics. The availability of labor and relatively cheap technology have led to a certain laziness on the part of organizations. There has been very little attention paid to meaningful and intelligent process redesign or reengineering, notwithstanding certain lean initiatives. Applying technology often involves simply automating things that were done manually. True job analysis and redesign is hard work, takes time, and costs money. Hiring and firing workers or upgrading technology to do the same things faster is easier, cheaper, and has more immediate impact on share price and the bottom line.We need to ask, “What are humans really good at?” and then design work that capitalizes on those things. For example, humans are really good at reasoning, collaborating, problem solving, and communicating. Unfortunately, few office jobs require people to engage in these activities.
  4. Space planning and real estate. Despite data to the contrary, business seems to think space and real estate are expensive. Maybe businesses believe Will Rogers’ observation, “Buy land, they ain’t makin’ any more of it.” A more likely explanation is how Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) treat hard assets like buildings and land versus soft assets like people and processes. Since the creation of the cubicle in 1968 (and the birth of Dilbert in 1989), white collar workers have been trapped in Dilbertvilles filled with veal pens, rat mazes, and labyrinthine spaces. Consequently, most white collar workspaces are soul sucking wastelands.

It’s a fact. Stupid, boring work leads to stupid, boring workplaces occupied by bored, frustrated people. So what can be done? One can begin by asking some difficult, but timely, questions:

  • How does work flow through our organization?
  • Is this the most efficient and effective way to accomplish what we do?
  • How can we improve the tasks, jobs, and workflow to be both more effective and more meaningful?
  • How can workplaces best support our people and the work they do?
  • How can we avoid creating Dilbertvilles?

Now is the time to evaluate the meaning and value of office work and workplaces. Investing in analysis and planning now will position organizations to act as we emerge from the current economic recession. Those that invest time and energy planning for the next wave of work, the next generation of workers, and the next cycle of prosperity will lead the change and enjoy success. Those that continue to do the same thing in the same way in the same places will not. This is an opportunity for facility managers to lead the change they wish to see. That’s the way I see it from where I sit. Of course, I could be wrong.

Springer ispresident and founder of Geneva, IL-based HERO, inc. andfrequently writes and speaks on a wide variety of issues affectingorganizations, work, and workplaces. For past columns from Springer, go to From Where I Sit.

 

Other posts by

Leave a Comment

» Comments RSS Feed