Let’s start with sobering facts :
- the top 10 in-demand jobs in 2010 didn't exist in 2004
- today's learner will have had 10-14 jobs… by the age of 38
- new CEOs landing in a "great" company will devote most of their time, months or years, to placing the right person in the right slot.
How does the media industry react to such facts? Well, each time I'm pitching this question to a group of editors ad publishers, in Europe, India or in the US, the discussion reaches the same conclusion: insufficient training is our biggest collective failure. (There is the notable exception of Nordic countries. I’m fairly familiar with them: over there, the very notion of education and continuous training is deeply rooted in the national and corporate culture -- but they are not immune to inefficiencies either).
Everywhere else, we witness two major impacts on organizations.
First, on human resources management. In most cases, there isn’t anyone tasked with taking care of careers. No one wonders: What is this individual good at? How can this person improve and, therefore, derive more psychological, not to say spiritual satisfaction from his/her professional life? How does he sees himself five years from now? And so on.
At the same time, real compensation policy is almost nonexistent, except for a salary scale, the misbegotten result of painstaking negotiations between management and union representatives. Carved in stone, these Tables of The Law shield everyone from responsibility. Which leads to talk like this : "— I can't give you a raise, pal, you'd be out of the scale. But, by next year, I can promote you to Deputy Assistant Managing Editor in charge of such and such… — But I'm not interested in managing anyone, I just want to do the reporting job I've been doing for seven years now, but for a better wage, that's all. — I know, but it’s the only way…"
No wonder layers of accidental managers have built up over the years -- and, of course, without any training to handle such responsibilities. In French newspapers, it is not unfrequent to see 12-16 org chart layers. In some instances, to keep notoriously misanthropic reporters motivated, the title of "Grand Reporter" was created. This ended up as a license to get the best assignments -- and some of these grandees got very selective, very careful not to spoil their finely honed talent on no more than ten stories a year -- leaving ample time and energy for book writing, TV documentaries for other organizations.
Of course, in such a cushy system, nobody get reprimanded, let alone fired. Actually, the weapon of choice for staff reductions is the big voluntary buy-out package. Of course, more often than not, the best and brightest get the joke: being certain (although less now) to be in demand elsewhere, they take the package. As a result, instead of shedding fat, most news executives end up giving away real muscle. In another perverted twist, some not-really-useful individuals are placed in what we call in France a placard doré (golden closet). In many news outlets, these closets are well populated. (A few years ago, a friend at RadioFrance explained the "two jacket tactics": one on the back on the chair -- I just stepped out of the office for couple of minutes -- and one for, well, going out).
In his controversial but revealing story in The Atlantic, former New York Times editor Howell Raines recalled the first management coaching session he participated in when he became one of the top editors of the Times. The topic was : How to fire someone. A consultant explained the way to decently terminate someone (usually, something you should have done years ago).
I asked why we were being given this exercise, since at The New York Times we never fired anyone.
Wesley [the consultant] seemed surprised. What do you do with unproductive employees? he asked.
We just give them less work to do, I said, to a laughing burst of assent from the other editors in the group.
Wesley was puzzled, seeming to me at that moment like a new employee encountering the series of culture shocks that come with being hired at the Times. For people who have worked at other newspapers, the biggest shock upon coming to the Times is that the level of talent is not higher than it is. Actually, it would be more accurate to say the level of applied talent.
Which leads us to the second point. Lack of training has had a effect on the organization's overall level of competency. And today, expertise is more needed than ever. Like or not, with the explosion of blogs, a vast pool of expertise has come to light. Whatever you write about, economics or science stuff, you can trust a highly competent detractor will pop up at the foot of your story. Better getting ready for a vibrant debate. What was the counterattack in most newsrooms? Nothing. Logically, this newly unleashed knowledge competing in the same electronic page, or just a click away, should have been a call for action. It wasn’t. The sad result is that, in many fields, the relative level of expertise of a media has decreased. Needless to say, this also impacted the overall "value proposition" for the — hem, customer (you know, the little guy who is expected to buy our dead tree product at the kiosk or to click on our URL…).
To sum up, in most old news organizations (I don't want to overgeneralize, some will blast this column with eagerly awaited counter examples):
- talent is not rewarded
- incompetence is not penalized either
- therefore people tend to be demotivated
- which in turns leads to moonlighting (usually in broad daylight)...
- ...to the benefit of other news outlets gladly relying on a dynamic phalanx of non-permanent, flexible staff
- all of the above takes place within a rapidly changing context: increased pressure from previously buried expertise such as highly knowledgeable bloggers, as well as from audience demands and challenges.
Try to migrate toward the digital era with such deadweight.
In such turbulent times, the bean-counter approach is staff trimming, more in an Excel kind of way, than based on the assessment of core competencies needed today and tomorrow.
There are other ways. Consider the following: a massive and systematic (re)training program at every level of the company. The goals for such effort ought to be increasing one’s ability to fulfill a given function as well as broadening the organization’s core expertise. In the process, we would prepare for jobs that don't exist today.
Such overhaul requires a significant investment. Not easy to justify in today’s dire straits. But this should be engineered as a major trade-off: a deep down restructuring of operations, processes, revising the way we have been doing things for the last two decades, in exchange for an unprecedented training program. Everyone (among the survivors) will gain in the process. Organizations will be leaner, stronger and more effective; people will feel rewarded and motivated.
This is the best way to emerge from this this crisis. The way up. —FF