Staying sharp as a web worker in a big corporate

August 2011

Yesterday I listened to a podcast entitled ‘Putting employees first: The new war for talent in knowledge industries‘) – I’d suggest having a listen. The podcast is an interview with Professor Ian O. Williamson from Melbourne Business School. In it, Ian makes some really great points about the changing relationship between employers and employees in knowledge industries. I found what he was talking about particularly relevant to freelancers (especially in the web design/development area). It also made me think about my own role as a full-time employee and how I can try and apply some of what he mentions to my own role.

Basically, I took from the episode that:

I really liked this quote:

This is I think fundamentally where you see managers who are taking a perspective on people in two different ways. You have one set of manager who looks at people and they fundamental think of people in terms of expense and it makes sense because business schools we teach people to use financial statements and on financial statements labour is typically treated as an expense. Interestingly enough buildings are treated as assets. So when you ask a manager what do you do with an expense? You reduce an expense. What do you do with an asset? You generate a return from an asset. Does it matter how much an asset costs? No, it’s about what the return can generate. So if I care to spend that $1000 and get a 10 per cent return or $10,000 and get a 10 per cent return what would I do? I spend $10,000 because I would get a better return and this is the way we need to think about people right. So if I’m going to have a workforce that’s been there for a long period of time, I have a tremendous human capital, an asset. I have tremendous relationships. They know people within the organisation and outside of the organisation. The managerial challenge here is not how can I reduce my expenses, it’s how can I generate a higher level return for this wonderful asset that I have. This is I think the thing that differentiates the successful and the unsuccessful organisations.

Why is it so expensive to replace an employee and why are they assets?

From what I understood, the basic reason it is so expensive to replace an employee is that the longer someone stays at a business, the more deep knowledge they possess about how that business works. More than that, they also have a deep knowledge about who to talk to within that business – they accumulate a social capital the longer they stay. This concept really makes sense to me as someone who works in a giant organisation like the University, which has over 5000 staff I believe. From both my own experience and from watching new recruits, it takes months if not years to find your feet largely because you need to understand the silos, terminology and jurisdictions that only become apparent by doing hard time.

The interesting thing is that apart from the cost of replacing someone (creating job descriptions, getting approval for them, advertising, recruitment yada yada yada) there are much higher costs I hadn’t considered. These include:

When you think about it that way, it’s easy to see how people can be so expensive to replace. It also makes it really obvious why it’s important that businesses do more than give lip service to the phrase “our people are our greatest asset”. It’s actually true.

If that’s true, why are knowledge workers stronger when we ‘work around’?

If one was to have many sexual partners, you could probably surmise that all this accumulated and diverse sexual experience would mean that they were better at sex could you not? Basically, I understood from this podcast that the same is true for knowledge workers. Let me explain…

If you were a web designer who worked full-time for a single company, would you be more or less creative than if you worked part-time for two or more different companies?

**There’s definitely arguments against this line of thought, but personally, I think I’d be more creative if I was creatively challenged to work on more problems than less. From what I remember from Visual Communication & Design at school, this is why you get hit with such a heavy and constantly changing workload. By continually having to solve creative problems from a different perspectives to meet different needs you can’t help but become more effective as a designer.

When you consider designers who work for a big corporates with dominating and rigid brands, it’s hard to easy to see how over time your creativity might start to wane (I henceforth refer to this as the “which shade of blue are we going to do it in today?” effect). While from a business perspective this isn’t a bad thing (strict brand representation is largely about consistency after all), from the perspective of an individual seeking professional growth and experience, I can see why working around and having the chance to solve unique problems on a regular basis is so attractive.

Maybe this is why so many large companies use outside creative agencies to get unique design work done despite having significant internal teams. It also explains why I find it so rewarding to work with contractors – they bring a different perspective to problems that is gradually beaten out of people who stay at the same place for a long time. I wonder if working around is the reason why some of the best designers in the Melbourne community are freelancers?

It makes me wonder if working for a big corporate full-time causes design atrophy? How can I stop myself from suffering a slow and painless creative death?

Avoiding a slow and painless creative death

It’s very easy to listen to a podcast like this and get disheartened with the status quo so that’s why I’m now making myself consider what I can do to fix things given that I am currently a full-time employee. How can I have my cake and eat it too?

Some things I’m going to try include:

If this stuff doesn’t satiate my creative needs, I think I’ll look at ramping up my freelancing again. While it is tempting to moonlight to get the extra experience I crave, having done this before (and being drained by it) I think going part-time at my current job is a better option. Moonlighting is great in short stretches, but longer term I find it doesn’t leave me the time I need to relax, exercise, spend time with love ones and recharge creative batteries.

I’d love to hear from others who have faced the conundrum of remaining creative in a larger corporate environment and how they went about maintaining their creative edge.