Executive Suite | The last throes of Industrial Age management

Mimi Browning

Recently, a high-ranking federal official cancelled his agency's flexible work schedule because he wanted his people present and accessible to him every day. His proclamation is a step backward for federal government initiatives in the Information Age, where new cultural models and behaviors are needed to successfully inspire people and produce results. Sadly, it is an example of the Industrial Age cultural mind-set that persists in the federal government.

Industrial Age managers distrust people and create an environment of excessive rules and regulations that reinforce a command-and-control view of people and resources. A particularly egregious example was the executive whose penthouse office overlooked the parking lot. Every day, he saw Susan, his chief financial officer, leave at 3:30 p.m. He delayed her promotion two years because 'she left early.' Three senior executives finally persuaded him to promote Susan, who was a leader, top performer and highly regarded as a CFO. Her only 'problem' was her 70-mile commute, which she tackled by being in the office at 6:30 a.m. and leaving at 3:30. Her schedule was not an issue for anyone except Mr. Penthouse Executive.

Information Age managers are wise to take a more progressive view of people and resources. The Internet, global competition, the workforce's digital dexterity and work-life balance require a different cultural model to get work done. The more agile and adaptive private sector offers some interesting cultural lessons for federal managers to consider.

First, individuals are inherently trusted. In today's 24/7 wired world, work is performed anytime, anywhere, so long as it is done right. Corporate systems are online and designed to be self-service. Flexible schedules and telecommuting are de facto standards. Underlying this pragmatic way of doing business is the premise that the individual is trustworthy. Management's expectation from its people is not that they have to 'be present' but that they have to produce. When managers trust individuals, people become more productive and the performance of individuals, teams and the organization is much greater.

Second, overhead functions are small. In government, entrenched culture clans such as the departments of financial management, human resources, contracts and acquisition control the game. Their huge staffs, countless policies and regulations, bloated home-grown processes and staffs trained to say 'no' can overwhelm department heads and the most courageous change zealots. In the private sector, these departments are categorized as overhead. Companies assiduously do everything possible to keep the number of overhead people and policies to the minimum so their real work can be accomplished as quickly, accurately and profitably as possible.

Third, computer operations are transparent. Commercial firms provide transparent, seamless computer support and help desk services 24/7 to their employees worldwide. People care about access, responsiveness, problem solving and a secure, reliable computer network. Few are concerned about owning computers or whether their support is from corporate headquarters, India or West Virginia. Corporations, like the federal government, adhere to budget and security constraints; however, these considerations are secondary, not primary in getting business done.

Ten years from now, as with all things government, visionary and dedicated individuals will spark reform and cultural change. These enlightened souls, coupled with a new generation of digital natives and SIPRNet-like universal access at work, home and play, will help purge the last of the Industrial Age dragons from the federal government.

Mimi Browning is a former Army senior executive who is currently a principal at Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. of McLean, Va. She can be reached at browning_miriam@bah.com.

Reader Comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above