On Thursday, March 15, Peter Cappelli wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review website entitled “Bring Back the Organization Man.” In this article, Mr. Cappelli – a Professor of Management at Wharton – suggested that in order for American businesses to be successful (and professionals to grow effectively) the employee-as-Organization Man should come back into vogue.
If you didn’t get a chance to read it, I encourage you to do so. It illuminates a hypocrisy that many corporations – and even small businesses – face in America: they want to be able to switch out talent at a moment’s notice to fill skill gaps, but then they report that they have a skill shortage. They worry about not having specialized skills they need, yet stall on offering real professional development due to budget concerns or a fear that employees will take those skills elsewhere.
So Cappelli posits that it might be time to bring back The Organization Man.
The Organization Man refers to the employee who gets in on the ground floor of an organization and spends his entire career climbing the ladder (or not), dedicating decades of his life to the service of one firm. The term was coined in the post-war years and reached its pinnacle of meaning in the late 1950s and 1960s. For many of us, our grandfathers and perhaps even our fathers were Organization Men – they were Kodak Men, GM Men, or – in my case – a Delta Man.
The Organization Man is a symbol of loyalty, steadiness, determination, and service. 40 years ago, being labeled an Organization Man was a badge of pride and honor. It also said something about the company you worked for and the wholesome values they stood for. Perhaps the best explanation I ever read of the implications of The Organization Man era was in Daniel Pink’s book Free Agent Nation. Pink writes, “Whether you were a manager, a housewife, a journalist, or a student, if you understood the Organization Man – his constellation of values, his form of employment, his place in the broader society – you understood almost everything you needed to know about work in America at that time.”
But at Pink notes, starting in the 1980s the Organization Man fell out of vogue first with companies and then with the individuals themselves. It became less beneficial for workers to dedicate themselves to a company who could so easily cast them aside. The major companies that were beehives for OMs (Met Life, Kodak, etc) started to reduce their workforce and outsource their labor needs. Then there were a few recessions. Then there was our recession.
We all know that companies had to make some innovative business decisions to stay afloat over the last few years, from utilizing contract talent primarily to outsourcing to leaning on technologies. But what we need to understand is that those innovative strategies for survival have spilled out of Pandora’s box and will never be put back in. Once you’ve found a computer program to do something you used to hire a full-time person to handle, you won’t scrap the program and rehire the person. Once you’ve had success with a contractor-based business model, you won’t take on the cost of restocking a full-time staff.
And this is exactly why I feel suggesting that we give the Organization Man a cultural renaissance is dangerous. For it asks employees to commit to something that our businesses just can’t commit back: loyalty.
Teaching professionals to think and believe in their companies like OMs is teaching them to fail in this and subsequent economies. What we need to be teaching professionals – and ourselves – is how to do great work, give our best, and be loyal…but also how to be prepared for change.
Do I think that corporations are just waiting to use, abuse, and then throw away unsuspecting professionals when they need something else? No. I believe in the general goodness of the American business model. But I do believe that businesses make choices based on what they need to do to survive and thrive…whether that is cut costs, revamp product lines, or start fresh with talent…and professionals – for their own sake – should be prepared to do the same.
Being an Organization Man (or woman) in today’s world is unrealistic. As professionals, we need to be our own men and women and identify as such. Loyalty, hard work, and quality of product are not determined by how committed you are to an organization, but how committed you are to being a valuable contributor in this world. Wrapping your professional identity up with one organization is a recipe for a vocational identity crisis – and believe me, over the last several years I’ve interviewed plenty of people who learned that lesson the hard way.
So Mr. Cappelli, I appreciate your article and the interesting questions and points it raises. I agree with you that companies should invest in professional development and grow talent internally – that is an important piece of continuing to advance American business that pays dividends for companies and professionals alike (not to mention is a key element in talent retention). But speaking from the vantage point of the professionals, not the companies, I do not agree that we should bring back the Organization Man Mentality as I don’t think it’s a promise that businesses can keep in this ever-evolving economy.
I know that there are exceptions to my commentary – people who have been, and will continue to be, with their organization for the long haul. And to those people I say, “good for you.” But for may of us – particularly those just entering the workforce – I feel it’s dangerous to set the Organization Man as a professional goal. Our goal should instead be to develop ourselves as individual professionals, take responsibility for our own career paths, do great work, and be prepared – and perhaps even excited – for change.
What do you think? How do you feel about the return of the Organization Man?
Here’s to your Uncommon Life,