Sunday, 22 August 2010

Dave Ulrich and the Why of Work


   I’ve finally got around to reading Ulrich’s new book, the Why of Work.

It’s an interesting read, dealing with a complicated area and there aren’t many books in the mainstream business world that deal with this idea of identify, at least from a how vs what perspective – or what I’ve been calling (and since before Marshall Goldsmith started to) an organisation’s mojo.

I like the idea that a focus on meaning needs to be supported other aspects of organisational management - clarity about identity and purpose; positive relationships and work settings; engagement; learning and civility.  And I like some of the ideas contained within the book chapters on each of these areas as well.

This includes the focus on signature strengths - I agree it makes sense to identify and match individuals’ strengths to the organisation’s capabilities.  And on purpose – I like the breakdown into the different categories of insight, achievement and connection (which you could match to Tony Hseih’s focus on meaning plus progress, control and connectedness).

It’s this chapter on connection (Whom do I travel with?) that I think provides the best part of the book.  Connection is important to engagement and performance (which is why I’m still surprised how many engagement surveys miss the focus out).

A substantial proportion of the chapter deals with the need to make and respond to bids, or requests for attention.  Ulrich uses a tennis metaphor to explain this (with the proviso that the aim is to encourage a volley not to defeat an opponent):

“Think about a bid for attention you have made today.  What did you do?  How did the other person receive your bid?  Did he or she keep the volley going?  What made a bid for your attention today?  Did you return the serve of let the ball bounce off the court while you looked something up on the internet or rushed to meet a deadline?  We have encouraged people to set a goal of having at least one meaningful encounter with a person each day.  While this sounds easy, it often requires consciously making and receiving bids rather than falling back into personal isolation.”


One thing I don’t like about the chapter is Ulrich’s analysis of social media – that tweets and blogs are anonymous and therefore remove the personal touch so central to meaningful relationships.  E-communication may reduce face-to-face contact and visual cues for reading each other, but provide lots of other support for relationships building instead.  And it’s simply not true that this emphasises hostility, partisanship backstabbing and cutthroat competition.  I suspect Ulrich’’s just not been using social media enough to understand the benefits – a point I made to Lynda Gratton when she expressed similar sentiments to Ulrich earlier this year.


So it’s a good book but I wish it could have had a slightly different focus, or been a bit sharper really.  The problem is that after having read it, I’m still not quite sure what it was about.

So it’s partly about Meaning.  Ulrich suggests that we all work for meaning, which I don’t think is true but shouldn’t detract from its importance.  As Ulrich suggests, meaning can lead to inherent value for employees and market value for their employer (“making sense can also make cents”).

And it’s partly about Abundance.  Ulrich defines an abundant organisation as a work setting in which individual coordinate their aspirations and actions to create meaning for themselves, value for stakeholders, and hope for humanity at large.  It has enough and to spare of the things that matter most: creativity, hope, resilience, determination, resourcefulness, and leadership.  But the book doesn’t really explain how a focus on meaning leads to these things and I would have liked to have read more about how meaning relates to an abundancy vs scarcity mentality or deficit thinking.

And it’s partly about organisational capability: what an organisation is good at doing (“Apple has the capability to innovate, Disney entertains, Marriott has the capability to serve, and Walmart delivers low prices”).  I’m just not clear whether Ulrich sees abundance as the activities which lead to these outcomes, whether it another outcome along with innovation, speed etc, or whether, like meaning itself, it’s something that’s needed for this system to work effectively, ie to enable organisational, management and HR activities to lead to the desired outcomes.  In my view, in different ways, it can be all three, and I think that’s part of the problem with the book.

The result of this confusion is that the book ends up being a list of nice-to-have’s.  For example, although I’m a big believer in the importance of intelligent workplace design, I struggle to see how keeping the office windows clean (p149) supports meaning, abundance or organisational capability!


One further observation: Ulrich suggests he’s written the book for business leaders, not for HR, who already tend to understand the need for meaning.  Two things about this:  Firstly, if business leaders don’t understand the need for employee engagement then they’re not going to understand the need for Ulrich’s even bigger and rather amorphous concept of abundancy.  I think it needed to be much clearer and more outcome focussed for them.

And secondly - and this is a general point rather than one about the book but may still worth making here – I think Ulrich’s observation reinforces my own belief that HR can only go so far by becoming more like the rest of the business.  We also need to develop our businesses to become more like (the best bits of) HR.


You may also be interested in my review of Meaning Inc.



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