Monday, January 6, 2014

Corporate titles: No Head and long tails please!

The recent announcement by on doing away with corporate titles created quite a buzz among corporate watchers wondering if this is just a “fad” or shift like that to “open office” cube farms that other, larger corporations will follow. Washington Post reports
The Las Vegas-based retailer is now going even more radical, introducing a new approach to organizing the company. It will eliminate traditional managers, do away with the typical corporate hierarchy and get rid of job titles, at least internally. The company told employees of the change at a year-end meeting, Quartz first reported.
I have long believed in being a Free Agent (my blog), albeit with the safety net of a corporate world. Titles shouldn't mean much, especially as we consider ourselves as citizen of an increasingly flattening world (apologies Tom Friedman). But there again, we work in or work with peers in structured, complex organizations that aren’t really designed to be flat. Try imagining a Global 2000 company with 20,000+ employees being “self governed.”  A few arguments in favor retaining organizational titles:
  • Who the hell am I talking to? We frequently receive email requests at work or invitation to meetings. If the invitation is from someone we haven’t worked with ranges from mild annoyance (what does s/he want from me) to curiosity (“who is this?”). The author’s title in the email signature (generally department, designation) should give an indication, but in many cases it doesn't! 
  • Effective meetings and conference calls. Again a similar situation (who the hell is the obnoxious sounding guy/lady on the call?). It is not funny, but I have been to meetings where everyone introduces themselves as a “head” of “something,” leaving me to be the long tail; There again, introducing self as an Enterprise Architect may not mean much to the “head” of corporate marketing for south-eastern product-x US territory in that meeting. In calls, and meetings, it is worth noting the basic RACI of attendees, even if one doesn’t share all titles. This helps when it comes to a call to action and next steps: who “owns” the actions after the meeting?
  • Dealing with customers and Vendors. While dealings with those outside an organization, knowing becomes important while trying to gauge the decision making authority of the person.
In organizations with a culture of obscuring titles, many of us resort to “cheats” :
  • Where you don’t have access to an organization chart, you would have to use an educated guess based on an understanding of the organization. For example, if Bob is the “head” of the company’s Shared Business Services and I know that Information Services is in turn a key component of Shared Services, it is fair to assume Dave, the “head” of IS must (?) report to Bob. Wouldn't it be simpler for Dave to just introduce himself as the CIO? (Let us leave the hard question of whether Dave also reports to the CEO, COO or other corporate delegate.) 
  • In my previous job, the HR and managers believed in fostering a culture of “flattening” by opting not to publish organization charts, and intentionally downplaying promotion announcements. Employees, being human, would routinely sign off as “head” of some obscure group. For example a Principal Technical Architect wouldn’t always sign off as PTA but as  “Practice Head, cloud and advanced technologies, North East, North America” ..... whatever this fuzzy sounding title means. S/he was either trying to sound more modest or pompous than the actual title would indicate. In this case, a simple trick - pulling up the Distribution lists of the person in outlook - would be indicative of job-banding and, leadership teams he was in, a clear giveaway on his actual role in the organization.
I find it amusing that the same (intentional?) fuzziness is now following us in social media. Looking at Linkedin profile updates, I sometimes for simpler times and titles: if all my friends and peers are really “head” of something, somewhere, in their company who is really in their organizational long tail? Paraphrasing the Orwellian classic,all employees are equal, but some employees are more equal than others” Time for us to know the ones more equal?!