Beware of Big Brotherism

Monday, July 11, 2011
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Hillary had come into my office without an appointment. Her distress was evident before she even spoke: "I finally met my new 'boss' and she's a machine," she said, referring to the source of the communications she had been receiving from management.

While we have yet to reach the point at which machines are literally in charge, this metaphor captures the sentiment many employees feel now that most communications come through a server.

As our companies grow in size and diversity, there is growing concern that we are relying too heavily on machines, mass communication and "one-size-fits-all" HR service delivery rather than engaging in complex problem-solving. Shared service centers and outsourcing can reinforce this tendency if we are not careful. Management should be on guard to preserve the "human" in human capital management.

Service centers, whether owned or supplied by an outsourcer, use work flow, email, standard-form communications and systems monitoring to manage a largely faceless communications flow to employees. As our workforces become more global and more virtual, many of our employees have less focus on personal relations with co-workers and management.

How work gets done has radically changed from the meeting-interaction model that prevailed 15 years ago. If we quantify the number of communications that are generated by the company to an employee in the course of each week, we can readily see how employees might feel there is a second "boss" out there.

HR leaders should be careful how they use the tools that are increasingly convenient, but impersonal and sometimes misguided and destructive.

Systems communications are easy to generate, but are they reaching the right audience? To encourage people to print on both sides of a page, putting a notice on 100 printers may be a better answer than "shotgunning" a mass mailing to 3,000 people in an office.

Ration the email communications. Space communications out over the month, and ensure that the communications schedule leaves room for specific business needs. The local charity drive should not be getting the same "air time" as a fraud alert for a client.

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Ensure that personal communications are tailored to the issue. Many systems communications are intended to cover six or seven different issues or decision points. Communications experts generally advise to keep the message down to three points and to segment multiple messages if necessary.

Be very careful of Big Brotherism. If systems-driven messages are used to help clarify or audit time cards, expenses, use of supplies and other such functions, ensure that the service centers use refined, carefully prepared analytics. For instance, some train tariffs are variable by time of day traveled, and an expense-audit system shouldn't kick out an expense report without allowing for this variation.

In our attempt to provide instant or prompt service and to communicate often, we run the risk of impersonalizing our service. That risk is growing. If we find our employees manipulating systems rather than serving customers, we will have only ourselves to blame.

Lowell Williams is executive director of HR Advisory Services for EquaTerra, a BPO consulting firm based in Houston. He can be reached at

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