The Higher Ed Workplace Blog

What Books Have Been Influential in your Work Life? Here Are Two for Me: (A Two-in-One Blog)

One of the notions that has helped me over my career is from Steve Covey’s book, the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. However, it’s not one of those 7 habits –it’s from the appendix where he talks about the four-cell matrix to help us set priorities – by organizing what we do into the four quadrants of important/not important by urgent/not urgent.

Covey poses the question of how best to invest our time. He says that most of us spend our time on the “urgent” and “important” items (Quadrant I) – emergencies, crises, situations that walk through the door, phone calls or hastily called meetings. But by spending time on those activities (admittedly necessary), we decrease the amount of time that we might spend on those activities that would help us become even more effective – activities in Quadrant 2 that are not urgent, but important.

The obvious question is: What are the kinds of activities that are not urgent but important?

Here is a list from an article (First Things First – Time Management)

1. Planning/Long and Short Range
2. Preparation
3. Reading/Expanding the Mind
4. Production Capability
5. Professional Development
6. Physical Exercise
7. Leisure/Recreation
8. Devising Systems
9. Implementing Systems
10. Prevention
11. Envisioning the Future

None of these activities is urgent, but we should be setting aside explicit time to engage in each because, by doing so, they give us the capabilities to act with direction and purpose, to anticipate the future, and with a foundation of mental/intellectual and physical well-being.

Since this blog post is about books and applying Quadrant II, here’s a great example of how reading – to keep up with the business, to be better informed about our profession as well as the world at large – had a great impact on me.

I have a habit of going to bookstores and just perusing books. One day in downtown Denver during my lunch, I wandered over to a small bookstore tucked away in a mall. Not a lot of people in the store; and a book caught my eye with a unique title, Value Migration. Usually I pick up a book, read a few pages, and look at the back cover and the inner dust cover. This time, I found the book so intriguing that I went back three days in a row to continue the reading the book during my lunch, and finally I just had to buy it!

Well, that book has been a foundational source of great insight – helping me understand why companies (and organizations) experience great success, grab market share, then slowly began to struggle, and sometimes suddenly and inexplicably declined, and then failed and went out of business. Think back 40 or more years and ask yourself: What happened to US Steel, Western Airlines, the great transatlantic passenger ships, Netscape, DEC, Ma Bell, and railroads to mention a few that were preeminent companies but are now gone?

They all lost value and were no longer of use to anyone.

Here’s how I see the lessons of Value Migration being applicable to my work in higher education and human resources. When something is new and solves a problem or provides a useful new service or product that has never been provided before, it delights the customer who likes it. Whatever it is – an online self-service site, a Ph.D. program in microbiology, a reduction in health care costs, a new wellness or exercise program – has “value” because it helps us in someway. But notice, the second or third time, the value experience isn’t quite so high. In fact, the value decreases because you come to expect the service or product to be what it was the first time – no better and certainly not worse. It’s become what is known as “commoditized” or expected. And once a service or product becomes expected, it no longer provide value. (Think cereal – always the same.) They just need to happen and the standard is what’s expected, and if they don’t, they disappoint.

The Knowledge Center is a great example. If Patti Couger and I put up 2000 articles/items/links (there are over 10,000 currently) and said that was adequate, some of you might see this as providing value initially, but once you find there is nothing new in the Knowledge Center, it provides less and less value, perhaps to the point that no one would use it, at which time it is useless.

Of course, we continue to add content, we provide information through the weekly KC Connection, and Patti and Ken answer each of the unique queries that you send in. So sometimes you get value from the content (expanded and updated) in the Knowledge Center, the quick and hopefully timely information in the KC Connection, or the customized information that Patti and Ken put together for you in their responses.

The lesson for HR: Much of what we do is routine – it’s expected. The payroll is to run and as an employee I get paid. The fact that I get paid on time is not a value because the experience this time is no different than the previous time. The only thing that will affect me is when the paycheck isn’t deposited in my bank account. Then I’m upset, and HR isn’t providing value.

And so it is the case with everything that is routine. If we sign up people during open, enrollment, there isn’t a reaction of delight on the part of employees. It’s expected. We elicit a negative reaction when we don’t sign someone up or we sign them up incorrectly.

With much of what HR does being routinized, it’s hard to generate value, but it is possible. According to Mark Huselid (HR Scorecard), there are three value-producing activities in human resources – and notice they are value-producing because the outcome is unique. Hiring someone who is extraordinary by going the extra-mile to find a sterling new employee, training programs that make people more effective so they can deliver added value for the same time spent in their jobs, and employee relations – providing value by getting rid of people who are less productive or counter-productive.

So, in the case of a retirement program or a healthcare program, the value isn’t enrolling someone in a retirement program or a healthcare program. That’s expected. The value is in helping the employee understand their options and helping them make the best choice that gives them maximum return for the dollar and time spent. That’s value-adding.

And to think, if I hadn’t wandered over to that bookstore and picked up Value Migration, I would be struggling to understand why we aren’t adding value in HR; but more importantly I have a better understanding of how to add value.

Bottom line: I can do everything that everyone else does, but by being the same, there is no value. Value only occurs when I’m better, faster, a problem-solver and willing to build relationships and act based on what others want or need.