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CIO Insight: How do you convince someone your approach isn't just a nice idea, but a good idea?

There are three things people have always asked. One, is it really true? Is Semco operating the way he says? And, two, how has Semco done with it? Then we'll get to three: "So what?" And that's the difficult one, because the first two are easy. We've been at it now for 25 years, and probably everyone who cares in the world has come down to see if it's true or not. And our numbers are indisputable.

But if you ask, "So what?"—well, I think what we've done is being emulated because of the amount of dissatisfaction that is rampant among workers, but also among stakeholders. Basically, most career opportunities are fraudulent. The idea that I will hire you, I will train you, I will want to know where you want to be in five years, and then I will give you that better job is totally out of the question. And the other things [besides offering job security] corporations are supposed to do well like innovation, or customer service, they don't do those well, either.

Can you give some examples?

Microsoft is a very good example because Microsoft, let's say 15, 20 years ago, came up with a solution that was really groundbreaking. There was a fundamental change in paradigm. That took a couple of guys in a very unstructured atmosphere to do.

If you were to draw a graph of innovation and Microsoft's wherewithal in terms of people, capacity, recruitment, training and salaries, you would find that the more Microsoft hired the best minds at the highest salaries, and so forth, the less innovation it got. For a user, there are no substantial changes whatsoever between the various versions of Microsoft Windows. For anybody who's used a 1990 version, a '96, '98, 2000 or XP version, it just seems like the color of the icons changes. Does it take 5,000 engineers with postgraduate degrees to change the color of icons?

Or another example I particularly like is Gillette. Does it take $600 million to stick another blade between the other two? Or consider the airline industry—I think that is the only industry so far that has managed to make all of the stakeholders lose. The shareholders don't make any money. The executives don't last. The planes don't get better. The air-traffic controllers have the worst job in the world. The crew is never happy. The pilots are on strike. The food is just awful. There's not a good thing you can say about the business of flying. So I think the answer to "So what?" is that if people look closely, they'll see that the traditional model isn't working. And there's incentive there to start looking for something else.

When I hear that a company's employees set their own hours, I imagine it being better suited to some tasks than others.

The first anxiety executives have about workers setting their own hours is that people are going to suggest that they come in as late as possible, leave as early as possible, make as much as possible—end of story. And in 25 years we've never heard that. I don't think [that sort of behavior] comes to people as naturally as the anxiety about it comes to the [manager] who's thinking about it. [At Semco,] we always assume that we're dealing with responsible adults, which we are. And when you start treating employees like adolescents by saying that you can't come late, you can't use this bathroom—that's when you start to bring out the adolescent in people.

Is it true Semco buys or leases whatever technology the employees want?

It's more like expense reports. We don't want someone going to another city to negotiate something for us, or trying to sell something for us, who doesn't have the good sense to choose a rental-car company, the hotel where they'll stay, or whether they're going to take a bus or a cab. Because if they don't know how to do that, chances are very slim that they'll know how to negotiate our contracts. So we don't want to control their technology either. They will fill it in themselves, ask for reimbursement, and there is no approval process there.

Now chances are that every one of the new notebooks our staff buys are probably the best available, because the decision to buy the new one is going to be an analysis based on talking to 15 people and finding out what is considered hottest and most coveted—that's the one you're going to buy because you're not under a restriction. Now we didn't talk to Dell and to Compaq and to IBM to decide what they want for us, and there's never a meeting to discuss an upgrade of anything because it's already upgraded.

But you do have someone in charge of IT?

No, we don't—and the issue goes away, doesn't it? You could say, well, someone just joined and they decided to buy a very, very fancy notebook that's terribly expensive. It's like deciding to stay in a five-star hotel when all your colleagues stay in a three-star. You're subject to peer pressure. People are going to say, okay, well, the guy plays golf three times a week all morning. If he sells 512 widgets a month, really, who cares, right? If he sells 400 widgets a month instead of 512, it won't do him any good to be the first one in and the last one out, because it's performance-based. So the notebook's the same thing. Say the guy decides to buy a really expensive one—and it's happened many times. What happens is the peer pressure increases. You better be as good as the laptop you choose, right?

Okay, but who deals, for example, with network security?

Firewalls to me are much less essential than the IT people think they are, but let's assume that they are critical. For example, we're online with some of our partners that are Fortune 500 companies. So if Johnson Controls or the Rockefeller Group are sensitive, we're sensitive—but only as a subproduct of our relationship with them. We'll put in all the servers they want, and somebody will be there protecting it with their lives. But we wouldn't do it on our own.

Is there industrial espionage or hackers? Sure. But I think there's a lot of mythology about this, and I think IT people get overexcited about making their system the most secure this and that and so forth. I'm not sure it's that essential for the business per se. It's just essential for them to feel that they're exercising their technical capacity to its limit, which is not my main concern as a business.

Flexibility= Loyalty

Ricardo Semler is far from the only executive to find that a little flexibility leads to longer-term loyalty. Take Intertech Plastics, a $12 million, Denver-based manufacturer of consumer, automotive and industrial plastics. Intertech offers its 110 employees somewhat fluid schedules, and trusts them with the company’s financial performance data.

Its annual rate of staff turnover:

One of the things I've noticed with this security issue is that IT people want to make sure that their systems are intact, private, confidential—blah, blah, blah—but they think nothing whatsoever of invading the e-mail privacy of their own employees. That's very interesting to me, because it's not only a double standard, but a violation of constitutional rights. Companies have taken the blind assumption that because the system is theirs, then anything that people do on it has to be available to them. I think it's a very hypocritical mode, and it deals with fundamental freedom issues that I don't think people have completely thought through.

I take it, then, employee e-mail at Semco is private?

Yes. And what's most interesting is that we searched far and wide for anybody who could tell us what kind of software or system could be installed on our [server] that would make it impossible for our own IT people to spy on people's e-mail. We did not find one. We had to customize one.

This article was originally published on 04-01-2004
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