Workplace archeology

Robin Schooling has been on an archeological dig around her office. Here, she describes some of detritus she has found and expresses surprise that people are still using this stuff:

While strolling through a workplace recently I unearthed some interesting finds.  Much like an archaeologist in search of the Tombs of the Pharaohs, after finding one relic I kept watch for more.  As I ventured forth on my journey I compiled a list of the objects I saw; items once deemed essential tools in the workplace, which have now been relegated to the dust bin of obsolescence.  Or have they?  Because I found people using:

  • phone books (actual photographic evidence at the top of this post)
  • multiple fax machines
  • a Rolodex
  • “While You Were Out” phone message pads
  • those little squeezy bottles to moisten postage stamps
  • inter-office envelopes
  • giant paper desk calendars/blotters
  • scotch tape, masking tape, duct tape and all other many of adhesives and fasteners. For paper.

It’s a bit like that old agricultural machinery you see rusting in the corner of fields. Something once thought of as essential equipment, now obsolete, but that someone couldn’t quite bring themselves to get rid of. 

Robin’s story reminded me of a similar archeological dig I did a few years ago. The company I was working in was introducing a change programme. It had all the usual stuff branded with the programme’s logo and slogans; mouse-mats, posters, pens, mugs, t-shirts and the rest. At the coffee machine I got talking to one of the people who worked in the pensions department and the subject of the programme came up.

“I suppose all this stuff will end up in the cupboard with all the rest,” she said.

“How do you mean?” I asked.

“We’ve got a cupboard full of the suff from…” and she reeled off the names of three or four previous corporate programmes.

Sure enough, in the corner of the pensions department was a big old cupboard. In it, like layers of soil, were the relics of corporate initiatives past. The most recent at the front, the oldest at the back. The pensions department, being at the end the HR floor, was the obvious resting place for these items. As they fell out of favour, the once-proud banners were hidden under HR managers’ desks and then, when the time came for a clear out, stuffed into the cupboard in the pensions corner. It was as though an invisible current had carried them there and washed them all up in the same place

So I dug down, through the layers of mugs, headed paper, badges, videos, laminated values statements and the inevitable PowerPoint presentations. I talked to some of the people I was working with about the stuff I’d found. The first programme, it seems, had been very much process orientated. It was followed by one firmly people-centred. Then, in reaction to such wishy-washy stuff, a harder, target-based initiative. Finally, a programme focusing on quality and culture – perhaps in an attempt to find the best of the previous two.

Many companies, especially those with long and venerable histories, have museums. They  usually contain famous products or pictures of previous management teams and much-loved old buildings. They rarely say much about the company’s organisational evolution, though. What were the management decisions that brought about the current organisation? What sort of culture informed those decisions. In that cupboard was a museum of organisational change.

The history of an organisations’ change programmes can tell you a lot about what is behind its current initiatives. Sometimes they are a reaction to what went before, other times they are an attempt to do the same again, only with different language. Often, there is little understanding of why the last change attempt failed. People want to bury the embarrassment of previous projects and move on. All too often, they reach the same point and then dump the project until, a couple of years later, someone identifies a similar problem and so the whole thing starts again.

I was lucky to find such a treasure trove – a graveyard of corporate initiatives. Nowadays, as so much more is done electronically, artefacts like these are much harder to find. Sometimes, the debris from previous change programmes is still there but it is locked away in seldom-used directories on forgotten shared drives or mothballed parts of the intranet, which makes it that bit more difficult for the would-be archeologist to unearth. And it’s nowhere near as much fun as digging through an old cupboard.

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One Response to Workplace archeology

  1. Pingback: Workplace archeology - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

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