(Published in Journal of Human Values, Management Centre of Human Values, Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta, Oct 2011)
One of the main events of our modern age is the emergence of the professional class or the knowledge-worker as a powerful and influential section of the society. The technocrat, manager, banker, entrepreneur and the finance-pro are some of the dominant types of these professional elite of our age. This brings us to the question what are the values which can lead to quality and excellence in professional work? Professional excellence is normally associated with knowledge and skill. A professional is a knowledge-worker and therefore knowledge and skill are undoubtedly some of the important values of professional work. But for excellence, knowledge and skill alone are not enough. Something more is needed. This article examines the guiding values of professional work in the modern corporate context.
Key Perspectives: guiding ideals; honesty and transparency; knowledge and competence; innovation; quality and the human face; the technical dimension; touch of beauty; human dimension; customer imperatives; workplace wellness; larger community.
The Guiding Ideals
The growing recognition of the importance of ethics and values especially in management and education is a promising trend in the current streams of thought. However the concept of values can be viewed at various angles and different perspectives. For example, Jack Welch, former CEO of GEC, defines values in a simple, pragmatic perspective as “guidelines for behaviour”. (Welch. J, 2005) The guiding values for professional work have to be based on more or less on similar principles. They have to be predominantly pragmatic and not moralistic. They must also reflect the present and emerging realities of the corporate environment. Based on these perspectives and for the purpose of this article, we may identify the following as the guiding values for professional excellence:
- Honesty and Transparency
- Knowledge and Competence
- Quality and the Human Face.
Every professional activity involves two major stages: execution and delivery or in other words, process and the product or service or a completed project. The values we have listed earlier have to be sustained in both these stages. However in a professional work attention to the process is more important than the product or service because the quality of the product or service depends on the quality of the process, which gives birth to it. So if the values, quality or excellence is persistently maintained in the process, we need not bother much about the product of service. In an ethical or philosophical perspective this principle is expressed as “means is more important than the end” or “if we are able to get the process right then we can forget about the results.” This principle is now recognized in modern management thought. It is called as process management or process enterprise. The core-idea of a process enterprise is that once the objectives and goals are fixed and oriented towards customer satisfaction then the main focus has to be on managing and perfecting the process which leads to the goal. In a process enterprise, as Michael Hammer the inventor of reengineering points out, focus shifts from “unit-goals” to “process-goals”. (Hammer, M and Stanton, S, 1999)
Honesty and Transparency
Truth is the foundation of all values. Integrity, honesty and transparency are the basis of trust and trust is the source of effective and enduring relationship between people or the customer. So honesty and transparency have to be maintained in every stage, process or activity of the professional work of the engineer like for example procurement of material, relationship with the government, people, worker or the customer or drawing of specification. Any discrepancy or error or lapse in integrity has to be transparently exposed and corrected at the very first occurrence. Honesty and integrity ultimately pays in terms of bottom line result, whatever may be the temporary setbacks. Take for example, the practice of bribing which is a common form of ethical lapse among engineering and contracting firms in their dealing with government agencies. Many professionals justify it by saying that it is necessary and unavoidable in getting things done in government departments. But this state of affairs exists because most of professional organization and individuals have not made any concerted and collective effort to counter it with a persistent will for truth like for example, exerting pressure through professional associations. There are examples to show that when this persistent will not to yield to falsehood is there, then things change. Here are two illustrative examples:
A Civil Contractor, persuaded by his spiritually inclined wife and his Guru, decided not to give bribes and conduct his business with an entire honesty. The initial impact of the decision was negative. His business began to collapse. His financial condition deteriorated. But still he persisted in his resolution to be honest. His reputation for honesty spread in business and government circles. Again he started getting contracts, business flourished and became better than what it was when he was doing it without any scruples. (Shyamkumari, 1999)
Another example is from the housing division of a Chennai-based firm well known for its value-based policies. The company was not able to hand over the flats to the customer at the promised date because of prolonged delays in getting sanction for electrical works from the electricity board. The company was determined not to take the easy and customary path of greasing the government officials. The company wrote letters to the authorities of the electricity board and also explained their principled position to the customer. A small group of understanding and sympathetic customers wrote letters to the highest political and government authorities, demanding immediate action. And finally the moral force behind the company’s decision triumphed. The company got the sanction for the electrical works without compromising on its principles. (Alacrity Foundation, 1995)
Knowledge and Competence
But a modern professional is not a cloistered monk or a full-time yogi in an ashram. He is a knowledge-worker who has to deliver results in a highly competitive and demanding corporate environment. So for a professional, honesty is not enough to attain excellence. He must have knowledge and competence to deliver results. There are three types of knowledge, which a professional has to possess for achieving excellence. The first one is the specialized technical knowledge of the specific professional activity he is engaged in like for example software or telecom or CAD.
The second type of knowledge is a basic understanding of sciences, disciplines or technologies related to the first one. For example a software engineer can enhance his professional effectiveness by studying philosophical, linguistic and mathematical logic, especially the logic of ancient Indian grammarians like Panini. And for building a safe and healthy future world, every professional must have a sound, theoretical and practical knowledge of modern ecology and environmental sciences. The importance of ecological knowledge for engineer, technocrat and the manager is obvious. For decisions on resource allocation and technology have profound ecological implications. Even the finance professional should have some knowledge of ecology to understand the environmental implications of costing or pricing. For example the prices of many products in the market like timber or paper do not reflect the ecological cost of the product in terms of destruction of forests.
The third type of knowledge is a broad and holistic understanding of the higher ideal, values and purpose of the profession. For example, an engineer or technocrats much have some clarity regarding the higher purpose of technology in the evolutionary destiny of humanity and earth. This is something, which is lacking in modern professional work and studies. Here comes the importance of the ancient Indian concept of the Shastra.
In ancient India every professional activity is put under the yoke of the Shastra. A Shastra, in the ancient Indian conceptions is a holistic perspective of a human or cosmic activity, which contains three types of knowledge. First is a spiritual perspective which views the purpose of the activity in the context of the highest spiritual aim of life; second is an ethical or dharmic perspective which elucidates the moral, aesthetic and professional values and standards under which the activity has to be performed; third is the professional perspective which expounds the scientific, technical and skill dimensions of knowledge. Modern professional systems of knowledge would be immensely benefited if they can incorporate this ancient Indian concept of Shastra with suitable modification into their conceptual, educational and executive strategies.
But knowledge remains abstract and ineffective without competence. We may define competence as the ability to apply knowledge to deliver results. Here again there are three types of professional competence. The first one is the technical competence like for example, in solving technical problems or finding new ways to improve the efficiency, economy and productivity of technical systems and process in production. In our present corporate environment economy is an important part of efficiency. The professional has to be cost conscious and cost-effective. He must be able to arrive at the right balance or trade off between cost, quality, technical excellence and customer satisfaction. We will come to this subject again a little later. The second type of knowledge is the ability to deliver in time and according to specifications; third are the “soft” management skills in planning, scheduling, time-management, interpersonal relationship, man-management and the ability to focus all our attention on the task or in other words, concentration. So efficiency, economy, productivity, result-orientation, and management skills are the different facets of competence.
In our highly competitive corporate environment it is not enough to have knowledge and competitive. A modern professional has to be innovative. In simple terms innovation means adding or creating something new. There are three types of innovation. First is the incremental innovation in improving the efficiency, productivity, and economy of an existing product, process or service. For example a better lubrication system, which reduces the amount and cost of lubricant and at the same time enhances the efficiency of the machine, is an incremental innovation. As we have indicated earlier this type of innovation is an intrinsic part of the professional dharma of an engineer. The second type of innovation is evolutionary which builds on what is known but at the same time adds significant new value to the process or product. The compact, fuel-efficient and environmental-friendly Japanese cars, which invaded the American, market in the eighties and recently Tata’s Nano are examples of evolutionary innovation. The third type of innovation is the “breakthrough” innovations, which lead to a radically new product or process or technology. Sony’s Walkman, invention of the microchip by Robert Noyce and Kim Philby, fuel cell based vehicles are examples of break-through innovations. Ideally, every professional must constantly strive towards all these three types of innovation. The third types of innovations mostly proceed from individual genius or the collective work of highly qualified and talented scientists and technocrats. But every professional group can and must strive for constant advancement in the first two categories of innovations. Interestingly a school of modern management thought conceives innovation as a continuous and unrelenting quest for the new and better in every activity of the corporate life. For example, a Kito de Boer, a Mckinsy consultant states:
“To us at Mckinsy, innovation is much more than product development or R&D. Innovation goes to the heart of sustaining corporate advantage through the process of continuous change and renewal. It has far more to do with continually challenging the status-quo and pushing for corporate renewal than it has to do with creativity and ingenuity.” (Kito De Boer, 2003)
There is a spiritual element in this Mckinsy’s concept of innovation. The Mother of Sri Aurobindo Ashram states, “In works, aspiration for perfection is true spirituality and defines perfection as “a constant will for progress in work.” (The Mother, 1973) So if this constant search for better and for perpetual renewal can be deepened into an attitude of progressive perfection in work and in every activity for its own sake without seeking for any immediate pragmatic results, it can be a source of spiritual progress for the individual and the collectivity. Another important factor to be noted here, is that innovation requires something more than knowledge and competence it requires imagination and intuition. The first type of incremental innovations can be achieved to a certain extent through knowledge and competence. But even here to attain excellence, there must be the ability to look at things from angles, which are different from the routine, customary, and the traditional, which requires imagination. The other two types of innovations require a much greater component of imagination and intuition. So cultivation of these two non-rational faculties have to become an integral part of the education and training programme for professionals.
Quality and the Human Face
The concept of quality can be looked at various angles and defined in many ways. For example, there is the well-known concept of Total Quality Management. However for the present theme of our discussion we may view the concept of quality in terms of three dimensions: technical, aesthetic and human.
The Technical Dimension
The technical quality may be conceived in terms of reliability, durability and other technical features of the product or process. For example, some of the home appliances like fan or mixies, which were produced during the 1970’s or 80’s, had a sturdiness and durability, which we were not able to find in the same products we see in the present market. On the other hand the latest trends in manufacturing technology with techniques like Computer Aided Manufacturing and lean manufacturing display a much greater technical sophistication than the manufacturing techniques of the 70’s or 80’s.
Touch of Beauty
The second aspect of quality is aesthetics, which is acquiring an increasing recognition and importance in the present highly competitive corporate environment. There is a perceptible improvement in the aesthetic quality of the external appearance of products like for example in cars and computers. But in an integral perspective aesthetics is much more than mere product design or packaging. Aesthetics means creating beauty and harmony in every activity of human life. In the corporate world it means beautiful and harmonious equipment and ordering of the material and economic environment of the organization. For example, in engineering, technology and production, it means to perform every activity from procurement of material, plant layout, engineering, design, manufacturing, maintenance or erection and commissioning to product design and packaging, with a sense of beauty and harmony. When things are organized and the activities are done with this total aesthetic sense and vision, it creates an aura of subtle beauty in the organization and around the product or service, which has a special attraction for the customer. These are deeper and invisible factors which the ancient wisdom recognised but the modern scientific mind refuses to accept. The scientific mind demands empirical proof. But those things which are beyond the discernible range of senses and the intellect cannot be proved by empirical data.
The Human Dimension
The third aspect of quality is human satisfaction or in other words, the extent to which a product, process or service satisfies human needs. Every professional has to ultimately serve human needs. In our modern corporate environment, the most crucial human groups are the Customer, Employee and the Community.
The technical expert, genius, or idealist seeks technical perfection for its own sake. But in the corporate world, technical perfection which the customer doesn’t want, or willing to pay, will end in commercial failure. There are many such products in the corporate world, which are technical marvels in innovation, design or features but bombed in the market because customer did not want it or willing to pay the price. A classic example is the Polaroid camera, which gave instant photo prints. It is a technically superb product, which if it has gained the acceptance of the mass-market, would have made the photo-studio obsolete. But ultimately it failed in the market with the advent of the digital camera. The customer seems to be not interested or eager to have an instant photo print or ready to pay a costly price for a complex and cumbersome camera. She is happy and satisfied with seeing her digital image in a simple and compact camera and ready to wait for the print!
Here is another example from one of the most customer-focused companies: Dell Computers. Dell introduced a series of high-tech products, which failed in the market. Michael Dell, founder of Dell Computers describing the cause of failure said “we had gone ahead and created a product that was technology for technology’s sake rather than technology for the customer sake. If we had consulted about what they needed—we could have saved ourselves lot of aggravation.” Learning from this mistake, in Dell Computers, technical staffs are trained to “think beyond technology and in terms of what people want.” So the corporate technocrat must understand the actual needs and expectation of the customer, the price she is willing to pay for it and reverse engineer the product or service, tailoring it to customer needs.
The second human group is the employees. In this domain the great professional challenge is two fold: first is to progressively fulfill the evolving human needs and to enhance human wellbeing in all the dimensions of human organism─physical, emotional, mental, moral and spiritual. In corporate world, the primary drive is towards enhancing human performance or productivity. But what is not fully recongnised is that human performance cannot be sustained without sustainable human wellbeing. If the relentless drive for performance leads to stressed-out, unhealthy and unhappy employees, it will ultimately have an adverse impact not only on productivity but also the inner quality of the product. Here is a similar phenomenon which we have mentioned briefly while discussing the aesthetic dimension.
It is the relation between Mind and Matter. As Sri Aurobindo states ‘Mind overflowed into the inanimate.’(Sri Aurobindo, 1972). This is not an unscientific idea. Our mind or psyche, like Matter, is also a form of energy. The eminent psychologist Carl Jung, talks about psychic energy and calls it as ‘Anima’. This mental or psychic energy is more subtle and pervasive than the physical energies of our body and therefore it can overflow into the surrounding environment; it can penetrate, envelop and pervade the material objects in the environment. When the mental or psychic energies of people who make the product are full of wellbeing and joy, then the product will also carry this vibration of joy which will communicate itself to the customer. Thus a creation, product or service, which proceeds from an individual and collective consciousness of wholesome well-being, has an invisible quality or attraction, which a similar product or service created out of stress, tension and anxiety lacks.
In the future of business and management, it is this invisible factor which will determine more and more the customer pull and satisfaction. For when the technological and managerial competencies are more and more generalized and the outer differentiators between the products and services of firms become more and more minimal, it is the invisible psychological factors which will determine the customer choices. Interestingly, Tom Peters made the following significant remark on quality ‘Quality is practical. But it is also moral and aesthetic’, and quotes marketing expert, Philip Kotler as telling it is the ‘delight factor’. (Peters, 1988) If people who make a product or give the service has this delight factor within them it will flow into the product or service suffusing it with a subtle and intangible beauty or attraction for the customer. So human wellbeing has to be included as an integral part or index of Total Quality or the quality of the corporate life.
The Larger Community
The other important human group is the people in the community in which the company is situated. At present the concept of corporate social responsibility (CSR) is gaining increasing recognition in corporate circles. This concept of CSR demands that corporate world must include the community as an important stakeholder of the company. So it is not enough to focus on customer needs and employee wellbeing. The products and services of the company must lead to ecological and human well-being in the surrounding community or at the least should not damage societal well-being. The professional manager or technocrate who frames the technological and organizational policies and strategies of a company must give conscious consideration to this value of societal and human well being. Similarly in community development, the development engineer has to carefully study the concept of Appropriate Technology propounded by Swedish economist E.F. Schumacher. According to this philosophy, the design and choice of technology have to be tailored to the unique economic, ecological, social and cultural needs, values and life-styles of the community. And the manager or administrator involved in community development or CSR projects has to do a similar type of adaptation in his strategies.
However, humanism, to reach its highest creative potential, has to progress further from the scientific, technical and pragmatic level towards the emotional and spiritual, flowing out with universal love and compassion for all humanity. The great scientist Albert Einstein constantly emphasized this human factor in many of his writing and talks. In one of his talks Einstein said to students of science, that the aim of all science and technology is to care for human well being, never forget it amidst your equations and gadget.
A Business House With a Social Mission (1993), Alacrity Foundation Pvt. Lt, Chennai, p.6.
Hammer, H and Stanton, S, (1999) ‘How Process Enterprises Really Work,’ Harvard Business Review, November-December, p.108-120
Issacson, Walter, (2007) Einstein His Life and Universe, Simon & Schumacher Paperbacks, New York, pp.215.
Kito De Boer, Innovation Myopia, The Great Leap Forward, Innovation for Corporate Renaissance, All India Management Association, Excel Book p.27
Schumacher E.F, (1974) Small is Beautiful, India Book Distributors, London, p. 143-160
Shyamkumari, (1989) Vignettes of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Puducherry, p.26.
Sri Aurobindo, (1972) Savitri, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Puducherry.
The Mother, Collected Works, Vol.14, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Puducherry, p. 328
Welch, Jack, Winning (2005), Harper Collins, Newyork, p.28