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Archive for November 9th, 2009

…and the Pursuit of Happiness

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“CPR kit available upon request”, were the neatly lettered words in black ink on the somewhat smallish framed white sign near the front door of a Manhattan restaurant where I was having a business lunch. The wording of the sign caused me break into a grin – specifically the words “upon request”. A picture formed in my mind of me clutching my chest, and as I sank to the floor losing consciousness with no assistance being provided, the hostess stationed by the front door explains to the other patrons waiting in line, “if only he had requested the CPR kit before he lost consciousness, oh well…table for 2?” I began to think “you know there are some things in life you really shouldn’t have to ask for – things that should be…inalienable”. Others have felt the same way.

The next day there was a cartoon in the paper that showed a flight attendant giving the standard speech at the start of a flight. She indicated that should a sudden decompression occur that an oxygen mask would fall from the ceiling and for an additional $15 you could have it activated. I wonder if that could be paid in advance or whether you should wait to see if you really needed it and then you could just pass the money to the flight attendant to have it turned on. Correct change appreciated to expedite things. What makes the cartoon funny though, at least to me, is the notion that you have to pay extra for what you would think would be something that you shouldn’t have to ask for, namely supplemental oxygen should one find oneself unexpectedly on a plane with oxygen in short supply. Don’t you just hate it when that happens? (The cartoon was poking fun at a US airline that now charges $15 extra to bring a bag along on your vacation or business trip. Who in their right mind would bring a bag packed with clothes or other essentials on a vacation or a business trip? So given the unusual nature of people traveling with a suitcase I can see the justification for charging extra for a piece of luggage instead of building the cost into the ticket itself.)

Thomas Jefferson in writing the United States Declaration of Independence listed “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” as among the inalienable rights of mankind – supposedly things you shouldn’t have to ask for, things that are guaranteed and can not be taken away. (It says nothing about CPR kits or airline luggage however, but perhaps he did not fly much). This phrase has shown up in a number of Supreme Court cases aimed at defining just what is covered by that broad statement. For instance, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote in a 1967 ruling that helped to define the Pursuit of Happiness, “The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men.” That judicial rendering was given to protect the rights of people from differing races to intermarry, and that same logic is beginning to be applied to people desiring same sex marriages, given their inalienable right to “the Pursuit of Happiness”.

There are many other documents that carve out other inalienable rights such as “no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions” (John Locke). In the “Rights of Man”, Thomas Paine wrote in 1791 regarding the equality of all men and their right to liberty. He stated that these rights should not be codified or put into legislation because that would imply that these rights are privileges that could be granted by legislation but then also taken away by legislation.  Early Islamic law held much the same view point (and may have influenced Paine) with fundamental rights of man existing that no ruler could put aside covering social, cultural, political, economic and civic rights. The concepts also included room for an independent judiciary that was not to discriminate against those appearing before it on the basis of “religion, race, color, kinship or prejudice”. These were inalienable rights with all that implied.

Alienable rights though are rights that are given either legislatively or through the grace of someone in power and can easily be taken away. Do employees have any inalienable rights? What about customers? In order to make a stab at answering those questions I would like to propose several concepts.

The first concept is that the difference between inalienable and alienable rights is a by-product of the times in which we live. We choose to make certain rights inalienable. The inalienable rights we enjoy in the USA in the 21st century look nothing like the inalienable rights enjoyed by some living in other parts of the world or by those from different time periods. Inalienable rights if they were truly inalienable would be universally recognized by mankind rather than rights that needed to be secured, sometimes through the use of force. “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”, are those really inalienable rights, or are they rights that those living at this moment in time have decided to call inalienable? They are certainly noble and it makes you feel good to say that all mankind has certain inalienable rights, but I would suggest that we are a product and inalienable rights are a product of our times. Certainly there have been times, including right now, where Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness are not a given for a significant portion of the world’s population, as much as we might think that they should be. Inalienable rights are a product of paradigm, precedent and principle, but sometimes, as with the Declaration of Independence, people are able to stand up and say it is time to change the paradigm.

The second concept is the notion that Darwin’s principles of evolution can be applied to organizations as well as to living organisms. When organizations express variation, employees and customers have the ability to select the most appropriate organizations for them, the ones they want to work for, or be customers of, and the most robust organizations, the fittest (those that attract employees and customers for the long-term) will be the ones to survive. Other organizations, with their desire to survive as well, will copy the ideas and strategies of those organizations that they believe are being successful and hence those ideas, practices and procedures will be passed along to other organizations not through heredity but by the spread of ideas – some would call them memes. Organizations have the right to deliver products and services as they see fit and customers have the right to utilize or not to utilize that organizations products and/or services.

Those of us living in the USA at this moment in time have the tremendous good fortune of living in the wealthiest, most successful country that has ever existed on the face of this planet. You could easily make the argument that no one living in the USA should be hungry, should be living on the street, or should be denied access to medical care. That food, shelter and medical care are inalienable rights. After all are we so barbaric that we would step over homeless, hungry people sleeping on the street, likely in need of medical attention, as though they were somehow less than human? I have and it is very likely that a large number of those reading this probably have as well. It makes us uncomfortable and we are wary of the potential danger to ourselves so we hesitate to reach out to those in need. How much better would you feel if you had a mechanism to help those you see living on the street? But for those living on the street is it an inalienable right that they should expect that help?  Let’s explore one topic, heath care a little more closely for a possible answer.

Heath care which some purchase through their employer as a shared expense employee benefit does not have a lengthy history. It was only very recently that this expense became shared and not borne solely by the employer. But it was also not that much longer ago that it did not exist at all. Prior to WWII heath care was a rare commodity and became prevalent only as a way for employers to compete for hard to find employees. They provided health care insurance in order to increase the likelihood of their survival. During World War II, wage and price controls prevented employers from using wages to compete for scarce labor. Under the 1942 Stabilization Act, Congress limited the wage increases that could be offered by firms, but permitted the adoption of employee insurance plans. In this way, health benefit packages offered one means of securing workers… Under the 1954 Internal Revenue Code (IRC), employer contributions to employee health plans were exempt from employee taxable income. As a result of this tax-advantaged form of compensation, the demand for health insurance further increased throughout the 1950s.” (Thomasson, Melissa. “Health Insurance in the United States”.  April 2003).

So employer provided heath care insurance, with the expense borne solely by the employer really only existed from the mid-1940s to the 1990s as by and large most organizations now require employees to share the cost. But does that mean that medical care is not an inalienable right?

Broadly speaking the inalienable rights of employees consists of those things that either the organization must offer to remain viable (to attract employees), or things that our society deems as basic to whom we are as a society. If society deems that universal health coverage is an inalienable right and that notion is broadly accepted then that is what it becomes. Other rights that could be deemed as inalienable might include employment at will, a two-way street, benefiting both the employer and the employee, the ability to actually work at your trade (another Supreme Court definition of “the Pursuit of Happiness) and not be restrained in your trade, but broadly it would seem that the one truly inalienable right that employees have is the right to choose whether they will stay with their current employer or not. However, these rights however you want to characterize them are inalienable only when people are willing to vote with their feet and stand up for them, to create a paradigm that says they are in fact inalienable. When employees and customers exercise their options by utilizing or being employed by organizations of their choice then they are creating the inalienable rights – those things that become part of the fabric of how business gets conducted because organizations will behave in such as fashion that maximizes their survival potential.  

Organizations will sometimes conduct themselves in such a manner that leads the casual observer to question their viability. I was at LaGuardia about to board a flight when the woman in front of me, who was returning home, was asked to put her bag into the metal frame to see if it would fit and be allowed on the plane. She did, it didn’t and she was told she would have to gate check her bag. When she told the gate agent that she was allowed to bring the bag on the plane on the way to LaGuardia from Minneapolis the response she was given was that they cared less about those things in Minneapolis than in NYC. She was predictably upset. Does she have an inalienable right to expect consistency in standards applied within one airline from airport to airport? Only if she and all those affected by arbitrarily applied rules demand it. She needs to vote with her feet and fly another airline on her next trip. In a non-perfect world however we do not have completely free choice as sometimes our options can be limited.

With respect to safety, I would think that customers would have the reasonable expectation that certain practices and procedures to ensure their safety would be followed when they engage with organizations in activities that carry with it a certain amount of risk, such as flying in an airplane. But I don’t think that rises to the level of inalienable rights. Airlines will practice safe procedures either because they need to, in order to comply with legislation and be allowed to keep flying, or because if they get a reputation as an unsafe airline, no one is going to use them. Restaurants will operate with cleanliness for the same reasons, legislative necessity or reputation and on and on.

There are some things in life you shouldn’t have to ask for, but they come about not because we have naturally given inalienable rights simply because we are human but because we choose to live our lives in such as fashion and to conduct ourselves towards others that these rights can be inferred. And while these rights may change over the ages and depending on which political system you live within, one thing does seem certain, that each of us alone and as a group will determine the inalienable rights generally acknowledged to exist.  But I still would prefer not having to specifically ask for the CPR kit prior to passing out.

Personal aside: At this time, in this place I would argue, and I think our society’s standards would argue that access to medical care in whatever form that takes is in fact an inalienable right and that there should be no employee out there – in fact no person in the USA without access to care. But the reason for that is not that it has to be. The reason for that, is that given what we are now capable of as a country, as a society, it is not only right that it should be, but that it is in our own best interests to ensure that the people who live within our borders have access to health care.

© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

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Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

November 9, 2009 at 8:07 am

Values and Addiction

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Saltzman: one who processed and sold salt. Salt used to be worth its weight in gold. In fact before there was gold as a valued metal, there was salt as a valued mineral. Up until the 1900’s salt was difficult to obtain and given its importance in sustaining life it was quite prized. It is speculated that the rise and fall of certain civilizations was impacted by their access to salt. The word “salary” came from the Roman word “salarium” or salt money and Rome’s legionnaires were occasionally paid in salt. While the locals may have been dubious about the value of a Roman coin backed by a far away government, or by a lack of enough coins in circulation to maintain a money-based economy, a soldier who had salt had a valuable commodity that was easily traded for other goods and services. And in periods of uncertainty salt was as good as, in fact better than coinage for its value was clear to everyone. Too much salt though causes problems and salt was used militarily to gain control over others as far back as 4500 years ago by salting the fields of people you were at war with to prevent them from growing crops. Too little salt and life becomes very difficult perhaps even leading to death, too much salt can cause the same outcome, but in just the right amount salt is a pleasure as evidenced by humans evolving receptors on our tongues for detecting and enjoying the taste of salt. Salt today is very common, one of the few bargains you can find at the grocery store, and we now tend to over-salt our foods resulting in some long-term health issues. Salt moved from a rare material of very high worth to a commodity. Science and technology allowed for that to happen.

Gold is another rare commodity that has served as a basis for monetary systems. But as opposed to salt you can live without gold. The value of gold is totally dependent on what someone is willing to pay for it.  In 1980 a troy ounce of gold was selling for about $641 dollars, by 2000 its price had fallen to $272. On June 19th, 2008 on the spot market for gold, an ounce was selling for $903. People have recently turned to gold and hence have run up the price, because of the perception of safety in gold holding its value better during uncertain times than other potential investments. But gold in and of itself has little/no inherent value, other than its use in some manufacturing processes and products. Its true value lies in its desirability and the demand for it from other people, simply because it is rare and desired. (All the gold ever mined by humans would form a cube 19 meters on a side).

In my town one way you can tell the age of a house is to look at its position relative to the road and its garage size. My town was founded in 1695 and while I don’t think there are any houses left that go back that far, the oldest houses are those that are right up against the road with little to no driveway in front of the house. The reason for that is simple. Of the little traffic they had back then, when you pulled up to a house on your horse you did not need to pull into a driveway. The next generation of houses had smallish driveways but no garages then came single then double and now most new houses are built with 3-car (or more) garages here. We live in a society that has become very energy dependent and automobile centric. Our road systems, our transport systems, most of our cities, the way we shop and travel to work, the way we build our homes are all centered around our use of the automobile as a means of transport and predominantly our automobiles run on gas and our society as a whole is very oil dependent.

The price of oil is now a source of concern to many if not most. Heating our homes, running our cars, the costs of goods and services are all getting more expensive due to the added energy costs in producing those products and services. Oil and hence energy historically has been a commodity, one that has been more or less reasonably priced here in the USA. In the very recent past, many would think nothing of filling up the tank on a nice Saturday and going for a ride in the country. People now think twice about what filling that tank will cost. I am certainly not the first to say it but as a society we are addicted to oil and historically the reasonable price has exacerbated that addiction. We are still addicted to oil but now the oil is getting very expensive and will likely push higher. Debates go on about why that is happening. Is it the oil companies, the countries with the oil resources, the refineries, or oil speculators, the hedge funds, the declining value of the dollar?

Oil has been referred to as black gold. (Was it Jedd Clampet who originally called it Texas tea?)  But rather than a comparison to gold, oil is more like salt. At this moment in time our society is so dependent on oil, given the way we are structured, that we literally cannot continue as a society without it. So in uncertain times what is oil worth? What should it be worth? What is it worth to keep our society functioning in the much same manner to which we are familiar? While I am feeling as much pain as the next guy when I have to fill up my gas tank or home heating oil tank, I could not help but think about what may be happening in the manufacturing sector now that the price of oil is as high as it is. Friday, June 13th, 2008 appearing in the Wall Street Journal was a story that started off this way. “The rising cost of shipping everything from industrial pump parts to lawn-mower batteries to living-room sofa is forcing some manufacturers to bring production back to North America and freeze plans to send even more work overseas.”

If you think of raw materials, infrastructure, worker’s wages, transportation and the local business climate (taxes etc.) as all components of the total cost of a product, oil may not be all that inappropriately priced at the moment. For it seems that we are reaching a point of balance whereby given the total cost of producing a product, it is beginning to look attractive again to bring manufacturing back to the USA given the high cost of transport. The current price of oil and hence the transportation costs of goods is offsetting the lower wages paid elsewhere. At the current oil price the incentive to move manufacturing outside of the USA is disappearing. So while we are facing pain at the pump, every time we fill our tanks, at this price point are we now paying a price that will eventually bring manufacturing jobs back to these shores? Can we actually be heading down a path that will create local manufacturing jobs by paying these insane prices? But we are not the only ones paying these high prices. Those located in low wage countries (those where the cost of oil is not subsidized) are paying higher prices as well. How much greater is the pain for them? How will it end? As in the cold war the answer may be which society can outspend the other prior to collapse.

At the current price point for oil there certainly seem to be incentives for entrepreneurs to develop energy alternatives to oil. And any discomfort that the oil producing nations are currently feeling has nothing to do with the current price of oil per se, but that at the current price we have reached a point where alternatives to oil energy will be developed, potentially causing the long-term value of oil to plummet. At the current pain level we just might decide that it is time to kick the addiction. Remember what happened to the value of salt, a once hard to find commodity.

The percentage of 12th graders who report that they smoke cigarettes daily has dropped to just over 10 percent. And new work published May 22, 2008 in the New England Journal of Medicine suggested that those who decide to quit smoking are influenced by individuals from social networks with connections up to 3 degrees of separation (meaning a friend of a friend of a friend).  Work done on the brain has recently shown that the same parts of the brain are used when remembering the past and attempting to envision the future. This would suggest that those kids who develop the ability to kick their addiction, influenced by their extended peer set and develop a past, a history of not smoking will be more likely to envision a future for themselves where they do not smoke.

If we speculate that similar mechanisms may be at play in organizations (since organizations are simply an amalgamation of people, most of whom attended 12th grade), it may be that once organizations develop alternative energy solutions to service their needs, perhaps influenced by those other organizations with whom they are only remotely connected, that a critical mass will begin to develop. Once we head down the path of alternative energy, once the momentum is built and new products and services that are not as dependent on oil are more commonplace additional new products and services will likely arise. The difficulty of seeing an alternative energy future, to envision what that future may be like may ease once there is some alternative energy history in place, if not in the immediate organization itself then within peer network organizations.  Envisioning the future is apparently more easily done when you can refer to the past, even perhaps if that past is not your own but from elsewhere within your network.

Other organizational behavior may be operating based on similar mechanisms. Why over a very short period of time did organizations move from a defined benefit employee retirement plan to a defined contribution? (Yes, they saved money and reduced risk exposure, but what made that course of action acceptable?) Once the trend began, and a little history developed, with few exceptions the rest moved in lockstep. Some now have even done away with any retirement contribution. Will the rest shortly follow? Why did organizations move to outsourcing, off-shoring, why do they merge and reorganize the way they do? Could it perhaps be because of historical memory, perhaps even if it comes from other organizations? The likelihood of that greatly increases when you consider the way that people today shift from organization to organization carrying their organizational memories with them.

Too little oil can make life very difficult, but too much oil can cause an addiction to a predominantly single energy source, rather than a nice diverse basket of energy resources. We all know that the prudent course to take when investing is to diversify, to spread your risk around, yet we as an economy, as a society were willing to place most of our eggs into the oil energy basket, because it was economically attractive to do so. It is time for us to spread the risk around. Science and technology can make that happen. Just the right amount of oil, providing critical products that are hard to reproduce using alternatives, but also incenting alternative energy solutions would seem to be in our long-term best interest. Drilling in ANWAR on the north shore of Alaska or drilling off of our coasts has been described as giving the addict one more hit, it may provide very short-term relief, (given the lead time in exploring, drilling and commercialization, the time until that relief might be measured in decades) but does nothing to get us past our addiction.

For the short-term I will likely need to take out a loan every time I fill up the tank, but I can envision a future…..

© 2011 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

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Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

November 9, 2009 at 8:03 am

Organizational Civilization

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Being civilized is commonly used to refer to a high state of refinement, but what really matters, what allows you to call one place or culture civilized and another uncivilized? Can one organization be deemed as civilized while another is deemed less so or uncivilized?

I just got back from a vacation in the Adirondack Mountains. The Adirondack’s, a Vermont-sized piece of real estate with a mix of public and private lands, from the standpoint of how nice the accommodations are can be described as a bit uneven. At one extreme you can rent your own private island on one of the spectacular lakes that along with luxurious “rustic” accommodations comes complete with a chef, boathouse, boatman, guide and will set you back in the mid 5-figures+ for a week. At the other end of the spectrum you can rent a cabin without running water or electricity, that may or may not have a bowed roofline that can cause anxious moments as you drift off to sleep regarding the likelihood of the place collapsing around you during the night. Most people, as we did, of course rent something in between those two extremes.

Our small cabin was built in the early 1900’s. At some point electricity was added as was running water. Later on a modernish bathroom was added off the front porch. In order to get to the bathroom you had to pass through the front porch (and a few spider webs). Heat in the uninsulated cabin was provided by a fireplace and air-conditioning consisted of windows. The galley kitchen had appliances dating back to the 1940’s-1950. At night we made use of a sleeping porch, a fairly common approach to sleeping in the mountains during the summer. It is essentially a screened outdoor porch with a bed. No television. No phone. No cell phone reception. No computer hookup or Wi-Fi. Isolated. Rustic. Uncivilized? 

Our living room consisted of a couch and a couple of chairs huddled around the fireplace. In one corner of the room was a piano which to my ear was well-tuned. In the adjacent corner bookshelves were filled with every manner of books (some likely left by previous renters as I found one to be a vile work of bigotry from the 1920’s). In another corner was a writing desk for penning notes to those left at home with an inkwell and quill pen. (The nearest post office was about 20 miles away).  A globe rested nearby on a pedestal. The globe reflected some long ago country names such as Siam, Dutch East Indies, and Persia.

The sleeping porch, in addition to the bed had a table and rocking chairs scattered around. It had a screen door leading outside that bounced shut as you let it go, no real barrier to any creature that wanted to get in. But at night as you drifted off to sleep you could hear the loons calling in the distance from the lake. In the morning the alarm clock consisted of a chorus of gifted song birds that seemed thrilled by the vision of the sun creeping over the edge of the lake and needed to sing about that wonderful sight. On a few mornings the temperature dipped in the low 50s, giving a pretty good reason to stay comfortably buried under the covers, yet a steaming cup of tea or coffee made on the 1940’s stove has never tasted quite as good as when consumed in the chilly cabin as the early morning sunlight begins streaming through the windows.

In the afternoon, after a day of hiking or canoeing, we would travel about ten miles or so to a soft ice cream shack that made one flavor a day. A big sign hung over the counter, “The flavor of the day has already been decided. What size would you like?” We got a schedule of flavors that were to be produced for the week we were there and Wednesday morning my daughter and I woke up raring to go for it was chocolate day (my wife preferred “mystery fruit day”. Uncivilized?

Amid all these rustic surroundings, I started to speculate regarding the nature of civilized vs. uncivilized organizations. What is the essence of an organization that will be successful? Does it have anything to do with its degree of refinement? Some organizations operate with a high degree of refinement, with rules and procedures in place, proper ways of doing things, forms to complete, approvals to be received, very buttoned up and proper. Other organizations operate with a much simpler approach, maybe an old-fashioned approach to procedures and policy; maybe they could be characterized as slightly uneven in their approach to things, lacking refinement. But you also have to wonder what the refined organizations with their policies and procedures, buttoned up practices have lost. Can they hear the call of the loons in the night through their sealed windows in their air conditioned offices? As we unrelentingly move our lifestyles to be more comfortable with modern conveniences and choices and we unrelentingly move our organizations to adopt more sophisticated approaches to how we get things done what do we lose, what do our organizations lose? Is there something to be gained by maintaining some of the old fashioned approach to getting things done, while adopting the best of modern practices?

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

November 9, 2009 at 8:00 am

Out of Our Experience

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“Information is not knowledge, knowledge is not wisdom, and wisdom is not foresight.” Arthur C. Clarke

If you were a one dimensional creature you would exist along a line. You would have no width, no height, just length. If a two dimensional creature came along, consisting of both length and width, and tried to interact with the one dimensional creature, the one dimensional creature would only see the length of the other fellow for it would not be possible for it to see or comprehend its width.

If the two dimensional creature were to run into a three dimensional creature it would see and comprehend only those things about the 3 dimensional creature that existed within its 2 dimensional space. The classic example is a round globe or sphere would appear as a circle to a 2 dimensional observer, as the observer would not be able to peer into the 3rd dimension to see the sphere in its complete form, it would only see horizontal slices, appearing as circles, through the sphere based on its understanding and ability or short-comings (depending on your point of view) on how it perceives and comprehends its world.

If we, as 3 dimensional creatures, were to interact with a creature that existed in 4 dimensions, say a creature that was independent of time, that creature would exist to us only for the briefest of moments as that creature flashed though, or chose to exist in our current instant. If the creature were truly a creature living independently of time or fully able to embrace time, again depending on your point of view, with all of time to wander through how often do you think we would run into such a creature? To us, unable to comprehend or see its movements through time, its existence to us may appear only as long as the briefest of flashes, no more than a passing moment.

M-Theory at the cutting edge of describing how our universe is structured suggests that there are 11 dimensions. So far we are able to comprehend, other than in mathematical equations, only a few of them.


If I may stretch an analogy, employees are multi-dimensional creatures as well. Organizations will have a tendency to see employees to comprehend them only on the dimensions upon which they interact, namely with limited exceptions, the work environment or even more limited the slice of the work environment in which the individual employee functions. What richness are we missing, what are we overlooking by not being able to see or comprehend employees in all the dimensions in which they exist or could exist?  When we try to see employees as they exist outside of the organizational experience, is it truly possible to comprehend what you are seeing or perhaps not seeing?

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

November 9, 2009 at 7:58 am

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