Sunday, March 6, 2011

Asset or Commodity?

Most all of us start out our careers as commodities for our employers. Regardless of our profession, we’re pretty raw talent needing refinement. Early on we are given discrete assignments, with specific deadlines, defined by someone else. We’re rarely provided with a sense of how our tasks fit into the bigger picture of the overall project.

We’re assigned to write code for a particular piece of software without any sense of the final product; or research a particular issue and draft a memo, which will be part of a larger report to a client; or design a particular part that will fit into the larger product or system; or frame a house that has been designed by someone else.

In each of these tasks, we are given parameters that are decided by someone else: the boss –team lead, foreman, architect, division director, partner – to whom we’re assigned. They decide who does what, how much time should be allotted to the task, and they determine the quality of the finished product. However, the boss may also be a commodity.

In his book, A Whole New Mind ( link), Daniel Pink notes the “three As” of Abundance, Automation and Asia that are influencing the shift from the information age to the conceptual age. In the information age, work was organized around knowledge workers – accountants, attorneys, doctors, engineers and executives – who acquire, organize and interpret data; and provide functional, logical and rational products and services. These workers, as educated and highly trained as they are, are commodities. Their skills are in abundance; their work can be easily automated and outsourced for cheaper, faster products. (A recent New York Times article reported on how new “e-discovery” software can analyze legal documents in a fraction of the time and costs that an army of lawyers used to.)

Commodities are easily replaced. Younger, cheaper, more nimble employees are always coming up through the ranks and ready to take their turn. If you have spent your career assembling a body of knowledge, an expertise, that is in overabundance or just no longer in demand, that computers can do faster and overseas labor can do cheaper, then you’re a commodity and in danger of being replaced.

Assets on the other hand, continually add value to an organization. Assets are creative, designing new products and services that improve the bottom line. Assets interact and empathize with clients to help define their needs and design solutions that fit.

So, what do you think? Can you distinguish yourself as either an asset or a commodity in your career? Are you comfortable with this distinction?

If you’re a commodity, are you comfortable with project-based tasks defined and assigned by others? Can you shift to more of an asset-based career path?

If you’re an asset, do you design products and service that continue to have meaning to customers and for clients?

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