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Moving together

Published on Saturday, 09 Aug 2014
Book: The Alliance
Authors: Reid Hoffman, Ben Casnocha and Chris Yeh
Publisher: Harvard Business Review Press

Hot off the Harvard Business Review Press, The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age is a curious work. Written by LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman together with fellow American free-enterprise luminaries Ben Casnocha and Chris Yeh, the book is a veritable curate's egg. Some parts of it are quite good; others have an unpalatable whiff about them.

The book posits that the employer-employee relationship is damaged beyond repair and today's managers face a thorny dilemma: the old model of guaranteed long-term employment no longer works in a business environment defined by continuous change, but neither does a system in which every employee enjoys limitless mobility (or at least behaves in such a manner).

Is there a third way? The authors believe so. They urge readers to stop thinking of employees as either "family" or "free agents" and instead regard them as "allies".

So far, so simple. But the devil is always in the detail. Allies in the vipers nest of 21st-century commerce? That's a leap of faith of biblical proportions. In light of contemporary realities, it is far better to embrace more entrenched and realistic truisms. The enemy of your enemy is your friend, for example.

The authors then say that lost trust can be regained by "straight talk" that recognises how modern economies actually operate today. Therefore, "the alliance" between employer and employee should be informed by the realisation that overachieving employees might leave for greener pastures, and that employees should be transparent about their own career aspirations.

The first is undoubtedly true. The second? Well, employers who are honest and transparent already do elicit this kind of useful feedback.

The authors say that by putting this new alliance at the heart of one's talent management strategy, trust will be regained and better hiring decisions made.

Less laboured theories can be found further on. For example, the book suggests that industrious right-brain creative types be given the opportunity to thrive by providing them with "tours of duty" - missions that are mutually beneficial to employee and company, and, moreover, assignments that can be completed within a realistic time span. The rhetorical question "how long is a piece of string?" comes to mind here, as there usually is a disconnection between what an employer and an employee sees as realistic.

The authors divide these tours into three. The first focuses on learning a company's basics. The second involves a task that moves the employee and the company forward. The third concerns acquiring leadership skills.

Employees must commit for the duration of each tour in a "mutually beneficial deal", with explicit terms, between "independent players". Ground-breaking, The Alliance isn't.

I would rather the authors write more about fixing the old model, the one that served our parents and grandparents so well. The company employee used to spend the days of his or her life at the same workplace, though with considerably shorter working days than those endured by today's employees. And at the end, the employee would be rewarded with a pension that would see the retiree through the autumn of his or her years.

Nobody talked about work-life balance because it was a non-issue. Not so today, in our age of roving employees, anti-union legislation and capricious hiring policies.

This slim volume could only have been spawned by Silicon Valley, not Central, Wall Street, the City of London or the industrial park. In these places, the contract is your time in exchange for monthly payment into your bank account. It's that simple.

Hoffman's airy concepts have been nurtured in an environment where youngsters with elite backgrounds and ferocious ambition are recruited to fulfil some overwrought mission such as "changing the world, one internet user at a time". But the authors leave out an important real-world consequence: once employees ink the contract, they give up their most creative, healthy years to peck away in front of computer monitors like battery chickens.

"Personal development" rarely features on the employers' priority list, despite what is often found throughout the company handbook. Nevertheless, personal development is a primary reason - and a sound one - for why workers change jobs, a point rather glossed over here.

While the authors acknowledge that not all industries are evolving as fast as the high technology sector, they do seem to believe that most have to cope with constant change, which is a disingenuous generalisation.

So much data must have been gleaned from LinkedIn since its launch in 2003 that you'd think Hoffman and his two chums would be able to provide a truly insightful and penetrating thesis on the nature of the fast-changing digitalised workplace and today's hiring patterns. And yet, despite The Alliance being useful in places, to use the verbiage of the manager filing in the appraisal form, Hoffman "has failed to meet expectations".

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