Monday, December 7, 2015

Class reflection

This class was, by far, one of my favorite classes I've taken.  As a student who has already been in the workforce, I found the class to play toward my intrigue of how the "human wrench" throws itself into the gears of the organization.  Learning why a buyer or seller has incentive (or dis-incentive) to lie about his value or cost, played very much toward my interest in the psychology behind organizations.

Something we touched on today and in our project, was the important role HR plays in the organization.  While I would have loved this course to have spent more time on this subject, I can't imagine finding the time to fit this in the course.  It also would certainly draw the course away from the Economics and more toward the Labor and Employment Relations discipline.  I think, though, the course was a fabulous blend of interdisciplinary subjects and made me really want to further explore organizational economics.

This brings me to the books.  I think these books were the best books I've ever had for a college course.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading from both books.  I found them extremely clear, chock full of great examples and distinct explanations.  I was so disappointed in myself for renting the Bohlman and Deal book, that I just ended up buying it from Amazon, because I know I'll read it in the future.

The biggest opportunity, I think, would be to increase class participation/enthusiasm.  I think if students were forced to be involved (by being called on) after the first week or so, folks might be prepared to answer more often.  I very often found myself correctly answering in my head, but naturally concerned myself with whether I was correct or not (this is probably more my problem than yours).  In classes where I experienced the most involvement by the students, I attribute the success of that involvement to the culture of the class.  I might also suggest a small percentage, perhaps 10-15% of the time, questions were somewhat vague and difficult to understand what exactly was being asked.

One way participation might improve would include a minor grade (maybe inclusive of the 5% grade for comment responses) which required students to reply to one other blog each week.  It wouldn't necessarily have to be meaningful, so you wouldn't have to grade the content, but it might help students feel more comfortable with each other and thus more comfortable to share in class.

In terms of assignments, I found the team project interesting and insightful about how theories on organizations might form.  I also think the project was also a great way to introduce us to real journal articles and help us learn how to interpret and the need for (possible) disagreement with the concepts.  The project also forced a discussion between myself and my teammate about the topics we had discussed in class, and allowed us to apply them together and work out the real-life applications.

The Excel homeworks became sneakingly more difficult as the class progressed and I found myself not only using the included text, but reaching out to other resources to find guidance.  I mostly found that when I could follow the math from beginning to end, I had more success.  When assumptions were made or equations given without derivation, I had difficulty understanding the concept and by working out the math myself or using some combination of an outside source, the excel text and my own derivations, I could understand concepts more clearly.  This is probably more specific to my talents/abilities because my brain functions on a much more math-based level.  The graphs in these homeworks were very helpful to visualize and further understand the concepts, especially those where we could adjust curves with up and down arrows.  I would estimate I spent a minimum of 1 hour, but normally two or three working on the excel homework and trying to understand the text within.

Blog posts were a great addition to this course.  I really liked sharing and thinking about how my real world experiences apply to the course material.  If the course is to be changed, this should definitely be included in the next iteration.  I spent most of the week thinking about what I would write about thinking through multiple scenarios (which also helped the material sink in) and then write about one of them in depth.  The time I spent writing was about two hours and I found, in the second half of the semester when I tied my writings to past concepts, the writing much more interesting.

Monday, November 23, 2015


As a manager for Walmart, I was constantly relying on my reputation and along with that, I had a constant flow of "cashing it in" and building it up again.  I will mainly discuss my reputation with my associates in this post.  One of the things I absolutely abhor about Walmart is its lack of respect and responsibility to its associates.

The culture mainly consisted of a disregard for associate needs and outside responsibilities.  What I mean by that is, if any associate wanted to go to college and work at Walmart, the company was (and still is) extremely unaccommodating to this end.  As a manager, I recognized this fact and maintained an open, communicative relationship with my employees, during which I expected my employees to inform me about any outside activities which I would accommodate time off to the best of my abilities.  There were many times when I took much of the blame from the store manager for having understaffed departments during the day (when my folks were in school) but I would be so bold as to suggest that my employees were the happiest employees in the store.  I maintained extremely low turnover and staff from other areas of the store wanted to work for me because they knew I was understanding of their needs.

I was also very understanding when an associate was late, and rarely gave them "points" toward a formal write-up for simply being late.  While it is possible for an associate to be terminated after showing up late just 10 times, I never gave points to my associates when they were late.  When tardiness became routine, I had frank discussions with my associates and explained the importance of their promptness.  They could see my side of the story and understand the pressures their tardiness imposed on those around them, and it made them want to come to work on time (even if it was out of guilt).

All of my understanding and willingness to help did not come free, though.  My employees knew that as a result of accommodating their needs, they would need to accommodate mine.  Once I felt I had given an employee enough, I would call upon them to give something in return.  Many times this involved working over night for two or three nights with me and a couple of peers to reset the floor displays.  Very rarely did an employee ever tell me that they weren't willing to help me during an extenuating circumstance, because I had done the same for them.

I realize this concept is very much like gift exchange which we've discussed in the past.  But, I think this applies here because the gift giving was reliant upon my dedication and reputation of helping my employees with their needs.  I also think this is very closely related to teamwork because each member of my team also had a reputation which they wanted to uphold to help the entire team.  I think guilt was a strong driving force for making my team successful, as they felt guilty if they ever let one of us down.  They also felt guilty about the possibility of tarnishing their reputation, if they did not do what I asked them to do during a given day.

Friday, November 6, 2015

The point of convergance

I have dealt with two different principals many, many times in my career/life.  This concept takes into account a number of previous items I posted on, so I may, at times, allude to or directly point out these facts during this real-life, triangle example.  Serving two principals over the course of the past three months took a toll on me, and I'm hopeful I can describe it in all it's glory!

On the first day on the job at Urban and Regional Planning, I became aware of the program's ongoing accreditation renewal.  The process began sometime in May, and before I arrived a report had been sent to the Planning Accreditation Board (PAB) and was under review by the Site Team Visit (SVT) in preparation for their visit to our department.  My boss told me I would be involved in the process, but since I had just begun, she wasn't sure to what extent.  Over the course of the next two months, I quickly became aware that the SVT's visit would lie squarely on my shoulders.  I connected with the Executive Director of the PAB and she provided me with a multitude of materials to read in order to plan an excellent visit.  On top of this was the Self-Study Report which our department put together and I needed to become aware of, per my boss.  At the onset, the reading wasn't difficult and understanding the logistics was something I had been familiar with in a previous position.  Very quickly, you will notice that I began receiving information from both sides, PAB and my Department, and each needed tending.  I also, filled my plate with new responsibilities in my new role, many of which required in-depth training or simply becoming familiar with office routines.

My boss assigned me the task of assembling the schedule for the team and organizing all meals, travel, and guests (PAB requires the team meet with employers, alumni, current students, faculty, Deans, Provosts, etc.)  During the initial planning stages, I prepared a Site Visit in direct accordance of the rules set forth by the manual provided to me by the Executive Director of PAB.  My boss told me she was happy with the schedule I had created and I reiterated to her that it checked off all of the bureaucratic boxes required by PAB.  With the satisfied schedule in hand I began contacting the groups of guests we would invite for the meetings, as well as faculty with their specific times.  I should add here, that I took the liberty to schedule around the faculty teaching schedules and this was appreciated by my boss and she gave me a "pat on the back" for taking this into consideration.  Upon receiving confirmations from all attendees, I forwarded the final schedule to the Executive Director of the PAB.  Here is where things got hairy...

The Executive Director told me that, while I did a good job scheduling all of the proper meetings, the days were too long for the SVT, and I would need to shave off time, by combining meetings of tenured faculty and shortening a couple of meetings.  After following these instructions, I reduced the scheduled work day.  Then, I explained to my boss that due to the combined meetings, there would be many faculty who may not be able to attend due to teaching commitments.  This was not acceptable to my boss, so I was once again back to the drawing board with my schedule.  (After about three iterations like this, the inefficiency became belligerent and I became more frustrated.)  Finally, I produced a schedule that was both acceptable to my boss as well as to the PAB, but there was one set of meetings I had yet to confirm: the Interim Provost and the Acting Dean of our College.  I wrote to the Assistant of these persons (who, in a way, acts as the head of UEO assistants and in turn, a boss-like figure) and she could not make the appointments happen the way I had scheduled them.  I explained this to the Executive Director of PAB and she refused to give me any wiggle room, and yet again, I rearranged the schedule.  In the end, I spent hundreds of hours undoing and redoing, and the inefficiencies that arose from such an arrangement, where I had to please both my boss and the PAB, were innumerable.

Conflict presented itself in this situation, but because the Accreditation Board had so much power over the program, we could not very easily go against their wishes, even when their wishes were nearly impossible to grant.  Conflict arose among our unit between myself and the UEO, because we did not agree on the best solutions, and conflict also arose between my boss and the PAB team because she felt they were being unreasonable.  My boss could not contact the team (due to confidentiality rules) which may have been a good thing since she was so frustrated.  But, as I said, this frustration could not be voiced or made obvious by even me, for fear it would affect the outcome of the accreditation review.  I would also have to suggest the PAB seemed to be operating opportunistically as they offered no room for compromise.  It was "their way or the highway" with total disregard for how it might affect our daily operation schedules.

The last thing I have to say about this situation is that it brought me and my boss closer because she saw how hard I worked to produce an excellent output, and we also learned how to solve problems together.  While we operate in a hierarchy type organizational structure, we still learned to problem-solve together and determine the best course of action for responding to the PAB in their requests, even though it was ultimately my responsibility for assembling the schedule and pleasing both principals.

In the end, I'm thrilled our accreditation Site Visit ended Wednesday and that I am relieved of the extreme amount of stress it brought me.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Conflict? What conflict? I didn't even know there was a problem...

From past posts, you know that I served as an Assistant Store Manager at Walmart for a number of years, so from that you might guess the number of conflicts I've encountered are innumerable.  And you'd be right!  But I'm not going to tell you about the daily conflicts I had with customers about not validating returns or associates that were upset by the instruction I gave them.  Instead, I will describe a conflict that ran much deeper and over a longer period of time.  And, as you might have guessed from the title, one I didn't know existed until after I tried to reprimand an associate for his actions.

The Background
To set the scene, so-to-speak, you should know I ran the night shift at the Champaign store where I successfully changed work performance of associates by improving shelf stocking accuracy and speed, in turn, directly impacted the sales to reflect the increased attention to detail.  As a result of this success, the Market Manager requested that I be transferred to the Urbana store.  The store experienced significant sales declines over the previous three quarters and managed more inventory than we housed at the Champaign store; a store that sells four times the amount of product.  When I arrived, I took time to determine the problems by observing tendencies of associates and performing private follow-up evaluations of their work.  The responsibilities of the overnight manager are extensive and his/her knowledge must be equally as extensive because s/he must oversee every area of operation, from maintenance to stocking to checkout procedures.  I took these responsibilities very seriously and noted that maintenance concerned me more than anything else in the store.  More often than not, daily tasks went incomplete without punishment, and the maintenance associates consistently distracted the folks responsible for stocking the shelves.  While I did not perform teach/train moments like I did with stocking associates, I typically gave them goals and expressed my disappointment when they went unfulfilled.  Looking back, I realize now, the lack of teaching/training brought me to the conflict.

What was the conflict?
The two maintenance associates, we'll call them Joe and Lucy, worked side-by-side, day in and day out.  They talked while they slowly pushed brooms, they stopped to talk to stockers, they even stopped to watch TV, and worst of all, they were negative Nancys.  Shelf-stockers were constantly influenced by Joe and Lucy, always being told that it didn't matter what we did, we'd still get in trouble, and that I was a terrible manager because I was too young to know anything.  Reflecting now, I don't take offense to that, because I was young, I didn't know everything, but I worked darn hard to learn as much as I could (and I was a manager, while he continued to push a broom around).  I tried repeatedly to make Joe and Lucy understand the importance of everyone's jobs and the reasons we needed to put our best foot forward.  When I would have such discussions, I received little to no response, so I assumed they heard me and yet I still observed no improved performance.

Finally, one day, a shelf-stocker (call him Eric) came to me and told me that he observed Joe and Lucy standing in Pharmacy talking to another shelf-stocker.  He indicated the topic of conversation was my managerial ability and style and from the sound of it, they were unpleased and trying to convince the stocker to think the same way.  In an effort to halt the poor attitude and attempt to stop it from spreading, I pulled Joe and Lucy in to the office (separately, due to Walmart policy) with one of my support staff managers.  During the conversation I explained to each Joe and Lucy, that I had information that they had been disrespectful and trying to undermine my authority.  Lucy seemed extremely receptive to the conversation (I was visibly upset and strongly encouraged her to communicate her understanding with me).  The conversation ended very cordially and I felt I achieved my goal.  Then I pulled Joe in to the office, and that's when it happened.  For the first time, Joe responded to my frustration with his performance, but not how I had hoped.  Joe used a wide variety of "colorful" language that I will refrain from posting.  The long and short--clearly he had been upset with me and the general operations of the store for a very long time (it turns out the length of time directly correlates with the beginning of a new female store manager).  During the course of all of my interactions with him, he never once communicated his disapproval of my actions or managerial style, but during this conversation, he seemed to blurt out all of the pent-up frustrations.  Because it was pent-up anger he was very disrespectful, spoke erratically and with unclear thoughts filled with angry emotions.  In the end his disrespect in the meeting earned him a formal write up.  I intended to resolve the problem by discussing with him, my disapproval of his actions as I had done in the past, but because he never spoke his concerns in the past, he couldn't control his emotions.  Naturally, the formal write-up only made him more angry and I took the heat of several nasty threats.

What next...
Coincidentally, the Store Manager determined I fixed the problems in her overnight crew, shortly thereafter, and I was moved to the day shift to correct issues happening there.  This occurred only two weeks after the "blow up" and I was thrilled to be rid of the responsibility for Joe.  He never once spoke to me again, I tried to say "hi" when I arrived in the mornings, and was greeted with a cold stare.  Fortunately, I grew extremely thick skin while working for Walmart and reactions like this fail to affect me the way the delivery is meant.

What could've been different?
There are many things that could have gone differently, most notably: Joe should have voiced his concern during the multiple opportunities I gave him throughout our working together.  I think I could have been more "in tune" with his feelings in order to understand that he felt this way and was very upset, but I think that would've been far beyond my formal training in psychology, which is nil.  If I had known he was going to be so angry, I could have met with him and Lucy on the floor in a more informal fashion to decrease the chances of him becoming so vulgar.  I think the biggest problem though, was that he was purely unhappy with his job, and there were, more-than-likely, personal problems happening which I was blithely unaware of.  Overall, communication would have done each of us a huge favor in reducing the level of stress we created for each other.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Working together pays off

Let's consider the case of a "team" project for a college course in which the team needs to create a written assignment.  This team consists of two contributors and each is equally knowledgeable of applicable material pertaining to the project and each is equally as talented in the field of writing about the subject-matter.

In order to get the highest grade there must be a level of coordination during the project.  Coordination is crucial because if one student has to do all the work, then he will "whistle-blow" on his non-contributive partner and the teacher will have to give him a failing grade as a result of the effort, or lack-there-of.  If both students were to contribute equally, it will create some work to integrate the thoughts of each into one cohesive written assignment, but they will feel equally accomplished and take pride in the final project as a result of collaboration and problem resolution.  In the theory given by the "How to Get the Rich to Share," the students will each give their best efforts in order to both receive a high grade.  This is a result of the fact that one student may be a phenomenal writer while the other understands the theory of the subject matter.  One will contribute his writing skills with the understanding that in return the other will contribute his knowledge of the subject.  By both maintaining high levels of skill in different areas the two can engage in a simple gift exchange where they both gain by putting forth best efforts.

As I said, this is simply a theory and I have found that this does not tend to be the case (especially when expanded to include more than three players).  Last year, I involved myself in a two person writing project which was later followed by a powerpoint presentation.  While my partner certainly was knowledgeable about the subject matter, she displayed through her efforts during the project, that she did not care about the class.  I tried, repeatedly, to get her involved in the project, but simply could not give her enough encouragement to put the effort forth.  This is a case where I pulled both ends of the rope myself, and because I'm a nice guy, I didn't "whistle-blow" on her.  Looking back, maybe that was a mistake.  Maybe I should've told the professor we were having issues, but at some point it just doesn't seem worth it to me to spend my time telling on someone else.  The way I look at it...she'll get what's coming to her eventually.  I would imagine that she didn't fair very well in the class anyway, since the project was only about 15% of our grade.  But, alas, maybe that was the problem, had the professor increased the value of the project, maybe she would've tried harder.  In the end I knew I was proud of the work and I knew I earned the A, but she was going to have to live with her actions.

I would say that this is generally how things work in a position where you are incentivized with money.  Those that want the extra money (in my case, high grade) will work harder than the others, and those that don't care and are happy with their minimum paycheck, just keep chugging along.

On the other hand, if the entire group is strong, it presents the proposed theory in the article.  This goes back to a post where I talked about my positive office-mates, where we kept each other strong by sharing our bits of knowledge to make the others in our office better.  If we had one weak link, she may not have stopped the other two of us, but she certainly would not reap the benefits.  In that case, we did share the marbles, and as a result all three of us have been promoted.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Income risk aversion...

I faced career altering (and in turn life-altering) decisions many years ago and, in this post will discuss some of the decisions I made in the moment and some that I made to manage (and in many cases, not manage) future income risk.

Before I graduated high school, I "knew" what I wanted to be.  I convinced myself mechanical engineering would be best suited for my strengths in math and science.  And in my naivete, it seemed that engineering was the logical and only answer to what I should do.  Of course, when I originally made the decision to pursue this degree, there was a level of risk aversion that played in to my train of thought. The starting salaries of engineers was among the highest of all majors, so I was immediately hooked.  By choosing this career path, I knew I'd make a lot of money!  100 credit hours and two engineering internships later, I realized engineering was NOT for me.  I didn't like anything about my internships and I despised the real world experience.  

Instead of continuing my degree and accepting the guaranteed salary in a field I hated, I took a position with Walmart in management.  I didn't have any experience in the field, but the salary, in the moment, was enough to justify quitting school and pursuing a career with the company.  This was not something I was particularly proud of, but I knew if I would quit school, the supplemental income from my parents would soon cease to exist, so I had to find a job. Fortunately for me, this job paid well enough that I didn't feel too terribly guilty and I swore I would go back to school once I decided what field would better suit me.

It took me five years to decide that I needed to go back to school in the field of Economics, but what got me there?  Walmart began changing it's policies for management and it would be more difficult for me to continue climbing the ladder.  While I did promote 5 times during my time with the company, it became clear the end of the line had come, (or would soon come) for me.  Here is where I made my biggest decision to avoid income risk.  I took a 10k dollar pay cut to leave my job and work for the University.  While the nominal value seems high, I determined that the value of receiving a degree with a waived tuition was worth far more than my pay cut.  Additionally, the possibility of larger salaries in the future is a reality at the University unlike the inevitable at Walmart.

At Walmart, there was zero job security.  I could have been fired at any moment, for any reason.  To me, the job security far out-weighed the pay.  With the University's clear-cut structure, it was also obvious that I could continue to work my way through the system and make a significant amount more than I would've ever made with Walmart (without my degree).

That all being said, after I complete my degree in Economics, I may consider returning to Walmart in the future as a consultant at their corporate offices.  Offices with more job security and greater opportunities to "climb the ladder."

I think many would say I made the "wrong" choice in the moment, when I decided to work for Walmart many years ago, but I think it was the best "wrong" decision I ever made.  I figured out what I like to do, while maintaining a livable salary, and then found a suitable solution to avoid future income risk, despite a slight salary setback.  Needless-to-say, I will walk away debt free from college knowing what I'm good at.  The lesson I learned was valuable and, in the end, I feel I will come away happier.

I must add to this, emotions are one thing economics seems to struggle with.  Emotions play a vital role in daily decisions of not only individuals, but organizations too.  I find myself constantly writing about my emotions in these blogs, which is not something that can easily be addressed by economic theory.  We can however, rank our preferences, which is one way that determining a level of "happiest" is strategically possible.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Illinibucks to bucks in my pocket!

What would happen if the University of Illinois gave "Illinibucks" to each of its students to use on any campus resources?  Given the variety of possibilities, a massive number of transaction costs would necessarily be incurred by the campus to regulate the use of these "monies."  I will address these costs toward the end of this post, but for now, I would like to share my thoughts on what might be considered an item, or head-of-line, candidate.

The obvious candidate is registering for classes.  But, when we actually consider this possibility, we might find it not to be a valid candidate at all.  Allow me to, briefly, explain.  If all students were allocated the same number of Illinibucks to be spent on any service provided by the University, I believe the following would happen: students who consider registration for their preferred classes a top priority, would be willing to spend all of their Illinibucks on this service to get to the head of the line.  But if everyone has the same amount then there will still be hundreds of students "tied" for first, and presumably, the tie breaker would be class-standing, just as it is now.  Rendering Illinibucks useless for registration purposes.  As a University employee, I am very familiar with the patterns of student registration, those that deem it a priority, register as soon as possible after their time ticket, and those that don't care about which classes they take, wait until the first week of classes.  Due to these patterns of all-or-nothing, I believe it can be assumed that if students had Illinibucks, there would be little to no change in the registration process.

Fair candidates that might be considered for eligibility in the Illinibucks program could include tickets to sporting events and important campus events (career fairs, quad day, etc.).  I believe these to be good candidates as there is a middle-ground ranking of priority for students on these types of events.  Some students will find them more important than others, and it would be more likely that a varied number of Illinibucks would be offered in exchange for a certain place in line.

Candidates I believe to be ideal for this program would be internet access, access to library books (specifically those required for classes), and processing paperwork pertinent to specific student status(es).  I believe these to be excellent candidates because they are not always needed and encourage use of Illinibucks on educational enhancement.  They also provide the most viable option for "price" setting by the University.  At a certain price minimum there will be students that do not feel the price is worth it, and others that would pay more than the minimum to be at the head of the line.  A price set too high would create a huge surplus and maybe some students would never use the services, finding ways around it by using internet at home or purchasing books online to avoid the hassle of Illinibucks.  A price set too low would cause an enormous shortage and it would naturally drive prices up, possibly causing auction-style bidding for the services.

I would use my Illinibucks to be the first in line to rent the required texts from the library.  I really don't like spending money on textbooks and would much prefer to rent them so, to me, saving money is the priority.  To many, spending their Illinibucks on a social activity would be much more valuable, but my financial obligations mean my social activities have a much lower opportunity cost if I forgo them.  So in essence, I would find every which way to turn Illinibucks in to actual, real, dollars saved.