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September 30, 2011
Do You Know Peter?

Reading The Peter Principle Revisited: A Computational Study made me regret that "fashions" in business-think mean this valuable insight is much less familiar to today's workforce than it was to my young one.

This analysis--combining ecology, game theory, and computer science--is a way of looking at the Principle that I don't think was possible thirty or forty years ago. Fascinating.

A lot of scattered thoughts--going nowhere in particular with any of them.

Although the article does a good job of summing up the principle in the Abstract, let me add my own definition: "In traditional corporate structure, any highly competent employee will be promoted into failure."

The part that I'm thinking about today--I never quite looked at it like this before--is the underlying corporate perception that someone who is a good worker will be good at any job. That people who are "good" at something are just, you know, naturally good at things.

It's a very Liberal Arts approach, isn't it?

Hard science says that a molecular biologist--even a brilliant one--is not qualified to work as a nuclear physicist. The Liberal Arts say, "you can do anything if you know how to think."

University business studies programs have always been an attempt to take the Liberal Arts "if think-then do" approach and apply it to a specific set of situations--the corporate world.

This has been good for business and for labor in a number of ways, not the least of which has been the ability of workers to shift or outright change job responsibilities from one company to the next. If you were "good" at your last job, you're more likely to be "good" at this one. This approach has also allowed businesses to widen the pool of candidates for each job opening--and the wider the selection, the more likely they were to find the "perfect" candidate.

In a world where work is becoming increasingly specialized--but where the labor force is becoming increasingly unwilling to be pigeon-holed and filed into categories--how is this going to shake out?

It may become irrelevant--traditional corporate structures could be dying out.

The entrepreneurial push--the drive for all of us, no matter how unfit*, to "be my own boss" is part of the trend. The fact that many of today's most successful corporations are taking a nontraditional approach to hiring and retaining their labor force is another--flexible hours, remote workplaces, independent projects, etc., are virtually eliminating the traditional career ladder.

Of course, the previous generation (mine and the one before me) are still active and many of these people are the ones running today's companies and corporations. They still have OldThink mindsets, so this Principle is still an active factor in today's business world.

(I know this for a fact because I'm desperately fighting against being promoted out of my own area of competence at the moment.

The company (management consisting largely of Old White Guys) wants me to step up their ladder. I'm not interested in their ladder, or that step. I've been there and it was boring and I was bad at it and I have no interest in seeing the view from that ledge again.)

(Thus, we see that the Peter Principle is not, as the article says, unavoidable. If people refuse to be promoted into failure, then it's avoidable.)

(Sadly, not everyone is as aware of their limitations as I am of mine--but I was less aware of mine twenty or thirty years ago, so maybe I'm being unreasonable.)

I wonder if the next generation will be able to break out of this corporate mold when they're the ones at the top? Are they drinking the kool-aid or are they just biding their time, waiting their turn?

Will we someday see IBM with badminton courts in the middle of the corporate office courtyard and employees working to the job--not the clock--and half their staff logging into today's video-meeting from a park, a coffee shop, or a home office 500 miles away?

Will it be the next generation--or the one after that, or the one after that?

Like I said. Random thoughts. Leading nowhere in particular.


* Because I'm cynical and disillusioned, it's my personal guess that 10% or less of the workplace is fit to be their own boss.

Anyone, for instance, who imagines sleeping late every morning, working when their favorite soap opera isn't on or it's too rainy to go golfing, "firing" clients they don't like, and having a lot of free time? Is too clueless to go it alone.

Anyone who, when the boss is out of the office, takes that opportunity to spend three hours chatting with co-workers and anyone who sneaks in four hours of social media updates, personal email and texting, during the average workday--they should not go it alone.

If you don't work when no one is watching you? You'll never make it on your own.

Anyhow. The "American Dream" used to be for people to own a house. Now it's to own their own business. Why can't we dream of world peace, an end to hunger, curing disease, something like that? Sheesh.

Posted by AnneZook at 11:01 AM


I cite the Peter Principle frequently enough: it's deeply embedded in the university system, which takes effective teachers and researchers and turns them into managers. Sometimes it works....

But the increasing use of academic day-labor (class-by-class adjunct hires, etc.) means that the Tenure-track faculty -- from which administrators traditionally came -- is shrinking, so it's getting more and more likely that anyone with a pulse will get tagged for administrative duties, and if they show any skill whatsoever, more administrative duties....

Posted by: Ahistoricality at September 30, 2011 12:02 PM

Well, according to this new analysis, corporations have a less-disastrous impact on their own productivity if they promote randomly instead of promoting "the best."

Universities might wind up having to hire actual administrators from outside the system--could have an interesting impact.

Posted by: Anne at September 30, 2011 01:25 PM