Public sector strike – dealing with a 21st Century workforce
by Prof Barry Dwolatzky
We live in the “Information Age”. Modern organisations rely – or should rely – on a workforce with specialised knowledge and skills. Information Age employees need to be carefully recruited, grown, nurtured and retained.
These observations are particularly relevant as we enter the third week of major industrial action by unions in South Africa’s public service. Over the past fortnight we’ve seen more than a million government employees – health workers, teachers, and other staff – down tools in support of a demand for higher wages.
In responding to this increasingly bitter strike we need to be careful not to get swept away by our emotions – I, like many others, find the sight of closed schools and chaos at public hospitals extremely disturbing and unpleasant. We need instead to focus beyond this strike and the short-term issues. While public attention is focused on the size of the wage increase being demanded, there are other more fundamental issues at stake.
Many public sector workers are knowledge workers. They are not employed to deliver tangible products, but rather to provide services. Government is increasingly under pressure to efficiently and effectively deliver a range of services to the country’s citizens.
At the heart of a successful service-oriented organisation – like a Government Department – is a skilled and motivated workforce. Gone are the days when managers could recruit anyone and put them to work after a few days of on-the-job training. It is essential to ensure that people, processes, technology and the organisational culture are aligned in achieving service delivery goals.
This alignment has received attention in some parts of the knowledge economy. The IT sector – an important part of the knowledge economy – has made some progress in understanding and achieving this alignment. The public sector in South Africa has, in my opinion, not even started to understand the nature of work in a modern organisation.
The current strike in the public sector highlights a failure on the part of Government to understand that its greatest asset is its workforce. How are teachers treated in our society? How are nurses and policemen treated? What importance do we attach to a job that attracts low wages and poor working conditions?
Where should Government start in improving the situation once the current strike is over? There is obviously no “quick fix”. Spending priorities in our national budget will need to be re-thought and adapted over many years.
However, one useful starting point would be for Government to understand how some IT companies around the world have gone about building modern service-oriented organisations. The Software Engineering Institute (SEI) in the USA has developed a process improvement model called the “People Capability Maturity Model”, or People CMM. This is a roadmap for implementing workforce practices that continuously improve the capability of an organisation’s workforce.
The People CMM guides organisations in improving their processes for managing and developing their workforce. It enables organisations to attract, develop, organise, motivate, and retain the workforce required to build its products and deliver its services today and in the future. Through an integrated system of practices that are introduced in stages, improvements in process and workforce performance are enacted that facilitate alignment with an organisation’s culture, business objectives, and strategic needs.
At the JCSE (www.jcse.org.za) we have been learning about People CMM from the SEI. We have now trained local instructors and consultants. I believe that Government would gain a great deal by working with us to learn more about People CMM and finding ways to adopt it within our public sector.
The strike we are all struggling to deal with at the moment should never have happened if both Government and public sector workers themselves understood the nature and priorities of developing a modern workforce in the 21st Century. Once the strike is over – and it will be over sometime soon – we need to be careful not to simply slip into old habits. We need to learn the lessons and start to change our public service.