Kiss Me, Kill Me, Multiskill Me – Why Progress Is A March Backwards And It Has Very Little To Do With Bono From U2
Bono and I must never meet. If he and I were ever in the same room, I would launch myself at him, tackle him to the ground and smash his head repeatedly on the floor screaming : “People with access to private jet planes do not get to bang on about the environment!” It would be a purely reflex action. Absolutely nothing I could do about it. As it goes, the likelihood of me meeting Bono is vanishingly small. I’ll leave you to decide how you feel about that.
The title of this post is not an oblique reference to U2’s 1995 hit “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me”. It is an order of preference. I’d rather be kissed than killed. Rather be killed than multiskilled.
This doesn’t mean that I would rather die than learn a series of new abilities. The more strings a chap has to his bow, the more interesting he is. Provided he doesn’t drone on about them too much. Self improvement is a good and noble thing as long as it’s something that happens on your own terms and under your own steam. The kind of Multiskilling I’m talking about is the work variety, and no one undergoes it voluntarily unless they are some kind of emotional masochist.
If you don’t know what multiskilling is, then first of all you are very very lucky. Second of all, this is how it works. Your company will embark on an extensive training programme. You will go on courses and get in-house qualifications and at first you will feel special because it appears that an interest is finally being taken in your career development. This is just a smokescreen.
Later on down the line, you will begin to notice that you are being asked to do more and more little things that you wouldn’t normally have to do. Then you will further notice that the company you work for is not recruiting as much as it used to. Then not recruiting at all, no matter how many people leave. And eventually everyone will be able to do everything, really badly. There’ll be so many holes in the company infrastructure that everybody spends all day running around to fill the gaps left by everybody running around to fill the gaps. Like a merry-go-round that you can’t get off no matter how dizzy and sick you get.
This whole rigmarole will be touted as progress. “We are lean, we are streamlined, we are hungry”. Which is true in a way; there’s no time for a lunch break. It’s not progress though. It’s a massive leap backwards. A leap of about two centuries in fact.
Great Britain has invented many things. The locomotive. The programmable computer. The seed drill (invented by a man called Jethro Tull. Always makes me titter, that fact). But one of the important things we invented was Division of Labour. Instead of one person making something from scratch, the process is split into stages and a person does each stage. Objects can be manufactured and things can be done in a fraction of the time and at a fraction of the price. In short, Great Britain invented the concept of a job. It’s what powered the industrial revolution and enabled a tiny, damp group of islands to rule over the biggest empire in the history of the world.
What’s the point of Adam Smith writing “The Wealth of Nations” in 1776 – a book so important we put the man on the back of the £20 note- if we go ahead and reverse the beneficial effect of his economic advice and start multiskilling people? Effectively turning them back from specialists into poor quality artisans. We might as well move back into little huts in the woods and start bodging our own table legs again. Though that might be marginally preferable to shopping at IKEA.
I’m not saying there’s no room at all for multiskilling in a modern workplace. Specialization presents its own vulnerabilities. If the person that does that important thing which absolutely has to be done at all costs rings in sick, then it’s good that someone else might know how to do it at least well enough to hold the fort until they get back. But using multiskilling as a strategy for cutting the wage bill is, if you take it too far, self defeating and annoying. Though not as self defeating or annoying as Bono out of U2.
© Copyright Michael Grimes 2013