While people get knocked back because of their age, many older executives take such a negative approach to finding a job that they damage their own prospects.

That’s what Denis Baker the employment consultant and author of “Personal Job Hunting” told me when I interviewed him for a Sydney Morning Herald story on the problems facing older knowledge workers.

Baker says he has seen a number of 50-plus executives find employment in recent years.

Defensive interviews

“I’ve seen people who have gone to job interviews and started out on the defensive. They apologise for their age rather than talk about the positives they have to offer. And they do have a lot to offer. Older people don’t just have technical work skills; they’ve usually picked up a lot of life skills along the way that translate well to the workplace.”

Baker says older job seeker should not list work experience but prepare personal skill inventories. They should also list skills acquired outside the workforce. “Employers are often looking for initiative, so think of ways you can show this quality.”

One other important factor is to show an ability to listen and learn. Baker says younger managers are wary of hiring older executives who constantly tell them how to do things, although if the candidate shows willing and can diplomatically pass on expertise, that’s a big plus.

Remember:

  1. Don’t apologise about being old.
  2. Prepare a list of all the technical work skills you’ve accumulated over the years.
  3. Create a similar inventory of your life skills showing what else you can bring to the workplace.
  4. Show that while you may be an old dog, you can still learn new tricks.

Converting documents from one format to another can be hard.

Sometimes the problem is incompatibilities between different generations of the same application. Microsoft Word 2007’s docx file format isn’t automatically readable in older version of Word. The same is true for files generated by Excel 2007 and PowerPoint 2007.

When you know in advance a colleague uses an earlier application version, you can choose to do the polite thing and save your document in the older format. This backward compatibility is built-in to Word 2007. Most applications offer similar backward compatibility.

Backward compatibility – up to a point

This is fine in theory, but you’ll either have to remember which format each colleague can use or you’ll just have to send everything in the older format. The problem with this approach is important things in the newer document format may go missing during translation to the older format.

If someone sends you a unopenable docx file – and you’re running an older, yet still reasonably up-to-date version of Word, you’ll only be able to work with the file if you’ve downloaded the Microsoft Office Compatibility Pack. This will also work with your Excel and PowerPoint files.

Things can be harder when converting files between applications from rival software companies or between applications running on different operating systems.

Not all software companies go out of their way to may conversion simple. Dealing with ancient documents from long-deceased operating systems is almost impossible. For example, I’ve got MS-Dos Wordperfect and Planperfect files that I can no longer read.

Text, the lowest common denominator

Some geeks by-pass conversion problems by sticking with lowest-common-denominator file formats. Just about every application on any kind of operating system or hardware device that deals with text, from supercomputers to mobile phones and mp3 players can cope with data stored as plain text (.txt) files.

Plain text is enjoying something of a revival  thanks to the popularity of texting and similar lo-fi applications.

Text makes sense if you don’t need to keep style formatting information such as fonts, character sizes and bold or italic characters in your documents. An alternative low-end file format allowing some basic style formatting is .rtf, the rich text format. This was originally developed by Microsoft some 20 years ago to allow documents to move between different operating systems and it is still present as an option in just about every application that uses text today.

While I can no longer read my ancient Wordperfect files, I have recently found prehistoric documents from the early 1980s when I ran the CP/M operating system and a program called WordStar. Because they were stored as text files, they are still readable.

If Niccolo Machiavelli was alive today he might have written: “What they don’t teach you at renaissance prince college”.

Or he may have gone for the easy dollar and written “How to be a complete bastard”. Perhaps he might have opted for “Seven secrets of highly effective courtiers”.

Machiavelli lived 500 years ago. For renaissance writers, the only market that mattered was the rich and powerful. Even so, any of those above modern-sounding titles might do for his best-known work, “The Prince”.

The Bill Gates of Machiavelli’s day was a renaissance prince (strictly speaking he was a duke but that’s splitting hairs) called Lorenzo Medici.

Medici had just taken over as ruler of Florence after a period when the city-state had operated as a republic. Lorenzo Medici was rich and well-connected. His uncle was Pope in an era when the Vatican controlled most of the known world.

Self-help book for renaissance leaders

Machiavelli wrote several books, but the best remembered was his self-help book for renaissance leaders. In many respects “The Prince” was the first modern management textbook. It’s as fresh and as relevant today as it was in the 1600s.

Some think the first management title was Sun Tzu’s “The Ancient Art of War”. But, a book written two or three millennia ago hardly qualifies as modern. Sun Tzu’s advice is more overtly aimed at military leadership than Machiavelli’s. The militaristic management style is much associated with the old economy where managers strutted around commanding people.

The important point about The Prince is Machiavelli was conscious of the delicate politics of 16th Century Florence. As he pointed out, it didn’t matter that Medici had a powerful military grip on Florence, Medici needed to keep the nobles onside so he could call on their help – either to get things done or in times of emergency.

Like a modern CEO

In other words, Medici was in the same position as the CEO of a knowledge-based company. He had power, but not absolute power. He depended on the skills and resources of others for his own security.

In modern language, he had stakeholders to satisfy.

The Prince remains relevant to our modern, knowledge-based economy.

Let’s look at how some examples from The Prince apply to the Knowledge Economy:

  • Ruthless revenge. Machiavelli recommends leaders either indulge individuals or destroy them. He says that because people are able to get revenge for small injuries done to them, you are left with no choice by to demolish any challenger immediately you cross swords. Anything less than total domination means they can and will get their own back. To see how ruthlessness works in practice think of how Microsoft operated in the software market.
  • Machiavelli said republics; particularly former republics, are difficult to control. He said you have two strategy options: destroy them or live there in person. Machiavelli said that people who have lived in republics are dangerous because they can remember what liberty feels like. Replace the idea of a republic with a freewheeling, democratic company recently taken over by a rival and you’ll see how this applies to Knowledge Workers.
  • Outsourcing. Machiavelli talked about mercenary soldiers, but his words might apply to contractors; “Their allegiance is fickle, their own self-preservation precedes the cause of their employers and it is in their interests to extend a war and not to end it.”

Cynical

Machiavelli’s name has become a byword for a cynical and treacherous style of carrying on.

Yet some scholars think he didn’t advocate this kind of behaviour; he was merely documenting the unvarnished truth about what was necessary for success.

Machiavelli’s honesty makes the book astonishing. Although the old-fashioned language can be tiresome, there are good translations which make for a rattling good read.

Some advice: Go and read this book before your rivals, and, more frighteningly, your colleagues do.

Brainstorming is essential no matter what industry you work in. Sooner or later you will need to generate new ideas. Dreaming up new products and services is an important part of any commercial venture. But there’s more to creative thinking than pure innovation. These days careers depend on an ability to conjure up something original.

Even if you work in a business where little changes from year to year, one day you will rub up against a problem needing fresh thinking.

Imagination comes naturally to many people, but not everyone has the gift. The good news is that even people who think they lack creativity are capable of fresh insights. It’s partly a matter of practice. But it also depends on finding clever ways to shed the creativity-hindering baggage.

Brainstorming is one of the best tools for doing this. It’s a technique that has often proved its worth over the past 60 years. It has evolved into an essential workplace discipline. Most of the world’s leading companies use it everyday. So do artists, writers, actors and other professionals who need to generate fresh ideas by the truck-load.

You can buy software designed to speed or smooth brainstorming, yet it’s possible to brainstorm without tools. All you need are two or more active brains, some ground rules and a little imagination.

Advertising started it

The first brainstorming sessions took place in the advertising industry more than 60 years ago. In the 1930s, an advertising executive called Alex Osborn found himself becoming frustrated with the way meetings called to develop advertising strategies often stymied and not helped develop fresh ideas.

At the time, executives would hold a formal business meeting and work through an agenda. The strict managerial hierarchies of the day meant juniors would defer to seniors. Speaking out of turn could be career-limiting. Many people were too frightened to speak out so they kept their bright ideas to themselves.

Often, concepts would be discussed in a highly combative way, so that the last man left standing (in those days it was always a man) would get his way. Usually this would be the most senior person in the room or perhaps the person with the most aggressive personality. Alternatively people would come to the meeting with great ideas, but the politics of the meeting saw them work towards a compromise — in the process the ideas would be so diluted that there was little substance left.

Osborn had a master’s degree in philosophy and a great interest in the mechanics of imagination and creativity. He realised that the barriers to inspiration needed to broken down so he devised a simple set of rules.

Brainstorming session

The process defined by Osborn’s four rules was known as a “brainstorming session”. His basic set of four ideas remains the core of modern brainstorming today and its application now goes way beyond advertising. You’ll find brainstorming being used in every area of commerce, in government and even in academia.

Sydney-based problem solving facilitator John Sleigh teaches companies how to use brainstorming, he also conducts sessions. He uses Osborn’s four main rules and adds the requirement of recording all contributions so that they are clearly visible to all participants. He says, “You need a flip chart, a white board or better still, an electronic white board. When I started out in the 1970s we used to clip sheets of butcher’s paper to a table and write ideas there with a marker pen. In some ways the paper flip chart is the most user-friendly brainstorming tool of all.”

When Sleigh runs a brainstorming session he starts by asking participants “what are the issues?” He says, “I just stand there and get people to call things out. People who have done it before have no trouble with this. All the ideas are written on the flip chart or white board so that everyone can see everything.”

Anything goes

The next stage is to get people to think about possible ways of solving the problems; the rule is that anything goes. Sleigh says running a brainstorming session is different from conducting a formal business meeting and people sometimes have difficulty adjusting to the style. It requires a little training, but that shouldn’t take more than an hour. He says once people are freed of convention the ideas flow thick and fast.

If the brainstorming session is specifically geared towards solving a problem, Sleigh gets participants to define success and failure in their own words. He asks them, “What does good look like?” and the answers also go on the flip chart. Then, “What does bad look like?” All these replies and the other to earlier questions are made into one long list of ideas, the second half of the meeting is what he calls the “tidy-up”; a process of sifting through these ideas, imposing order on the elements and looking for improvements.

Sleigh says the first part of the brainstorming process is about getting people’s thoughts to diverge; the second part is to make them converge.

Brainstorming in groups

It’s possible to conduct a good brainstorming session with just three people, but experts say it is more effective with a larger group of people. If you’re organising a session inside a large organisation, it’s important to get a range of people at different levels and with different responsibilities to take part because you want the subject to be looked at from as many angles as possible.

A relaxed atmosphere is essential. Some organisations have special brainstorming rooms with bean bags or comfy chairs and begin sessions by playing mood music or serving tea and biscuits. You want people to feel that they can say silly things, so one useful technique is to start the session by doing something slightly crazy like giving everyone a funny hat. A more sober but equally effective loosening up might be to start by asking people to describe their favourite pet.

There are many different styles of running a brainstorming session. Some leaders ask people to think privately about matters for a set period before switching to a group session. Other go straight to the group. In some organisations the process is a chaotic free-for-all. In others everyone is asked to contribute to the discussion before someone can speak a second time. Some managers have tried technical solutions that work somewhat like an online discussion group operating in real-time. There are also idea-generating software packages like Idea Fisher which stimulate free thinking. All of these approaches are valid, brainstorming is not a one-size-fits-all technique.

Hardest part

Perhaps the hardest part of running a brainstorming session lies in knowing when to stop. You need to make sure you generate enough ideas, but it’s good to halt the session when no more new material is forthcoming. One strategy is to impose a fixed time limit on the meeting and work towards a deadline — this can concentrate minds wonderfully. Half an hour should be enough for most sessions, but you might need a little longer if you have a large group of participants.

Most brainstorming sessions wrap up with a list of the better ideas. Depending on your goals this might be the single best suggestion, a top three, top five or even ten items.

This post is an edited version of a story I wrote in the early 2000s for the now-defunct Communiqué magazine.

Brainstorming Links

Brainstorming.co.uk Be warned this site is plug ugly (it still has a mid-90s web look and feel). However it is  useful offering a free brainstorming tutorial and a good jumping off point for beginners.

Edward de Bono Famous for inventing lateral thinking, Edward de Bono promotes alternatives to traditional thought processes. There’s a wealth of material here, but it primarily exists to sell books and consulting.

Idea mapping is a powerful brainstorming tool for sorting through and organising thoughts. You can use it for something as simple as writing a homework essay.

Top Ten Brainstorming Techniques A list of smart ideas to get your brainstorming sessions cooking.

What’s wrong with brainstorming? A constructive criticism of brainstorming.

The Four Rules of Brainstorming

  • Defer Judgement: recognising that good ideas could often wither on the vine, Osborn told meeting participants not to criticise anything that someone else said — at least not during the early stages of a meeting. This means that people can feel confident about putting tentative ideas forward for discussion without fear of being made to feel stupid.
  • Free-wheeling: Osborn knew some of the best ideas come from left-field. So he encouraged people to throw every idea into the mix, no matter how wacky. In fact, he believed the more left-field the idea the better. He is famous for having told participants at an early meeting that it is far easier to tame a wild idea than to make a tame idea wilder.
  • Quantity is important: the more ideas that come up, the greater likelihood that one or more of them contains the best answer. One aspect of creativity is that quantity can be the same thing as quality. Osborn encouraged people to think up lots of ideas and sift through them afterwards.
  • Consolidation and Cross-fertilization: Osborn understood that some of the best creative breakthroughs occur when a second mind builds on an earlier idea or when two different ideas are combined in a new way.

Your Brain

If your brain was a PC, optimising its performance would be easy. You’d start by backing-up important files, cleaning out the recycle bin and defragging the hard drive. Then you’d search for unnecessary bits of code swallowing valuable processor cycles. Next you’d check all your important programs and drivers are up to date. After that you’d schedule regular preventative maintenance breaks to stave off problems before they appear. Finally you’d install a decent anti-virus program and a firewall to keep everything safe from harm.

Thankfully, human brains do most of their necessary maintenance work on autopilot. That’s good news because with as many as 100 billion neurons to play with, your brain is considerably more complex than any existing computer and it doesn’t come with much documentation. However, there are things you can do to improve on the autopilot and keep your grey matter ticking over at maximum efficiency.

The first is to ensure you get enough good quality sleep. Research studies show that even a small amount of sleep loss has a devastating effect on divergent or creative thinking. It takes longer to find key insights and reach decisions. Exactly how much sleep you need depends on your own body, but you should target a minimum of eight hours before any creative work.

Your diet can have a major impact on your ability to think. A well-balanced nutritional diet helps thought processes. Unlike most body cells, brain neurons don’t reproduce so not eating properly can kill your creativity.

Neurotransmitters

Brain neurotransmitters are largely made up of amino acids; you can replenish these by eating eggs, fresh milk, liver, kidneys and cheese. Other good sources are cereals, some kinds of nuts, soybeans and brewers’ yeast. There’s some truth in the old wives’ tale about fish being good for the brain. It has a chemical called Di-Methyl-Amino-Ethanol which is linked to learning, memory and intelligence, it can also increase alertness. Avoid carbohydrates, they tend to cause drowsiness.

Caffeine is a sure-fire way to get the brain moving quickly. Research shows people think faster and clearer after a cup or two of coffee. Be wary of drinking too much, it’ll make you edgy and interfere with sleep.

Exercise and fresh air are great for creative thinkers. This can, but doesn’t necessarily, visiting the gym. Many creative workers, journalists included, find creative inspiration simply by taking a long walk — just walking around is great if your find your creativity is blocked. You may also find it easier to think creatively if you switch off external stimuli.

Lastly, like a knife, your creativity will stay sharp if you use it often, but not so often that it become blunt. Train yourself to think creatively in bursts and give yourself rest periods in between.

In Why Productivity is Bunk Charlie Gilkey zeros in on the problem with productivity:

… people spend hours and hours finding new ways to be quicker at things they don’t need to be doing in the first place.

Gilkey has more in this vein. On his old, no longer online, about page Gilkey writes his blog is:

… for recovering productivity junkies who have had enough of Getting Things Done and want to start getting things done.

I suspect Gilkey is only part way into the recovery process, there’s a lot of material elsewhere in his blog looking suspiciously like productivity tips.

This was first published in 1987 in The Dominion’s Computer Pages. The Dominion is a daily  newspaper in Wellington, New Zealand (now the Dominion-Post).

The story is dated, but the message rings true even today.

One of the greatest myths of the computer era is the so-called paperless office.

A few years ago, the phrase was all the rage, but you hardly hear of it these days. The reality is that despite years of office automation, human beings still have a love affair with the printed word. That is a word printed on paper in ink.

The only effect office automation has had on the amount of paper in the average office is to increase it substantially. Word-processors and desktop publishing systems are designed to push out ever increasing piles of the stuff. And they are efficient at it.

If the conservationists were serious about reducing the threat to forests they should get to the heart of the matter and attack desktop publishing.

Printer fun

Every time a computer user sends a document to a dot-matrix printer, there is a nasty rasping sound as the printer pins push ink off a ribbon onto another sheet of paper. A hundred thousand sheets of paper make a tree and before long the lumberjack’s saw makes another nasty rasping sound as it chops down yet another tree. A million trees or so make a forest and if we loose too many of those we’ll soon be making a nasty gasping sound as our atmosphere goes down the gurgler.

Of course this is overdramatic, but it is worth remembering that computers don’t do away with paper, they merely increase the rate at which it can be pumped out.

A further problem is that the sheer weight of paper an office worker churns out is taken by management to be a measure of that worker’s productivity.

Paperless failure

This talk of the failure of the paperless office concept is reminiscent of the work of that great scholar C. Northcote Parkinson, the author of Parkinson’s Law.  He wrote simple wisdom in simple English. One day he will recognised as the great philosopher of the twentieth century. For the most part, his contribution to the computer industry is still to be felt.

Parkinson’s law states, “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

I can add to this Bennett’s law, “computer generated paperwork expands so as to fill the in-trays, out-trays, filing cabinets, brief cases and waste paper baskets available for its storage”.

Electronic mail doesn’t help either. I can write about this from bitter experience as an ex-IBM Profs user.

Profs was an office automation tool, which employees mainly use to keep their diaries and send electronic mail notes to one another all around the globe. Profs is good at doing what it sets out to do. But it does little to bring about the paperless office.

My Profs terminal would regularly bleep, a message would appear at the bottom of the screen saying “read your mail”. A few key depressions later I would be informed that a blue Ford Cortina in number two car park has its lights on, or this week’s weasel fancier’s meeting would be held in the staff dining room on Tuesday.

Productivity killer

Gripping stuff maybe, but it certainly never improved my productivity to be interrupted by such vital messages.

It is unfair to single out Profs for criticism, I do so because it is the only office automation system that I have personally been acquainted with. It is reasonable to assume that other manufacturer’s products cause similar reactions in their users.

It isn’t the technology that is at fault as much as the way that it is used.

It may have changed since my day, but I can remember being taught how to use system. There were about five people in the class. We were instructed by a data-processing department guru turned tutor who recommended that we kept a list of all our Profs document numbers handwritten in a notebook.

I’m not kidding here.

Incidentally, these notebooks were available in the stationary stores, but you had to send a Profs note to order one. What’s more, he also told us to get and keep a hard copy of any important messages that we received through the system.

As someone who, after years of exposure to all types of computing, was more than merely computer literate, I was shocked. I questioned the tutor, “are you saying that to keep a record of document numbers we have to write them down on paper?”

“Well,” he answered clearly embarrassed, “it is easier that way.”

“Easier than what?”, I replied curiously.

“It’s too difficult to explain here”, was his cryptic answer.

I could see that this was an unprofitable line of enquiry so I changed tack, “Ok then, why do we need to keep hard copies of our messages when the system is supposed to archive them?”

“Because they might get lost”, the tutor mumbled this as though he was frightened of anyone overhearing.

Somebody else asked the tutor the obvious question, “if they might get lost, what is the point of the system”.

The poor tutor reddened and tactfully changed the subject; “stop asking dumb questions.” The only thing was, they weren’t dumb questions, they were relevant questions, the sort of questions that anyone who needs to work with computers should feel free to ask an employer.

The tutor should have been pleased that employees were concerned about their productivity. He just wanted us to conform to a imposed work-pattern. As it happened things did get lost by the system, but only when the high-priests of the data-processing department were tinkering with the system.

Churning out paper

This might have been an acceptable state of affairs in the days of steam computing when men in white coats scuttled around cathedral-like installations replacing vacuum tubes, but my friends in other workplaces had Apple Macintoshes on their desks and were churning out laser printed piles of paper which were neater than our system could manage.

This not only made my friends look more productive than me, but their refined print styles and fancy founts made them look more creative too.

Expensive IBM 3370 terminals graced our desks. The terminals were connected to a powerful 370 mainframe system with banks of mass storage devices. The whole caboodle cost millions, and contained enough computing power to put a man on the moon, but we still had to resort to notebooks, pens and ream after ream of paper printout if we wanted to use the blasted thing.

To cap it all, we had to employ extra internal mail clerks to deliver all the computer generated paper that we were now efficiently churning out. The office automation system was originally installed to save money by replacing the internal mail system. But to save more money we had a central printer station, and the printed documents were delivered to people’s desks via the internal mail system which in theory was now redundant. Mr Parkinson would have understood.

I complained to my boss, “It is a bit like using a stone-age axe to repair an internal combustion engine.”

He replied, “send me a Profs note about it”.

Knowledge workers are more likely to use telecommuting than other workers.

Dealing with numbers and information lends itself to remote working. Knowledge workers already have the skills and hardware needed to run a remote office. They are self-motivated enough to make telecommuting work.

Yet high-tech employees in Australia and New Zealand are less likely to work remotely than those in other countries.

This has nothing to do with the ease of getting to the office. The highest concentrations of information elite in the region live in Sydney, Melbourne, Auckland and Wellington.

All these cities suffer traffic congestion. Workers in Sydney’s outer suburbs face a 90-minute or longer journey twice daily. The rush-hour drive from Paraparaumu to Wellington would test the patience of a saint.

Employers don’t like telecommuting

Australian employers need to audit homes before allowing employees to telework because they face industrial injury liability.

This is do-able and it is no excuse in New Zealand thanks to the state-operated Accident Compensation Corporation. I suspect the reluctance stems from the two countries’ unique labour histories.

By world standards, Australia’s white-collar workers are highly unionised. Consequently, managers are more suspicious of their workers than managers in other countries. This is not entirely without reason – few other countries have an institution like the Australian ‘sickie’.

New Zealand is less unionised, but there’s still the same attitude.

Despite the changes that have happened in the workplace over the last 20 years, managers in Australia and New Zealand fear employees left to work at home will spend all day in the pub or at the golf course when they should be working.

This might be understandable when overseeing poorly motivated unskilled workers, but when it comes to information age employees it is insulting.

Management insecurity

In the normal course of events,  it takes a lot of effort to overcome management insecurities. Both countries had brief flirtations with officially sanctioned telecommuting.

In the run-up to the 2000 Sydney Olympics, ORTA the Olympic Roads and Transport Authority decided the city’s transport system wouldn’t cope unless companies made alternative arrangements. ORTA ran a campaign promoting teleworking to Sydney employers. For a while companies tried it, most said it was successful.

Auckland had telecommuting thrust upon employers in 1998 when the CBD power network failed. Bosses had staff working from home. My previous employer set up temporary offices in suburban garages.

Although both telecommuting experiences were satisfactory, employers reverted to form and now prefer to see their workers come in through the door each day. After the brief, enforced trials, telecommuting is back to being something of a freak show. That’s a pity.

In the good old days most Australian and New Zealand workers belonged to unions. Pay rises were negotiated centrally. Employers paid a fixed hourly rate for the job, higher rates for overtime and that was that. Each year the union representatives and the management would lock themselves in a smoke-filled room. They would order rounds of take-away sandwiches and hammer out an agreed pay rise.

Of course the process could get nasty. Strikes, lockouts, mass-sackings and even riots were not unknown. Pay bargaining was even tougher in America where negotiation sometimes involved guns. Generally negotiations would settle with an agreement that saw every worker in the organization getting the same percentage pay rise.

The managers negotiating with the unions  often got the same pay rises as union members. In those days merit pay and bonuses were relatively rare. As a young manager in the UK, I was once put in this position myself. Guess how hard I was with the union negotiators during that pay round?

Negotiate benchmarks

Non-union workers, or workers belonging to less powerful unions often got pay rises close to the rates negotiated by the stronger groups. A powerful group would establish the ‘norm’ and then everyone else would use this the benchmark when starting their negotiations.

In countries like Australia, Britain and New Zealand individual pay bargaining gave way to centralised pay negotiations in the 1970s. Union leaders still trooped into smoke-filled rooms, instead of facing local company management they would talk to government and industry heads.

The economic reforms that swept the English-speaking world in the 1980s and early 1990s saw centralised bargaining give way to a system where individuals increasingly had to negotiate their own terms. New Zealanders went on to individual contracts. Many Australian workers – particularly those further down the pecking order were still reliant on centralised negotiations until relatively recently but most white-collar workers and polo shirt-collared knowledge workers have to handle their own negotiations.

Status quo

Employers prefer the new status quo because it allows them to reward valued employees more than people who contribute little to the bottom line. On the whole this is a good thing that few knowledge workers will argue with – during the boom years we all did well out of this system. Some of us did spectacularly well.

However, from our point of view the down side of individual salary negotiation is that it puts a lot of power in the hands of the employers. That’s because of the asymmetric information flow inherent in one-on-one salary negotiations. Information is central to any negotiation – if one side has better or more complete information that the other party, it is at a distinct advantage.

Companies usually have a policy of ensuring staff don’t talk to each other about their salary packages. In some companies, including places where I’ve worked, disclosing details of your remuneration with other staff is regarded as a serious offence. Of course employers have access too their company pay data so they can compare your package with other employees – they often also have access to pay information from other companies in their sector. Sometimes this is informal, though there are organizations that collect and sell salary data on an industry-by-industry basis.

You won’t get far finding this kind of information from job advertisements. Recruiters are often coy about salary levels. They don’t want to alert existing employees to how much extra they would be prepared to pay newcomers. You don’t often get to know what the salary for a job is until you are at a late stage of the recruitment process.

Negotiate armed with information

If you are a prospective employee, you need to get as much salary information as possible before entering negotiations. Indeed, you need to know if it is even worth bothering to negotiate. Likewise, if you want a pay rise from your existing employer, you need to know what other people doing the same job elsewhere earn. This benchmark gives you useful ammunition. It also lets you know whether you should stay or move to a new position should your negotiation fail.

As far as I’m aware, there’s no equivalent of salary.com in Australia and New Zealand (if you know of one then email me). Salary.com is a US site. It shows data about what other people with your skill set earn in any  city or region.

The nearest thing I’ve found is when private research is published in a public forum. New Corporation’s Careerone often publishes this kind of data. Here’s an example of salary information for Australian jobs. Hays Recruitment offers some New Zealand salary information here along with more Australian data. If you hunt carefully you can find other sources. I’ll share any such similar sources that Knowledge Worker readers send to me.

From outside it looks odd when a company offers workers voluntary redundancy. This happened in New Zealand on Thursday when the ANZ Bank asked staff to volunteer for redundancy.

There’s no confusion a company making such an offer wants to cut its wage bill. This means cutting staff. Or to use the fashionable euphemism ‘downsizing’. To my ears the other popular phrase ‘change management’ is downright Orwellian.

Why would managers offer voluntary redundancies and not draw up a hit list?

Redundancy is most attractive to people who find it easiest to get good jobs elsewhere. It can mean collecting a sizable payout on a Friday and starting a new job, with a similar or better salary, on Monday. They get a windfall, the troubled company cuts its payroll, There’s little disruption and minimal residual resentment from the remaining workers.

To use another modern management cliché: a classic win-win arrangement.

Voluntary redundancy can be an own goal

But the people most willing to accept voluntary redundancy, that is those who are most employable, are the people an employer can least afford to lose.

A badly run voluntary redundancy programme can see the experienced, highly skilled, motivated workers depart taking their accumulated knowledge and energy with them. On the other hand, people with few or out-of-date skills are the least likely to volunteer for a redundancy package. So if employers don’t manage the process with carefully, the result is a dumbed-down workforce.

Of course, this may be deliberate.

Even worse, skilled people opting for redundancy may take their know-how and inspiration to a competitor. In some case, these people could start their own businesses and become competitors.

This is what happened during the 1980s and early 1990s when technology companies kept slashing their workforces. Many lost their best people to competitors. A handful of workers left their employers with the ability and capital to start their own businesses just in time for the dotcom boom.

Ironically, during this period, those technology companies that had earlier cut staff numbers suddenly needed to hire new people to meet the increased demand for experience and skills.