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06:50 PM

Other Voices: It's The People, Boss

It's easy to say employees are a company's No. 1 asset, but it's another to act on it. SAS has acted on it, and you can help your company do so, too.

Many political commentators will tell you Bill Clinton won the 1992 presidential election because his chief political adviser, James Carville, relentlessly focused on one phrase, "It's the economy, stupid." (I'll leave analysis about whether this is true to historians, academics, and other suitable analysts.) However, in the spirit of Carville's dictum, I have an idea. Let's hang some signs around the office reading, "It's the people, stupid."

Too many companies that I've visited view people as cogs. Incidentally, this may be one reason it's no surprise that growing numbers of companies are outsourcing so much of their operations. If executives don't believe their people are a key competitive advantage, then it's no surprise they end up outsourcing tasks to someone who might be able to do it for less.

However, there are great examples of organizations that do view people as a strategic weapon. InformationWeek editor-in-chief Bob Evans, for example, has spotlighted Dell (see "Offshore Outsourcing: A Means To An End").

Here's one of my examples: The SAS Institute in Cary, N.C. SAS has been among the top 10 companies every one of the five years that Fortune has published its 100 Best Companies to Work For. There have been a number of articles and even a 60 Minutes story about specific SAS HR practices, including on-site health and day care and 35-hour workweeks.

Some might mistake these as leftover policies from the days of irrational exuberance. But during several visits to SAS for some research I'm doing with Carnegie Mellon University's Software Industry Center, I realized that they are, in fact, evidence of a deep corporate appreciation for the role all SAS employees play in the business' success. Interestingly, SAS keeps just about every job internal, from development of its ad campaigns to upkeep of its lush campus.

SAS CEO Dr. Jim Goodnight commented on 60 Minutes, "You know, I guess 95% of my assets drive out the front gate every evening. It's my job to bring them back." Clearly, Dr. Goodnight understands that, ultimately, the value of his company is the people. This understanding has paid off well. SAS is one of the largest privately held companies in the world. It dominates the business-intelligence marketplace, with its software is used by 90% of the Fortune 500. It also recently said that its revenue is up 16% in the first half of 2003 from the same period in 2002.

Unfortunately, we can't all work for companies like SAS or Dell. So, how do we make our companies more like these leading-edge organizations without hanging signs in protest?

I think one of the keys is for employees to examine the type of work they're doing. Business and marketing guru Seth Godin draws a distinction in his recent book, Purple Cow, between people who work hard and those who do hard work. If an employee wants to be viewed by her boss as a valuable asset, she needs to demonstrate more than an ability to put in 70-hour-plus weeks. By accepting difficult challenges and solving problems creatively--in other words, doing the hard work--successful workers add value that can't be outsourced easily.

If executives can hire workers in India or Israel for an order of magnitude cheaper and the requirements simply are working hard, they'd be crazy not to hire two people offshore who will work hard as well. If you look for opportunities to do the hard work in your organization, you're not only protecting your job from being outsourced, but you are also hanging, let's call it, a virtual sign around your neck that shouts, "I am one of your most valuable assets."

So, how do you go about finding these projects to ensure you are doing hard work? That is the subject for next month's column, where I'll give you five steps that will help you spot the hard work you need to be doing and maybe even make your CEO really believe that it's the people, stup--boss.

Sean J. Ammirati is the founder and director of Avanti Strategies. Talk to him at [email protected].

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