Thursday, September 9, 2010

(2005) Confusion rules!

September 2005

Dear Aunt Agatha,

It is wonderful to see a regular pay cheque going into the bank account again after all those months, but - man! - what I'm having to do to earn it! It's such a huge adjustment after my previous work experiences, on so many fronts.

First of all, the organisation itself is vast compared to what I'm used to. This is only my third employer (not counting fill-in jobs here & there), but the previous two were at least sizeable by Guernsey standards. Guernsey Electricity at 250, and Barings at 500. Both were part of larger organisations, one belonging to the public service and the other a company within the ginormous ING Group, but those wider organisations barely made themselves felt. A memo here and there, an intellectual awareness of the parent organisation, but very little practical impact on day-to-day life.

Here, I'm in a division, 500-strong, which is just a small part of a ministry, just one of many in the BC Public Service. And I can
feel the weight of the org structure above and around me.

To compound matters, the organisational detail is way more granular. Both Guernsey Electricity and Barings had a relatively small number of departments and I knew the function of each of them. I could go to (for example) any one of maybe 20 people in the custody department and ask a question, and get a consistent answer. They worked as a coherent and robust team. Here, there is so much specialisation that the number of distinct functions is vastly greater for the same number of people. Often there is only
one person in the whole organisation with a particular set of knowledge. I keep asking about things, and instead of being told "you need to speak to someone in department X", I get "you need to speak to Joe Bloggs." And if Joe Bloggs isn't there, hard luck! I've spent ages trying to map out the working relationships of the many individuals I need to deal with, and just listing out the departments is mind-boggling.

My head is spinning trying to take it all in.

Then there is the process - and/or lack of it. On the one hand, we know that Canadians love their paperwork. We'd heard about that any number of times during the immigration process, and we've seen it in action since.

My first few days at work were largely spent alone at my desk ploughing through a two-inch stack of forms.

I jest not!

And yet, bizarrely enough, I've also found an astonishing
lack of standards and processes that I've taken for granted for so many years. I'm losing count of how many times I've asked "how do I do X?" and then spent a merry few hours like an amateur sleuth tracking down the answer. Because nobody really knows for sure, and you can be sure it's not written down anywhere in a readily accessible way. And every department will have evolved their own unique way of doing things, so any advice you get may not hold true for your own situation.

Even something as simple as an up-to-date org chart, an invaluable atlas for a newcomer, is not available. Not, at least, for the use of us hoi polloi.

This, I've discovered, is where it really pays to make friends with a good admin assistant. They usually know the answer, or where to start looking for it.

Finally, there are the many cultural differences to cope with. I suppose we've been relatively insulated from it so far. Yes, we've dealt with all sorts of new things these past few months, but they have all been individual instances and short-lived. Now I'm fully immersed in it throughout the day. The biggest and most widespread difference I've found is that people are a lot more open and forthright than I'm used to. If someone doesn't like something, they'll say so. None of the British reserve here! I've seen personal dislikes coming up in meetings, sniping, bullying, and I've heard many anecdotes of outright shouting matches, tears, and door-slamming. Maybe I've not experienced a wide enough sample of British workplaces, but in the settings I do know, behaviours like that would have been almost impossible to imagine. I've come to the realisation that diplomacy and people-management is going to be a much larger part of my job than anything remotely technical.

But, as I keep reminding myself, I'm happy to put up with a lot for the benefits it brings us.

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