Can workers actually be beneficiaries of the digital economy? MIT Sloan Professor Zeynep Ton believes the answer is yes. And just as importantly, she says, businesses won’t lose out in the process.
Much has been written and discussed about the economic inequalities created as a result of digital technologies. In this blog, for example, MIT Research Scientist, Andrew McAfee, cites significant economic data supporting the view that IT is responsible for tectonic changes in U.S. jobs and wages. Professor Ton’s latest research offers some win-win scenarios for employees and their employers.
In a recent presentation, Ton, Adjunct Associate Professor of Operations Management (pictured at left), went beyond defining the problems of job displacement, dissatisfaction and despair; she offered solutions. Her latest book, “The Good Jobs Strategy,” examines ways to bridge some of the widely acknowledged economic gaps and suggests ways that organizations “can design and manage their operations in a way that satisfies employees, customers and investors simultaneously.”
Tossing Out Conventional Wisdom
Ton asserts that currently, one in four workers – especially in the service sector and retail—has a “bad job” where salaries are insufficient to support families, and work is rote, irregular and unsatisfying. In such environments, “workers are set up to fail.” But businesses and society fail as well, she maintains. “The conventional wisdom is that bad jobs are necessary to keep costs low and profits high. Even advocates for higher wages believe higher wages they will come at a cost—either higher prices for customers or lower profits for companies.”
However, better operational strategies can break the pattern, she says. It may be counter-intuitive, Ton explained at a meeting of the MIT IDE in March, but combining investment in people with smart decisions like empowering workers—not cutting back—often proves most profitable.
In case after case, she found that more and better-trained and motivated staff can generate higher profit and growth and help business stay ahead of competitors.
Zara, Mercadona and QT Find Win-Win Formulas
“It’s a virtuous cycle,” Ton says: “Good execution and good workers yield more profits.” For example, Zara clothing and the Mercadona supermarket chain, both based in Spain, are growing despite a weak economy. Mercadona offers employees twice the minimum wage, bonuses, stable work, full-time schedules and opportunities for growth.
In the U.S., QT, or Quiktrip, is an example of a convenience store/gas station company providing “excellent customer service, fast, clean facilities and a high employee retention rate. People want to work there,” Ton says, and store profits are above industry averages. Trader Joe’s and Costco are other good examples.
How do they do it? Ton offers a matrix four strategies that need to be used in combination to reap the greatest rewards:
1. Invest in people and combine that with operational excellence to drive sales.
2. Standardize processes to increase efficiency and empower employees to make decisions for customers
3. Cross-train employees to encourage agility, flexibility and knowledge.
4. Offer fewer products, but operate with slack; never under-staff.
Ton sums up as follows: “In my book, The Good Jobs Strategy, I show that it is possible to offer good jobs to workers, low prices and excellent service to customers, and great returns to shareholders-- all at the same time. What makes good jobs not only possible but very profitable—even in low-cost service businesses—is a set of counterintuitive choices that transforms the company’s investment in workers into high performance. What are these choices? Offer less, combine standardization with empowerment, cross-train, and operate with slack. It’s a combination that lowers operating costs, increases worker productivity and puts workers at the center of a company's success.”
Ton’s work has been published in a variety of journals, including Organization Science, Production and Operations Management, and the Harvard Business Review. In addition, she has written numerous cases that explore different approaches to managing retail stores and labor. Prior to MIT Sloan, Ton spent seven years as an assistant professor in the Technology and Operations Management area at Harvard Business School, where she was awarded the HBS Faculty Teaching Award for teaching excellence.
Ton holds a DBA from Harvard Business School and a BS in Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering from Pennsylvania State University.