HR Administration

The Last Word: Optimas and Its Silver Lining

By Rick Bell

Nov. 22, 2015

Think for a minute where you were 25 years ago.

Where did you work? What was your title? Who was your boss? Were you even in the workforce? Considering that the economy was shaking off a decade’s worth of corporate downsizings (“right-sizings” was the annoyingly PC term at the time), interest rates were circling the double-digit range and unemployment hovered between 7 and 10 percent for good portions of the 1980s and into the early ’90s, just having a job was something of an accomplishment. 

While the fits and starts demarcating a quarter-century’s worth of work can seem like an eternity for an organization and especially a person’s career, there are certainly some constants that thread through that lengthy swath of time.

Among them is a business’ need to innovate and evolve. Rather than sit back and try to predict the future, the best companies employ people with the moxie and drive to instinctively seek better ways to improve not only the world around them, but also positively alter their own workplace.

That’s a corporate quality we like to recognize and honor. This year marks the silver anniversary for the annual Workforce Optimas Awards program. Like the evolving world of business, a lot has changed in the quarter century since the Optimas were conceived.

At the time we faxed and phoned clients and sources; updating a doc meant calling the podiatrist about your problems with plantar fasciitis, not adding an entry online.

A quarter-century ago, I was a scrubby new night copy editor on a suburban north San Diego County daily newspaper. The Persian Gulf War had just concluded, and the town I worked in bordering Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton celebrated its returning heroes.

About 60 miles to the north of me, Personnel Journal, a monthly trade magazine directed at the rapidly evolving practice of human resources, was busy hatching the Optimas Awards, a program that was dedicated to similarly recognize and honor the achievements of a job well done.

The debut winner in the General Excellence category of that inaugural Optimas Awards was banking giant First Chicago Corp., which at the time was among the nation’s largest financial institutions.

Well, 25 years later, Personnel Journal has gone through two changes in ownership while the publication’s name switched three times — to Workforce, then Workforce Management and then back to Workforce.

Whither First Chicago Corp.? The bank ultimately merged with NBD Bancorp in 1995, which was then gobbled up by Banc One Corp. in 1998, which later merged with JPMorgan Chase in 2004, which … well, you get the picture.

Like I said, much has changed in the past 25 years.

What hasn’t changed, however, is that determination to innovate and solve the complex challenges of managing a workforce. And for 25 years, the Optimas Awards have celebrated those people management techniques.

Some programs have been groundbreaking. In 1996, the Internet was still new and shiny, and Cisco Systems was awarded an Optimas for “an internal home page that keeps employees informed and cuts paperwork, while an external page boosts recruiting efforts.” An intranet and a branding-centric home page — pedestrian by 2015 standards but edgy stuff two decades ago.

There were practical management techniques taken to another level, like Valero Energy Corp., winners in 2006 for implementing the industry’s first labor supply chain designed to provide “global labor on demand.” Think a sharing economylike labor pool of a decade ago.

Still others have risen from the ashes of need — literally. Malden Mills Industries Inc., which won the Managing Change category in 1999, had lost three of its buildings in a fire. Human resources ultimately created a special center to inform and retrain 1,400 displaced employees, drawing nationwide praise as a role model for employee training and development.

Rereading entries of the past 25 years have been enlightening, engaging and amusing. And 25 years from now some Workforce editor — the future Rick Bell — will look back at five decades of winners.

What will those practices be when Workforce honors its golden anniversary winners? The technology will be dramatically different (remember, the Internet was in its infancy when Workforce — errr, Personnel Journal — launched the Optimas).

And the millennials of today will be the boomers of tomorrow struggling to engage an as-yet-unnamed cohort of employees when the Optimas turns 50.  

Rick Bell is Workforce’s editorial director.

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