Guest Blogger

When planning for the future, many organisations are focused on how emerging technologies can increase their productivity and innovation. But where is their workforce focused?

Seeking Meaning

Work was, in the past, often a necessity based on individuals’ need to survive and provide for their own basic needs. Now, in most advanced economies, the workforce have realised that work can provide them with a sense of dignity and status as well. Many seek even more than that: they desire the work they do and the organisation they work for to offer them status, pride and even identity.

A ‘Workforce of Ones’

Dave Millner, @HR_Curator, talks of a ‘workforce of ones.’ He references the increasing demands of the workforce to have a personalised employment and working experience. One of the sources of this expectation is their experience as consumers. Marketeers have used increasingly sophisticated consumer psychology models with advanced customer analytics which demonstrate that large organisations can individualise experiences. This is not only seen in the retail sector but in entertainment and hospitality too. So consumers (which our workers are) have learnt to expect personalised treatment.

So we’re seeing an increasingly demanding workforce emerge; is this sufficient to make the case for organisations to respond?

Transfer of Power

IBM studies reveal over 70% of CEOs say employees are their primary source of sustainable economic value and yet most global organisations lack the skills they need to compete.  Bersin studies have reported 70% of global organisations lack skills needed to succeed, PwC have shown 66% of organisations report an absence of necessary skills as their biggest talent challenge and, according to Accenture, 66% anticipate losing business due to talent gaps. At the same time, we’re seeing a rise in independence with as many as 30% of knowledge workers working independently as contractors or associates for instance (Deloitte).

These figures suggest organisations are left with little choice but to respond to the increasing demands of their workers. Those not willing to offer meaning and individualised experiences could find their commercial success compromised.

Distribution of Power

Another dynamic to consider is the increasing hyper-connection of individuals. Workforces have access across social platforms internally and externally which is largely ungovernable. This is giving individuals access and a voice, forcing transparency and relatedly leadership control (claimed by being the one who had the knowledge or insight others required) is fading fast.

Each individual in an organisation holds its reputation in their hands and has access to the power of networks. So influence is no longer hierarchical; it can be distributed and unstable. This is unlikely to change in the short-term so organisations’ success will lie in their adaption to this new state.

Leading this Future

When faced with complexity and uncertainty, leaders traditionally respond by providing structures and rules to offer their workforce direction and comfort.  But when ambiguity and volatility abound as well, this strategy can become a limiter rather than an enabler of performance.  In fact, giving up control may be the best way forward.


Relationships replace Rules

Rules are fundamentally flawed in that they break down when contexts change. “Don’t do drugs,” might seem an entirely logical admonition for children until an illness requires that they undertake drug-based therapies or treatments.

Whenever we dictate a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ we risk having less room to adapt or change when necessary.  As an additional consequence, in rules-based organisations, the workforce is unlikely to learn to take ownership, to think and act responsibility or to be accountable for themselves.

Rather, CEO are recognising the need to run “open organisations.” Leading in their industries and markets can be enabled by empowerment; releasing control to allow for more significant and consistent collaboration, innovation and growth.

Organisational openness offers tremendous upside potential – empowered employees, free-flowing ideas, more creativity and innovation, happier customers, better results.  (Source: IBM CEO Survey 2012.) And consistency within this context is driven by relationships, not traditional controls.

So organisations that have pursued openness have recognised the need to truly understand their culture, involving the workforce in defining it and then recalibrating controls to allow for increased openness.

Effective open organisations succeed as controls are recalibrated only if employees instinctively know how to handle unexpected situations; their choices and actions guided by a strong sense of purpose and shared beliefs. Freedom needs to be allowed to fully realise the opportunities this can present. On the journey, a strong sense of belonging, duty and honesty in their colleague relationships can act as a daily moderator of behaviour.  Delivering on their need for meaning and impact, this will increase loyalty too.

Power Sharing

So much research has shown the potential up-sides of fully engaging employees. And our own experiences tell how much extra effort is applied when working for an outcome that has personal meaning.  So now the focus turns to identifying and enabling organisational leaders to offer purpose and meaning, relationships rather than rules, to realise sustainable economic advantage.

Clodagh O’Reilly

Clodagh is a specialist in applying behavioural science in organisations to predict and enable optimal performance for individuals and organisations. She leads the Workforce Science & Analytics Practice for IBM’s Smarter Workforce unit in EMEA. She is a former Chair of the Association for Business Psychology, a member of the Engage Employee Advisory Board and guest speaker for several MSc courses in Business and Psychology. Clodagh founded the annual Workforce Experience Awards programme and edited the book, “Delivering Excellent Workforce Experiences.”

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