The future of work is human

If I had to list four things that bring out my inner geek, they’d be:

Work
Technology
Psychology
Education

I can’t remember the dates of any historical events, my knowledge of sports and sporting prowess is limited and if you want to know what stocks and shares to invest in…..buy the ones I’ve just sold. But give me any of these four topics and I’ll talk, ignorantly but passionately, for hours.

Each in its own right is a things that stirs the proverbial loins, but what about the point where all four intersect? Is there a relationship between them?

We know that technology is changing the way in which our children interact with the world. It is also starting to change the way in which they learn and work at school. So what is going to be the impact on the world of work when these young people get to employable age? Is technology changing the way our brains work and function and what do we need to think about in how we design work, teams and organisations?

Are we already starting to see the impact of the way that we use technology on our behaviour in the workplace? Our choices, decision-making, attention, concentration, speed of communication?

Late last year the CIPD started a piece of work to explore the future of work from a variety of different angles. The aim being to move the debate on from the normal, often predictable themes and to take a different approach. There are a number of work streams and groups exploring all sorts of angles, you can read more about it here.

As part of this, I want to look at these questions. To go beyond the “robotisation” arguments and look at the relationship between human performance and technology from a psychological and behavioural perspective, the good, bad and indifferent.

And this is where I need your help.

If you’d like to be part of this work, or if you know someone who you think might be, then I’d love to hear from you. Ideally I’d like to pull together a group of people from a range of backgrounds to exchange ideas, thoughts and theories with the view to presenting the findings at a “Big Tent” event in October.

There is no specified time commitment, geography is unimportant and I haven’t even worked out the process (yet). I just want to bring together curious, passionate, thoughtful people to help explore the themes and ideas. So if that sounds like you, if this piques your interest, then get in contact and lets see where the conversation takes us.

Technology, analytics, data, life – start from the beginning

I’ve just got back from the HRTechFest in Washington. Last time I went to one of these, I wrote this about Technology being HR’s biggest asset. I still think it is – so take a look.

This time, I was struck this time about the commonality of a lot of the themes that people were talking about inside and outside of the sessions. I heard a lot about:

Transparency – the increasing expectation from employees that they can see the workings of an organisation beyond their own personal experience. Whether that is of compensation, decision-making structures, or promotion opportunities – to name but a few.
Customisation – no single person is the same and we therefore need to create employee experiences that recognise the different choices that individual employees will want to take at different stages of their lives and careers.
Experimentation – we need to be more comfortable with being less perfect and in trying things out to see how and if they work. Whether it is data, technology or traditional interventions, we need to love and embrace the pilot.
Analysis – data, data everywhere….and we need to start using it sensibly. Almost every presentation or conversation I had talked about the data underpinning decisions, but used it in a practical and sensible way – not for show, but for real, purposeful thinking.

But the biggest thing that I realised was that the companies talking about this were drawn from right across the board. The likes of Twitter and Hulu and Google and Hootsuite were rubbing shoulders with the likes of Barclays, Cimpress, NBC and health and education providers.

The challenges and themes were the same, but the routes to the mountains were different. And I think this is a factor that we sometimes overlook. If you want to develop transparency of compensation, then you’re going to take a different route in a company which has been in existence for less than 10 years and has a couple of hundred of employee to one that has thousands of employees and a lot with a length of tenure two or three times longer than the other company.

Our skill is in understanding our organisational starting place and identifying the path to take. That’s a significant part of what we bring to the table. Sometimes change is fast, sometimes change is slow. Sometimes things aren’t achievable right now because a whole load of other things need to be done first. And that’s ok.

We all need to aspire to be better, we all want our organisations to change and develop, to create better working environments for our employees and better workplaces for society. To do that we need to constantly take a step forward from the place that we started. Recognising the challenge is as important as recognising the goal. That way, we make long-term sustainable change. The sort that really, really makes a difference.

You can’t systemise creativity

I saw a quote last week that appealed to me. John Sumser from the excellent HR Examiner was reporting what must be the overheard line of the week,

“…if we knew what we were doing, this wouldn’t be cutting edge….”

It made me smile because within one short sentence you have a pretty good summing up of the entire creativity/innovation/experimentation experience.  It is a little bit messy and often uncertain. It can feel directionless, purposeless and baffling to others around.

It also reminded me of a personal experience years ago when I was presenting to a board on a new initiative that I believed would be both ground breaking and commercially beneficial to the company. Finishing my presentation full of youthful exuberance and positivity, I was met with a simple question, “what are our competitors doing?”

Sadly, the reason for asking wasn’t to seek competitive advantage, but as means to explain that if no-one else was doing it, it probably wasn’t worthwhile and my answer that, “shouldn’t we want them to be asking that of us?” fell on deaf ears.

An therein lies the problem with innovation and creativity in many organisations. We value certainty, data, facts and benchmarking, yet we talk about innovation, entrepreneurialism and creativity. One is solid, robust, measured and definite. The other can often feel like the crazy.

Creating organisational cultures that allow genuine experimentation and innovation is hard. We are drawn to put boundaries around it and to try to “organise” it or “systemise” it, because that is or comfort zone. Despite implicitly knowing that these are the kryptonite to the very things we want to encourage.

If we want to go to places that no-one else has been, then by definition we will never be entirely certain of the outcome. We can have hypotheses, we can test and measure those, but we need to live with a level of uncertainty and ambiguity.

My worry, is that in a world where we are increasingly looking at data to define every decision, we forget that sometimes you need to combine insight and intuition. That there needs to be a place for creative thinking, brave decision-making and seemingly impossible futures.

It is absolutely right to measure the problem, but sometimes we need to dream the solution.

It doesn’t matter: It’s just HR

When we spend time talking about ourselves, it is time lost talking about the things that matter to our employees, to our leaders and to our organisations.

  • it doesn’t matter where we report, or who reports to us
  • it doesn’t matter what we’re called, or what we’re not
  • it doesn’t matter which part of us are in, or which parts are out

Our obsession with the inconsequential is time we lose from talking about the challenges of the economy, the dilemma of organisational productivity, the challenges of wellbeing and grasping the individual business opportunities that exist.

Employees don’t care whether we are Personnel, HR, People, Talent or bananas. They really don’t. They have zero interest in whether L&D or recruitment are part of HR or not. And whether you’re a manager, advisor, business partner or officer, just doesn’t enter their heads.

There is zero value added through any of these debates or activities. And moreover, the internal focus represents a dangerous tendency to ignore or fail to understand the value drivers within the organisation.

Next time you find yourself talking about yourselves, try to define the value that will be added through the discussion and any resultant change. Try to think about the various stakeholder groups that you have and the evidence that supports there is any kind of problem.

And if you can’t find a compelling reason, a compelling argument or compelling evidence? Then stop wasting everyone’s time and remember why you’re paid and employed – to add value to others, not yourself.

It really doesn’t matter: It’s just HR.