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.

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.

Driving cultural change

If we’re honest, most attempts at culture change fail. We like to pretend that we’ve made small steps forward, but in reality we witness the prevailing culture continue.

The reason? Most approaches aren’t systemic, instead they focus on only some of the levers available and shy away from others. And without shifting the entire system, the almost inevitable result is that change is temporary and unsustained.

To make this point, we can look to the structure of other systems.

The first stage of learning to drive in the UK is the theory test. It teaches us all “the rules” of the system. What we should do in response to certain signals, how we should behave, what the expectations of ourselves and others should be.

Then we go and sit in a car, with a friend, family or paid instructor. In the model, we learn to apply the theoretical knowledge in to a practical environment. The reality is that in this application we start to learn how things are really done but maintain a level of congruence because of the artificial experience of “passing the test”.

And assuming that we manage to retain enough of the “right way” to get past the test and into our own wheels, we then go out in to the world and experience first hand and for real how the behaviours are applied in the system.

Do people stop at red lights?
Do they follow the speed limits?
Do people speak on phones?
How many people keep to the stopping distances?

On top of this we have the structural implementation, the speed cameras, the police, the insurance companies. What do they reward, what do they punish? What is accepted and tolerated, what is looked down upon and reprimanded.

In reality, this isn’t far from the approach of most organisations – with some form of classroom based intervention. However, when we look at the application of this back within the department and then the organisation as a whole; when we look at the structures that we put in place in terms of recruitment, promotion, reward and development – that’s where we start to see the gaps.

No system is perfect and there will always be a certain level of incongruence and imperfection – that’s because we’re human. If you drive, you’ve probably jumped a red light, broken a speed limit, looked at a text once or more. But we have an expectation that people who constantly break the rules will be dealt with and that if we generally abide by the agreed norms, then we will be ok.

The problem in most organisational change programmes is that the interventions take place outside the system – like the theory test – and expect a transference back in. But individual behaviour tends to norm to the group and group behaviours tend to be driven by the structure of the system, which we tend to neglect.

Put simply, organisations are systems. And if you want to change the culture of organisations, you need to consider the whole system. Anything short of this will almost certainly involve a lot of time, a lot of effort and resource, but ultimately end in inevitable failure.

It’s open season for talent

It used to be that things were simpler when you wanted to recruit senior “talent” in to your organisation. Companies and sectors worked in a pretty siloed fashion and with a commercial hierarchy in place. Making it more straightforward for recruiters and managers alike.

When you needed to recruit an senior hire in to your business, you’d first identify your place in the industry hierarchy. You then had two choices, you could look up the hierarchy and identity people who were in more junior roles to your vacancy, but in a bigger organisation. Or you’d look down the hierarchy and find people in similar or larger roles, but in smaller organisations.

Of course, there were always organisations and companies of the moment. The ones that CEOs and leaders would say, “how about getting someone from ABC Corp?” but generally it was a straightforward thing.

Then things got a whole world more complicated.

As our businesses have changed and developed through the use of technology, as new “super companies” have come on to the scene and as the fetishistic adulation of the start-up has grown to gargantuan proportions, the world of talent acquisition has become much less linear.

On one hand you have the large traditional corporates, with their constant refrain of, “get me someone from Google/Facebook/Apple” and on the other, increasing evidence that these target companies are looking to established FMCG players

So what’s going on? Well nothing really, it is just the silos falling away and the increasing movement of talent both within and between industry. But the implications for those working in HR and talent management become increasingly more interesting:

  • Brand names don’t guarantee skill sets and whilst they never have, recruiting within industry always ensured a certain level of transferable knowledge that would pass as valuable. With cross industry moves it is harder to be sure.
  • Established organisations and fast growing organisations have completely different cultures and ways of working. Even if you get the skill set right, the ability to land well and navigate the organisation is an imperative for hiring.
  • The more sources there are for recruiting from, the more competitors there are for the same people. As career paths become less linear, your compelling argument needs to be greater than your status in the industry. You need to understand what you really have to offer someone from outside.
  • Compensation, benefits and career structures might need to go right out of the window. When things are no longer moving in a linear fashion, you can’t have linear structures. That offers a whole heap of pain, but it is a natural repercussion of inter industry moves.

But, at the end of the day, the biggest challenge is letting go of the things we’ve had, to gain the things we want. Bringing people in from outside of the industry, whichever way they move, means that they won’t have industry experience, it means they won’t necessarily look, behave and talk the same. And it means it will probably take them longer to get up to speed – regardless of the name or prestige of their previous company.