Disrupting management

Staying competitive in a fast-changing world means rethinking how we work


Disruption isn’t just about digital. The common theme at London Business School’s (LBS) HR Strategy Forum 2018 was that it’s time to reconsider the human side of work. Is your management fit for purpose? Are your people equipped to play their part in your organisation’s survival in a future where the ground moves even as you’re walking across it?

Technology advances at its own furious pace, but our response should be less about getting technical experts to get on top of that and more about reconsidering what it is to work in a way that’s more adaptable, to look at what roles people may play in our organisations of the future.

An HR director doesn’t have to be an A.I. expert but they certainly have a role in making sure their people are ready to leverage A.I. rather than be disenfranchised by it. We can be fairly optimistic as we look ahead to the time where machines are doing much of the manual work, freeing humans to do the work that adds the most value to customers, such as design, creative ventures and services.

The most employable person in the future is that person who is able to learn fast. So what allows a person to do that?

Lynda Gratton, Professor of Management Practice at LBS, who directs the HR Strategies for Transforming Organisations programme, pushed the audience to think about what lifelong learning will look like. Those governments in the vanguard, looking at how to prepare their population for the future, might have a better chance of having more stable, happier societies. Singapore, for example, gives all its citizens a stipend, and most seniors use it on learning.

Many of the roles that employers are posting today won’t exist in 20 years’ time. My own research into Gen Y indicates that these younger employees totally accept that. They don’t want to do one thing their entire lives. They’ve embraced change because they’ve grown up above shifting sands. They’ve seen their parents’ pension funds disappear, jobs erode or even evaporate. They understand that reinvention must be an everyday skill.

When we asked our audience of HR directors what was holding them back, most of them cited their organisation’s leadership. This is where we inadvertently get in our own way. We have inherited and unquestioningly perpetuated management practices that date back to the Industrial Revolution. Systems and processes, hierarchy and outdated structures impede our ability to transform our organisations to be future-ready. We identified several principles that may help this quest.

The future belongs to those organisations that experiment, that do not assume that they already have all the answers. And experimentation, almost by definition, requires slack time, just as companies like Google and 3M build in already.

Likewise, we need to rethink who our managers are. Is your manager imposed by the organisation, or does your team select them? At Haier, the Chinese white goods company, the team selects their boss and can also fire them. At Whole Foods, employees vote on who gets to stay on the team after a ‘try-out’ period. This may sound revolutionary, even threatening, but it works for them.

Dan Cable, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at LBS, spoke about successful organisations that are blowing up hierarchy. At the GE aircraft engine plant in North Carolina, for example – a plant of 150 blue-collar workers – there are no shift managers, no team managers. Just one plant manager. “Here’s what I can contribute to help us achieve our KPIs,” she said when she arrived, and the teams figured out how to be high performing for themselves and through iteration. That is a leap of faith.

Gary Hamel, Visiting Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at LBS, gives the example of Morning Star, the Californian processed-tomatoes producer. Employees self-organise, there are no job descriptions and each person writes their own letter of agreement about what they’re going to accomplish. They too “elect” their managers.

The point is that this shift isn’t hypothetical. It’s happening. I was amazed by the lack of push-back to these vanguard examples at this year’s Forum. I left feeling very optimistic: there was a stimulating dialogue between the world of research and the world of practice and we all agree that we have to do something. This gives me real hope for the future of work.

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