Inspiring the workforce of the future

How can organisations adapt to emerging realities?


We’ve all woken up to the exponential rate of change that Gary Hamel, Visiting Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at London Business School (LBS), talked about at last year’s HR Strategy Forum. That event was future-focused: what’s just over the horizon? This time, we’re going a step further and challenging the 100+ learning and development executives who attend to ask themselves: so what can we do about it? How do we prepare for this volatile, uncertain future? Because the time to act is now.

No one can spot every change that’s coming – the next opportunity or threat. Companies need to build a capability, a habit, throughout the organisation so that as many people as possible have a chance to identify and respond. For leaders, that’s about enabling your team to experiment and get in front of ‘what’s next’ – which involves agility at scale.

We need to make change an autonomic process, as simple and reflexive as blinking. Too often it’s a painful cycle of breaking what you have, refreezing it and hoping you’re good to go for another five years. What if we all got in the habit of trying a new principle, making a change that’s within our power to make, every month or even every week? What if we made change a habit, instead of a miserable thing we do once a year or once every five years?

At the Forum on 27 February we will be suggesting principles for action and inviting HR leaders to consider which applies most pertinently to their context – either for the whole company or for a particular team or department. Meanwhile, here are four suggestions from LBS faculty speakers to spark your thinking in advance.

1. Be clear about the intangible assets you’re offering

Most organisations are still operating along the old paradigm of offering people tangible assets – salary or pension – as they key factors to attract and retain talent. But people’s expectations have changed. Today’s employees want purpose, meaning and development – and they want all that now and continually, not as a reward after 10 years of service. Lynda Gratton, Professor of Management Practice at LBS and co-author of The 100-Year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity, argues that we should refocus on intangible assets such as relationships, flexibility and wellbeing. From an HR perspective, if we make the intangible assets that we offer as an organisation much more explicit, then it must over time be easier to win the talent war.

2. Help your people become world-class at something they enjoy

Organisations often make the mistake of continuing to assess talent from a deficit perspective: ‘What don’t you do well? Let’s apply all our energies towards working on that.’ Problem is, if it’s something the person is poor at, chances are you can apply endless amounts of energy and they’ll end up being merely mediocre at it. Why not instead find the thing they are good at and make them world-class at that? Wouldn’t that be better, more powerful and beneficial for your organisation? Dan Cable, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at LBS, believes so. In his pending book, Alive at Work, he cites examples of companies that have done just that and are actually higher-performing as a result. Beyond that, when you let people enjoy doing what they’re good at, they stay longer and get better customer feedback.

3. Rethink how the work your company does is structured

The way we work is changing, whether it’s organising around projects instead of around roles or flexible organisational design instead of fossilised architectures and pyramids. Tammy Erickson, Adjunct Professor of Organisational Behaviour at LBS, challenges leaders to be clear about purpose, promise and experience. What is your purpose, what do customers expect when they hear that purpose and how do they experience it? It’s not about fancy-sounding summaries of what we represent to shareholders or financial reports, probably written by consultants who don’t even work for the company. Leadership is around coordination and facilitating relationships rather than telling you what to do. What if you gave your people a lot more freedom to instantly respond to customers? Take Haier, the white-goods company, where semi-autonomous teams have their own P&L and can offer what they like in response to what customers need. If those services get scaled up, so much the better.

4. Explore how technology can transform your business

Businesses must start experimenting with technology right now to be ready for the future, says Michael Davies, who teaches strategy and entrepreneurship at LBS. Change is happening at the speed of light. When it comes to artificial intelligence we haven’t seen anything yet. He claims a seismic shift is needed towards reskilling and lifelong learning. No repetitively routine and narrow work is safe, and automation is going to be continual – not a one-off event. People will need to get used to mastering new skills over and over again. Technology can also get you closer to customers because it enables them to tell you what they want directly. And it enables organisations to become ecosystems for their industry. Twenty years ago Amazon was just an online bookseller. No-one would have thought that it would one day be the largest and fastest-growing B2B web services company in the world. Organisations need to think about how they can harness technologies to add value and transform their business to survive and thrive in the future.

Adam Kingl is Director of Learning Solutions at LBS

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