Different – and yet the same

Four SCNetwork members engage in a back-and-forth on Deloitte’s presentation



Jan van der Hoop: Overall, the speakers did a good job of nailing the five trends HR professionals need to be losing sleep over. But, at the same time, there’s nothing new or surprising on the list.

It’s not a slight against the authors of the report — the part that gets under my skin is the list hasn’t changed much in the last 30 years. The things that were inefficient or caused friction in organizations then, by and large, still do.

Organizational development remains a messy business; career management is still nebulous; talent acquisition still delivers a measly 20 per cent confidence rating; and leadership will forever be on the list as something to improve, as long as we continue to work in systems and structures that seem perfectly designed to trigger our fight-or-flight reflexes.

Towards the end, Amir Rahnema highlighted organizations that seem to be cracking the nut — becoming more nimble, more customer- or market-responsive, and more productive — by forming cross-functional teams of people “organized around files, not portfolios.” Essentially, teams that are assembled to address a specific problem, then disbanded again.

And I thought, “Wait a minute.” The concept is nothing new. I was taught the importance of customer centricity early in my career, back in the 1980s — it was called “quality circles” in those days. It all stems from management consultant W. Edwards Deming’s work in the 1950s, and the core concept has morphed into many forms and labels, such as Lean Manufacturing Principles.  

So, if this is all new yet again, and we agree it’s a better way to work and operate, what is it about us or the energy or power structures of organizations that stops us from adopting that imperative?

Ian Hendry: I disagree. A lot has changed in the past 30 years. Sure, there are some central themes — leadership will always need to evolve given changing times, but this workforce is far more challenging than the cohorts back in the 1980s. If structures haven’t adapted fast enough, that is borne out in the fact that a majority of companies believe they need to redesign their organization to succeed in the digital age.

Conceivably, this could be disruption as we’ve never seen it before. If this indeed will be a tsunami driven by technological upheaval, if we are learning about it now, it also explains why very few companies have strong digital leadership development programs today. Could it be so exaggerated that companies don’t believe in the digital hype?

Paul Pittman: I never thought I would be defending big consulting but we really shouldn’t shoot the messenger here… maybe that was a bit hasty. The challenges through the years remain the same, but it’s the problems that are different. I used to organize the same insights as a partner in big consulting and complained about the same thing; the responses were always the same but actually, upon deeper dive, it was the issues underlying these headers that were changing.

As always, it’s about how we foster sustainable engagement in the face of change — be it human or technological, or both. It’s the nature of things and HR is never well-prepared.

I am not a proponent of thinking digitization or HR analytics are going to be major — these are categorized as challenges to attract consulting solutions. They are no more a challenge (or an opportunity) than the calculator or the laptop, and I am confident we will survive the millennial apocalypse, which has also been overdone. Previous cohort changes have worried management and would have garnered the same response to the same survey question if asked then.

More clients and colleagues are reaching the conclusion these challenges are not new technology- or age-related but a better-educated, smarter intake that has harnessed the tool of technology better than the managers who are hiring them. I am not sure why this should surprise us — it’s what we wanted for our children. The organizational challenge is how to release the wisdom in management teams and how to encourage them to foster constraint-free environments that enable problem-solving. It’s about leadership rather than management.

Tracey White: Well said, Paul. I agree with your observation about a growing digital divide. This divide is not about demographics directly. For too long, managers and HR have been concerned about figuring out the millennials as a cohort. Yet, the same thing happened when generation X and the baby boomers entered the workforce. An obsession with demographics overlooks the reality we are all living in a moment of exponential technological change. The millennials are not the first, nor will they be the last, generation to experience such rapid technological change. 

New technologies we are anticipating — artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, robotics — have yet to impact organizations significantly. Change will unfold over the next decade, encompassing more than the millennials. It will require us to rethink how work is organized, valued and compensated. It will also require new organizational forms, which was Rahnema’s focus. To get there, we need to change our mental models about how organizations operate.

Two data points from the presentation concerned me most. First, Deloitte reported, “HR is being left out of AI-driven work redesign,” with only 36 per cent of companies reporting “HR is involved as an advisor in some way.” Second, the trend labelled “robotics, cognitive computing and AI” as last on the list, with 60 per cent of survey respondents saying it is “not/somewhat important.”  

The financial crisis of 2008 was a psychological shock. Ten years on, I believe our common mental model is things will return to normal eventually. Leaders, managers and HR wait for the return of economic stability and full-time employment. But, as one participant observed, work performed by contingent employees is one of the fastest-growing segments and these workers are often not on HR’s radar screen. This is tangible evidence of a disconnect uncovered by Deloitte’s data, and is where the opportunity for HR lies.

Paul: There were some nice nuggets in the presentation that generated a lot of discussion with this intellectually inquisitive audience, partly because there are not a lot of ready-made solutions. Audiences of this calibre and experience are concerned with trends, but super-sensitive to their being interpreted into expedient conclusions.

Canada has few mega global players and not many in industries (other than government) that naturally lend themselves to responding to dramatic organization remodelling. I also wonder whether the cultural dimension requires deeper contemplation. I appreciated the honesty about not having all the answers.

The reason organizational modelling has not radically evolved in 2,000 years is because it works — humans respond to someone taking charge. They adapt and morph (teams to tribes is just different nomenclature) but, essentially, the models play to the human need.

I participated in several self-managed project teams in different companies 20 years ago. The 100-people rule is a leadership tenet based on human capability too. While it is correct that a 1950s manager might recognize the shape of today’s organization, she wouldn’t have a clue how it works. Much of the United States GDP is lost to bureaucracy — that’s called compliance for a more complicated world. It’s all wonderfully debatable stuff.

Organizations have sought adaptability for eons, which means being different; an organizational model that suits your demographic profile, culture, values, product or service, client or customer is the right one for you, and will differentiate you from the pack. That’s not the one your competitor just adopted.

Ian: Whether we are learning from the past or not, I have no personal doubt that digitization — meaning human and machine collaboration — is both new and upon us. This will have an impact. Whether it be relatively benign, as some might believe, or significant, as I believe it will be, will be proven out, over time. The study indicates we are unprepared and so, hopefully, the participants have received the message that time is their enemy.

Jan: Well said, folks. This brings us back full circle. Our organizations’ structures and processes, and our leaders and people need to communicate, adapt and evolve at a faster clip than ever before. So, what do we, as a community of HR professionals, need to do differently to be seen as leaders in these times of rapid change?

Latest stories