Three years ago I was asked by one of the world’s leading banks to transform the 100,000 employees of its retail banking operation into an efficient, dynamic and agile workforce capable of facing the challenges of the 2020s. At the time I thought this was fanciful. Today I think it was prescient.
I’m 57. Even before the pandemic, the customs and assumptions of my generation, in business as in life, were in question. In business, the concept of a select few calling the shots based on superior information, experience and connections was already looking threadbare. Today the need for the agility, efficiency and resilience my banking clients were seeking is urgent. We have reached the tipping point, not least in the form of the jump-shift in consumer and workforce expectations and needs we have seen in the pandemic. Meanwhile a little-recognised phenomenon encapsulates the new dynamic and provides, perhaps, the basis for that drive for into agility for businesses everywhere.
The inversion of the organisation
In organisations of all kinds, the people with first-hand knowledge of markets and customers are those on the front line who deal directly with both. While organisations have long used systems to gather intelligence about their operations, that intelligence is broadly financial, inferred and retrospective. Decisions were – and still are – taken in forums away from the customer, based on limited intelligence and shaped by the collective experience of the “executive team”.
The advent of digital channels and teams which combine technical knowledge, iterative development methods and direct feedback from rea l-time customer behaviour have permanently diminished the role of marketers and strategists. The greatest insight into customer behaviour and commercial strategy in the digital organisation lies in these teams, and, with the democratisation of wider market knowledge, the inversion of the traditional organisational pyramid now seems not just desirable but inevitable.
What will shape the new sociology of the workplace?
With the logic of organisational inversion growing clearer, so too are a series of factors that are also reshaping the present and future workforce. As the future accelerates toward us, three principal legacies of our collective past stand in the way and pose additional challenges.
The barriers of bias, which have kept so many from gaining and holding positions of influence and creativity, are being dismantled. Businesses and individuals now increasingly accept that it is not just the macro-inefficiencies of discrimination that matter, but the moral stance and values of the organisation themselves. McKinsey will tell you that companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35 per cent more likely to have superior financial returns. I can tell you that if your organisation is not avowedly fair and responsible, in this and many other dimensions, young people will not want to work for you, nor will they buy your goods or services.
True digital natives are emerging. We are now seeing the first children of the 21st century enter the workplace and their attitudes and expectations have been shaped wholly in the era of the internet. Armed with information, resources and opportunities that their parents struggle to comprehend, these people are our biggest opportunity it y for new skills and innovation, as well as the prime consumers of the future.
There may be fewer of them, but they will have a greater impact on the success of a modern business than any previous generation and their values and expectations will be far more influential. The gig economy, Black Lives Matter and Me Too have taught them harsh lessons in both the uses and abuses of economic and social power. Now the post-pandemic working model has given them huge scope to work where, how and for whom they like. They will gather information and exercise those freedoms far more assiduously than any generation before.
Climate change will transcend all other challenges to organisations and businesses in the widest sense. Almost unimaginable changes to consumption, infrastructure and activity will be required. Our collective ability, in business and in society, to face, solve and overcome the problems of decarbonisation are now the sternest test of our industrialised society and the greatest force compelling change in how we organise and mobilise capital and assets in commerce and in public service.
A new paradigm for the 21st-century organisation?
Our societies need organisations and structures to which people align and contribute at different stages of their lives and careers. There will never be a nation of freelancers: coordination, collective learning and economies of scale will be needed for efficiency and effect on the global basis on which we now work.
New structures and dynamics in our organisations and in critical employer/employee relationships are needed. Already, young people are demanding flexibility, responsibility, development and a sense of deeper meaning and purpose in their organisations. They see new choices in where and how they work. The employee bargain is, for them, different.
To meet these ideals and attract the skills and energy that are sorely needed within the continuing imperatives facing any enterprise in our capitalist economies, we must accelerate the development of the agile organisations that my banking clients dreamed of.
Agility, in the sense now current in business, is no longer just the be-all and end-all of the digital economy. In their digital homeland, agile practices bring decision-makers and frontline staff into the same debates and rooms in search of better and faster developments in products and services of every kind. The deeper implications of this seachange for whole organisations are now sensed by many business leaders; for others, they will become clear soon enough. The greater resilience, creativity and energy available to organisations formed and working in this “agile” way may not be enough to take us through this critical period of our development as a society in the widest sense. But they can, and should, be an essential part of our response to the gathering challenges ahead.
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