Flexible Futures

I: A Brief Tour of the Future

During my first visit to Sydney, in 1997, I made arrangements to catch up with some friends living in Drummoyne.  I was staying at the Novotel Darling Harbour, so we agreed to meet in front of the IMAX theatre before heading off to drinks and dinner.  I arrived at the appointed time, as did a few of my friends.  We waited a bit more, but saw no sign of the missing members of our party.  What to do?  Should we wait there – for goodness knows how long – or simply go on without them?

As I debated our choices – neither particularly palatable – one of my friends took a mobile out of his pocket, dialed our missing friends, and told them to meet us at an Oxford Street pub.  Crisis resolved.

Nothing about this incident seems at all unusual today – except for my reaction to the dilemma of the missing friends.  When someone’s not where they should be, where they said they would be, we simply ring them.  It’s automatic.

In Los Angeles, where I lived at the time, mobile ownership rates had barely cracked twenty percent.  America was slow on the uptake to mobiles; by the time of my visit, Australia had already passed fifty percent.  When half of the population can be reached instantaneously and continuously, people begin to behave differently.  Our social patterns change.  My Sydneysider friends had crossed a conceptual divide into hyperconnectivity, while I was mired in an old, discrete and disconnected conception of human relationships.

We rarely recall how different things were before everyone carried a mobile.  The mobile has become such an essential part of our kit that on those rare occasions when we leave it at home or lose track of it, we feel a constant tug, like the phantom pain of a missing limb.  Although we are loath to admit it, we need our mobiles to bring order to our lives.

We can take comfort in the fact that all of us feel this way.  Mobile subscription rates in Australia are greater than one hundred and twenty percent – more than one mobile per person, one of the highest rates in the world.  We have voted with our feet, with our wallets and with our attention.  The default social posture in Australia – and New Zealand and the UK and the USA – is face down, absorbed in the mobile.  We stare at it, toy with it, play on it, but more than anything else, we reach through it to others, whether via voice calls, text messages, Facebook, Twitter, or any of an constantly-increasing number of ways.

The mobile takes the vast, anonymous and unknowable world, and makes it pocket-sized, friendly and personal.  If we ever run into a spot of bother, we can bring resources to hand – family, friends, colleagues, even professional fixers like lawyers and doctors – with the press of ten digits.  We give mobiles to our children and parents so they can call us – and so we can track them.  The mobile is the always-on lifeline, a different kind of 000, for a different class of needs.

Because everyone is connected, we can connect to anyone we wish.  These connections needn’t follow the well-trodden paths of family, friends, neighbors and colleagues.  We can ignore protocol and reach directly into an organization, or between silos, or from bottom to top, without obeying any of the niceties described on org charts or contact sheets.  People might choose to connect in an orderly fashion – when it suits them.  Generally, they will connect to their greatest advantage, whether or not that suits your purposes, protocols, or needs.  When people need a lifeline, they will turn over heaven and earth to find it, and once they’ve found it, they will share it with others.

Connecting is an end in itself – smoothing our social interactions, clearing the barriers to commerce and community – but connection also provides a platform for new kinds of activities.  Connectivity is like mains power: once everywhere, it becomes possible to imagine a world where people own refrigerators and televisions.

When people connect, their first, immediate and natural response is to share.  People share what interests them with people they believe share those interests.  In early days that sharing can feel very unfocused.  We all know relatives or friends who have gone online, gotten overexcited, and suddenly start to forward us every bad joke, cute kitten or chain letter that comes their way.  (Perhaps we did these things too.)  Someone eventually tells the overeager sharer to think before they share.  They learn the etiquette of sharing.  Life gets easier (and more interesting) for everyone.

As we learn who wants to know what, we integrate ourselves into a very powerful network for the dissemination of knowledge.  If it’s important to us, the things we need to know will filter their way through our connections, shared from person to person, delivered via multiple connections.  In the 21st century, news comes and finds us.  Our process of learning about the world has become multifocal; some of it comes from what we see and those we meet, some from what we read or watch, and the rest from those we connect with.

The connected world, with its dense networks, has become an incredibly efficient platform for the distribution of any bit of knowledge – honest truth, rumor, and outright lies.  Anything, however trivial, finds its way to us, if we consider it important.   Hyperconnectivity provides a platform for a breadth of ‘situational awareness’ beyond even the wildest imaginings of MI6 or ASIO.

In a practical sense, sharing means every employee, no matter their position on the org chart, can now possess a detailed awareness your organization.  When an employee trains their attention on something important to them, they see how to connect to others sharing similar important information.

We begin by sharing everything, but as that becomes noisy (and boring), we focus on sharing those things which interest us most.  We forge bonds with others interested in the same things.  These networks of sharing provide an opportunity for everyone to involve themselves fully within any domain deemed important – or at least interesting.  Each sharing network becomes a classroom of sorts, where anyone expert in any area, however peculiar, becomes recognized, promoted, and well-connected.  If you know something that others want to know, they will find you.

In addition to everything else, we are each a unique set of knowledge, experience and capabilities which, in the right situation, proves uniquely valuable.  By sharing what we know, we advertise our expertise.  It follows us where ever we go.   Because this expertise is mostly hidden from view, it is impossible for us to look at one another and see the depth that each of us carries within us.

Every time we share, we reveal the secret expert within ourselves.  Because we constantly share ourselves with our friends, family and co-workers, they come to rely on what we know.  But what of our colleagues?  We work in organizations with little sense of the expertise that surrounds us.

Before hyperconnectivity, it was difficult to share expertise.  You could reach a few people – those closest to you – but unless your skills were particularly renowned or valuable, that’s where it stopped.  For good or ill, our experience and knowledge now  extend far beyond the circle of those familiar to you, throughout the entire organization.  Everyone in it can now have some awareness of the talents that pulse through your organizations – with the right tools in place.

 

II: Mobility & Flexibility

Everyone now goes everywhere with a mobile in hand.  This means everyone is continually connected to the organization.  That has given us an office that has no walls, one which has expanded to fill every moment of our lives.  We need to manage that relationship and the tension between connectivity and capability.  People can not always be available, people can not always be ‘on’.  Instead, we must be able to establish boundaries, rules, conventions and practices which allow us to separate work from the rest of our lives, because we can no longer do so based on time or location.

We also need some way to be able to track the times and places we do work.  We’re long past the days of punching a timeclock.  In a sense, the mobile has become the work-whistle, timeclock and overseer, because it is the monitor.  This creates another tension, because people will not be comfortable if they believe their own devices are spying on them. Can organizations walk a middle path, which allows the mobile to enable more employee choice and greater freedom, without eternally tethering the employee to the organization?

This is a policy matter, not a technology matter, but technology is forcing the hand of policy.  How can technology come to the aid of that policy?  How can I know when it might be appropriate to contact an employee within my organization, and when it would be right out?  This requires more than a quick glance at an employee schedule.  The employee, mobile in hand, has the capacity to be able to ‘check in’ and ‘check out’ of availability, and will do so if it’s relatively effortless.  Employees can manage their own time more effectively than any manager, given the opportunity.

It’s interesting to note that this kind of employee-driven ‘flextime’ has been approaching for nearly thirty years, but hasn’t yet arrived.  Flextime has proven curiously inflexible.  That’s a result of the restricted communication between employee and organization, mostly happening within the office and within office hours.  Now that communication is continuous and pervasive, now that the office is everywhere, flextime policies must be adjusted to accommodate the continuously-evolving needs of the organization’s employees.  The technology can support this – and we’re certainly flexible enough.  So these practices must come into line with our capabilities.

As practice catches up with technology, we need to provide employees with access to the tools which they can use to manage their own work lives.  This is the key innovation, because empowering employees in this way creates greater job satisfaction, and a sense of ownership and participation within the organization.  Just as we can schedule time with our friends or pursuing our hobbies, we should be able to manage our work lives.

Because we rely so heavily on mobiles, we lead very well-choreographed lives.  Were we to peek at a schedule, our time might look free, but our lives have a habit of forming themselves on-the-fly, sometimes only a few minutes in advance of whatever might be happening.   We hear our mobile chime, then read the latest text message telling us where we should be – picking up the kids, going to the shops, heading to a client.  Our mobiles are already in the driver’s seat.  Fourteen years ago, when I sat at Darling Harbour, waiting for my late friends, we had no sense that we could use pervasive mobile connectivity to manage our schedules and our friends’ schedules so precisely.  Now, it’s just the way things are.

Do we have back office practices which reflect this new reality?  Can an employee poke at their mobile and know where they’re expected, when, and why?  By this, I don’t mean calendaring software (which is important), but rather the rest of the equation, which allows employee and employer to come to a moment-by-moment agreement about the focus of that employment.

This is where we’re going.  The same processes at work in our private lives are grinding away relentlessly within our organizations.  Why should our businesses be fundamentally more restrictive than our family or friends, all of whom have learned how to adapt to the flexibility that the mobile has wrought?  This isn’t a big ask.  It’s not as though our organizations will tip into chaos as employees gain the technical capacity to manage their own time.  This is why policy is important.  Just because anything is possible doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.  Hand-in-hand with the release of tools must come training on how these tools should be used to strengthen an organization, and some warnings on how these same tools could undermine an organization whose employees put their own needs consistently ahead of their employer.

Once everyone has been freed to manage their own time, you have a schedule that looks more like Swiss cheese than the well-ordered blocks of time we once expected from the workforce.  Every day will be special, a unique arrangement of hours worked.  Very messy.  You need excellent tracking and reporting tools to tell you who did what, when, and for how long.  Those tools are the other side of the technology equation; give employees control, and you create the demand for a deeper and more comprehensive awareness of employee activities.

Managers can’t spend their days tracking employee comings and goings.  As our schedules become more flexible and more responsive to both employee and organizational needs, the amount of information a manager needs to absorb becomes prohibitive.  Managers need tools which boil down the raw data into easily digestible and immediately apprehensible summaries.

Not long ago, I did quite a bit of IT consulting for a local council, and one thing I heard from the heads of each of the council’s departments, was how much the managers at the top needed a ‘dashboard’, which could give them a quick overview of the status of their departments, employee deployment, and the like.  A senior executive needs to be able to glance at something – either on their desktop computer, or with a few pokes on their mobile – and know what’s going on.

Something necessary for the senior management has utility throughout the organization.  The kind of real-time information that makes a better manager also makes a better organization, because employees who have access to real-time updates can change their own activities to meet rising demands.  The same flexibility which allows employees to schedule themselves also creates the opportunity for a thoroughly responsive and reconfigurable workforce, able to turn on a dime, because it is plugged in and well-aware of the overall status of the organization.

That’s the real win here; employees want flexibility to manage their own lives, and organizations need that flexibility to able to respond quickly to both crises and opportunities.  The mobile empowers both employee and organization to meet these demands, provided there is sufficient institutional support to make these moment-to-moment changes effortless.

This is a key point.   Where there is friction in making a change, in updating a schedule, or in keeping others well-informed, those points of friction become the pressure points within the organization.  An organization might believe that it can respond quickly and flexibly to a crisis, only to find – in the midst of that crisis – that there is too much resistance to support the organizational demand for an instant change of focus.  An organization with too much friction divides its capabilities, becoming less effective through time, while an organization which has smoothed away those frictions multiplies its capabilities, because it can redeploy its human resources at the speed of light.

Within a generation, that’s the kind of flexibility we will all expect from every organization.  With the right tools in hand, it’s easy to imagine how we can create organizations that flow like water while remaining internally coherent.  We’re not there yet, but the pieces are now in place for a revolution which will reshape the organization.

 

III: Exposing Expertise

It’s all well and good to have a flexible organization, able to reconfigure itself as the situation demands, but that capability is useless unless supported by the appropriate business intelligence.  When a business pivots, it must be well-executed, lest it fly apart as all of the pieces fall into the wrong places, hundreds of square pegs trying to fill round holes.

Every employee in an organization has a specific set of talents, but these talents are not evenly distributed.  Someone knows more about sales, someone else knows more about marketing, or customer service, or accounting.  That’s why people have roles within an organization; they are the standard-bearers for the organization’s expertise.

Yet an employee’s expertise may lie across several domains.  Someone in accounting may also provide excellent customer service.  Someone in manufacturing might be gifted with sales support.  A salesman might be an accomplished manager.  People come into your organization with a wide range of skills, and even if they don’t have an opportunity to share them as part of their normal activities, those skills represent resources of immense value.

If only we knew where to find them.

You see, it isn’t always clear who knows what, who’s had experience where, or who’s been through this before.  We do not wear our employment histories on our sleeves.  Although we may enter an organization with our c.v. in hand, once hired it gets tucked away until we start scouting around for another job.  What we know and what we’ve done remains invisible.  Our professional lives look a lot like icebergs, with just a paltry bit of our true capabilities exposed to view.

One of the functions of a human resources department is to track these employee capabilities.  Historically, these capabilities have been strictly defined, with an appropriately circumscribed set of potentials.  Those slots in the organization are filled by these skills.  This model fit well well organizations treasured stability and order over flexibility and responsiveness.  But an organization that needs to pivot and reorient itself as conditions arise will ask employees to be ready to assume a range of roles as required.

How does an organization become aware of the potential hidden away within its employees?

I look out this afternoon and see an audience, about whom I know next to nothing.  There are deep reservoirs of knowledge and experience in this room, reservoirs that extend well beyond your core skills in payroll and human resources.  But I can’t see any of it.  I have no idea what we could do together, if we had the need.  We probably have enough skills here to create half a dozen world-class organizations.  But I’m flying blind.

You’re not.  Human resources is more than hiring and compliance.  It is an organizational asset, because HR is the keeper of the human inventory of skills and experiences.   As an employee interviews for a position and is hired, do you translate their c.v. into a database of expertise?  Do you sit them down for an in-depth interview which would uncover any other strengths they bring into the organization?  Or is this information simply lying dormant, like a c.v. stashed away in a drawer?

The technology to capture organizational skills is already widely deployed.  In many cases you don’t need much more than your normal HR tools.  This isn’t a question of tools, but rather, how those tools get used.  Every HR department everywhere is like a bank vault loaded up with cash and precious metals.  You could just close the vault, leaving the contents to moulder unused.  Or you can take that value and lend it out, making it work for you and your organization.

That’s the power of an HR department which recognizes that business intelligence about the intelligence and expertise within your organization acts like a force multiplier.  A small organization with a strong awareness of its expertise punches far above its weight.  A large organization with no such awareness consistently misses opportunities to benefit from its unique excellence.

You hold the keys to the kingdom, able to unlock a revolution in productivity which can take your organizations to a whole new level of capability.  When anyone in the organization can quickly learn who can help them with a given problem, then reach that person immediately – which they now can, given everyone has a mobile – you have effectively swept away much of the friction which keeps organizations from reaching their full potential.

Consider the tools you already employ.  How can they be opened up to give employees an awareness of the depth of talent within your organization?  How can HR become a switchboard of capabilities, connecting those with needs to those who have proven able to meet those needs?  How can a manager gain a quick understanding of all of the human resources available throughout the organization, so that a pivot becomes an effortless moment of transition, not a chaotic chasm of confusion.

This is the challenge for the organizations of the 21st century.  We have to learn how to become flexible, fluid, responsive and mobile.  We have to move from ignorance into awareness.  We have to understand that the organization as a whole benefits from an expanded awareness of itself.  We have to do these things because newer, more nimble competitors will force these changes on us.   Organizations that do not adapt to the workforce and organizational movements toward flexibility and fluidity will be battered, dazed and confused, staggering from crisis to crisis.  Better by far to be on the front foot, walking into the future with a plan to unleash the power within our organizations.