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Do People Matter?

Looking back at 2006, there were a series of stories that came out that examined the changing nature of work, workers and the workplace. They are worth highlighting again. These articles (and I am sure there are many others) should be on the recommended viewing and/or reading lists of most business and IT strategists: a PBS special (“Generation Next”) examines demographic shifts, a Business Week Story (“Smashing The Clock”) discusses new approaches to work models and an article earlier this year by McKinsey (“Competitive Advantage Through Interactions”) discusses the value of interactions between information workers and the tacit nature of “artful” work. Finally, Fortune held its third annual event on innovation (“Innovation Forum”) examining the cultural and organizational dynamics necessary to excel in markets and deliver long-term value to customers. The common thread across all these stories should come of no surprise – the hidden asset within organizations that drives growth and innovation is its people.

What makes this renewed discussion on the value of people relevant beyond increased media coverage is that the points made in the stories can be put in the context of strategic trends that executives are used to hearing: innovation (e.g., growth, customer value), agility (e.g., productivity, performance), and worker demographics (e.g., aging workforce). But do senior management teams really believe that people matter? I’m reminded of a story about one CEO who was quoted in a newspaper that if he wanted loyalty, he’d own a dog. I wonder if employees felt that they were an asset after reading that article. I’m sure they did because they probably had a mission statement on their cubicle wall that said so.

Many organizations tell its workers how important they are – then proceed to reduce benefits, sell off business units, outsource jobs, increase hours, reduce professional development programs, etc. Amazingly, management then wonders why its people (the asset covered in these stories) are not motivated and engaged when it comes to brainstorming and exchanging know-how. They often blame technology, and typically will throw out more applications and infrastructure rather than address the root cause – often found in issues related to human capital management.

While the tone of this article might sound somewhat cynical, I am actually optimistic that senior leadership teams within large organizations are finally realizing that mastering process, information and data will only result in a certain level of excellence in the market. To differentiate itself from the competition and to deliver sustained value to customers, organizations are dependent on a well engaged and motivated workforce. As I’ve stated in earlier posts here and on my own blog, elevating people, groups (teams, communities) and networks to the same level of importance as data, information and process is long overdue.

Three areas in particular where strategists should better understand the social aspects that surround “work”, “worker” and “workplace” are:

Innovation: Organizations that fail to innovate will not survive. While innovation requires some level of governance and structure, of paramount importance is focus on people and fostering a sense of community that extends beyond the confines of the enterprise itself. Ideas often come from the fringe. People need to feel that emergent thinking is a desirable behavior, that contrarian approaches will not be summarily dismissed, that purposeful risk-taking is acceptable and that failure is not career-ending. Informal methods of communicating, sharing information and collaborating within and across communities are also a key enabler for innovation efforts. At an enterprise level, pursuit of innovation is forcing organizations to externalize many of its relationships and interconnect its activities across customer, partner and supplier constituencies in ways never before imagined.  Being innovative does not mean that the concept necessarily needs to come from within. Being the ecosystem provider and “packager” of what is deemed to be innovative is equally valuable.

Agility: Enterprises that excel at transforming institutional structures will more quickly adapt to market dynamics. Today, institutions, and the management layers around those institutions, determine how enterprises are organized and exert tremendous influence over the way things are done. At some point however, institutions hinder productivity, diminish performance and inhibit growth as they become bureaucratic, unresponsive and self-serving. To radically improve how organizations sense-and-respond to the market, institutions need to be recast as needed. The scaffolding that holds the organization of tomorrow together will be more networked, relationship-centric and self-organizing.  Methods and practices that cultivate effective communication, information sharing and collaboration will hold the key in this model to improve business productivity and performance. This will also require management to carefully balance levels of cooperation, decision rights and governance between the edge (where work gets done) and the core (where security, identity, and compliance need to be commonly addressed).  

Worker Demographics: Organizations are becoming more global. A large part of the existing workforce is nearing retirement. The new workforce has a much high level of literacy when it comes to technology than any generation before it. The historical social contract between employer and employee is no longer tenable (predictable career path, employed until retirement).  The workplace itself is become more virtualized, with increasing numbers of remote workers (e.g., mobile, work-at-home). Indeed, the line between work and lifestyle is converging as the concept of “my office” means working wherever you are at the moment. The resulting social and cultural dynamics as a result of shifting demographics are intruding into parts of the organization that before only had to worry about process-specific activities (e.g., sales, marketing, customer service and product development) and less about the environment in which these activities were taking place. Such demands require new approaches towards team-building, communication, collaboration and information sharing.

In the end, people do matter -- they matter a great deal.  Technology helps, but needs to be adopted (not simply deployed by IT groups) in manners that people find contextually relevant to their work and lifestyle needs.

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