The second domain for the future of work: Organizations
Gary A Bolles, UNLEASH’s newest columnist and globally renowned expert on the intersection of AI and business, investigates the second domain for the future of work.
Why You Should Care
Redefine work roles in terms of the problems to be solved, and the skills needed to solve them. Rethink the requirements for different work roles. Train workers walking in the door.
A snapshot of the many ideas in Gary Bolles' latest writing for UNLEASH. Give it a read today.
I frequently give talks I call “firestarter” sessions for C-suite decision-makers around the world, exposing them to mind-blowing examples of how rapidly work and technology are changing the very nature of the organization.
Though they come from every possible industry, when I ask them their greatest need for the future of work, there is one consistent answer: Everyone who leads in an organization wants to be able to have the talented workers they need, today and tomorrow.
And HR professionals are, of course, at the forefront of delivering on this demand.
Why we need ‘Next Practices’ for hiring
How should we involve new workers in the work of the organization, in how we hire and how we manage?
We use words like ‘attract’ or ‘acquire’ talent, and when that process is successful, we call it ‘hiring’. What we are really trying to do, though, is to involve humans in creating value for the organization’s stakeholders.
Yet so much of what we do in that process are attempts at reducing risk. If you knew with absolute certainty that the next person to walk through your door was the perfect person for the work role you have envisioned, you would hire them in an instant.
And if that person knew with absolute certainty that yours was the perfect organization for them to work with, they would accept.
But we don’t have that certainty, so we use a range of risk management processes to try to increase certainty and reduce risk. Yet too often those old rules of work exert a ‘tax’ on the organization’s ability to have the talented workers it needs.
- By regularly defining work roles in terms of the tasks that are performed, rather than in the problems to be solved and the skills needed to solve those problems, organizations straitjacket work roles into overly-structured definitions that make it extremely difficult to find the most appropriate talent.
- By designing work roles as static functions, rather than as fluid roles that can adapt as new problems appear, organizations create incentives to focus on tasks and processes.
- By establishing traditional metrics for work roles, such as college degrees and number of years of experience, we not only reduce the candidate pool, we blind ourselves to opportunities for inclusion.
- By using online resume marketplaces, organizations de-humanize the hiring process — which actually can create more risk, rather than less, because it means we often have less information about the truly human aspects of a worker, and we risk missing someone who was screened out for reasons that had nothing to do with their ability to do the work.
- By using traditional hiring practices such as long, drawn-out interview sequences, organizations stretch out the hiring process, to the point where only the most dedicated and engaged candidates will run to completion.
That’s how we use old, ineffective practices to try to dial down risk.
Why we need ‘Next Practices’ for managing
Once a worker is hired, we place them under the guidance of other humans we often call ‘supervisors’ or ‘managers’. The mindset for the role of the supervisor and the manager also comes from the old rules of work, originally from factories where raw output by workers was considered the major value that a worker could create for the organization’s stakeholders.
That may seem a little harsh: After all, every one of us is using 21st-century management practices, right?
Yet look at how few organizations before the global pandemic had policies for distributed teams. We didn’t trust workers enough to manage their time, be effective in their work, and remain in synchrony with others on their team. Then along came a virus, and suddenly we all had to trust each other.
Our opportunity is to transform the role of the manager — the one who had all the answers — to the Team Guide, the one who asks all the best questions.
What can you do next?
So what can the people function do to increase the organization’s ability to find and guide the talented workers they need, today and tomorrow?
- Redefine work roles in terms of the problems to be solved, and the skills needed to solve them. For many work roles, skilled problem-solvers will work in teams to dynamically bind around problems, and they will determine in real time what tasks are needed to develop a solution.
- Rethink the requirements for different work roles. During the global recession of 2008 and beyond when many workers were unemployed, many organizations “up-required” jobs to demand college degrees. IBM has recently announced that half of all their open jobs no longer require a degree. This process is far easier if you shift to a problem- and skills-centric model for work roles.
- Reduce the risk of hiring by ‘softening the walls’ of the organization. Use creative strategies such as developing mentorship programs, building apprenticeship opportunities that pay workers as they learn, and carving up open work roles into project work that a half-dozen paid candidates can do in a few week’s time. These practices work for all concerned, helping workers and hirers to kick each others’ tires before making the commitment.
- Train workers walking in the door. Google typically puts every new-hire programmer through the same training program, whether they’ve attended Carnegie-Mellon University or a bootcamp. The better training a worker has received, the faster they get through the training program. But this process ensures that everyone has a baseline skillset.
- Help every worker to have a North Star or Southern Cross in their work. Every one of us needs some goal in our lives that serves as a magnet for our future work. That can be a particular kind of problem to solve, a new skill to acquire, or an aspirational work role to attain. The pharmaceutical company Novartis encourages every worker to have a learning plan, and a career goal, so they will have a growth mindset.
- Train every single worker to lead. Rather than thinking of “leadership” as a binary quality — you either have it or you don’t — think of ‘leading’ as a verb. Anyone in the organization can lead. Workers can be encouraged to identify problems small and large that they can solve, and empowered to have the agency to solve them. Novartis also has a common practice it calls “unbossing,” encouraging workers in every meeting to avoid defaulting to letting the executive with the highest title in the room to solve every problem.
- Provide the training and economic incentives for Team Guides. Shifting from that industrial-era model of a production-line boss to a ‘team guide’ approach requires training and supportive compensation, with bonuses for the kinds of empowering behaviors that encourage anyone to solve problems.
The ‘old rules’ metric was often the number of problems that an executive solved. But the ‘next rules’ metric is how many problems are solved that never reach your desk.
You can read part one of Gary’s four part analysis of the four domains of the future of work here.
Author, speaker and AI expert
Gary A. Bolles writes and lectures around the world on the future of work, learning, and the organization.