Part Three of a Three Part Series - By Robert Bolton

COVID-19 very rapidly redefined the world of work. For many of us, things are not going to return to the way things were — nor should they.

Below is the final in a three-part series addressing the future of work in a new reality. To read my earlier blogs in the series, please visit: Reinventing work in a disrupted world and Beyond organizational agility.

An organization’s culture is characterized by the set of underlying mind-sets and behaviors that define how work gets done. Competitive advantage may depend heavily on having the right culture in place to drive the right results. Because each individual directly influences corporate culture — either supporting it or detracting from it — how workers think about their workplace is critical.

Digital is one of the key drivers of cultural transformation. Across the organization, there needs to be a reconciling of the demand for digital skills to deploy and manage technology, and the human skills to work with this technology. As the work of humans converges with the work of machines, a digital mind-set is needed to position the enterprise for success. In fact, the biggest limitation is no longer technology itself, but the imagination of those who must deploy it.

This digital mind-set is particularly effective in navigating and reconciling the dilemma that every organization will face as they emerge from the current COVID-19 situation: How to automate tasks while at the same time architecting a differentiated and connected ‘whole enterprise.’

Adopting a digital mind-set and culture leads to four workforce values in action:

  1. Connecting end to end. A connected organization understands that being experience-obsessed only works when the entire enterprise is integrated to deliver on that outcome. Increasing awareness of the connection between employee experience and customer experience is critical, as is taking a more horizontal perspective that connects all aspects of the enterprise in the pursuit of desired customer outcomes.

    The future is about breaking down silos and aligning processes across all functions so that every part of the organization, from sales to the supply chain, can work with every other element to deliver against the big picture.

    Research by KPMG International indicates that truly customer-centric businesses achieve three times the revenue growth of the average FTSE 100 or Fortune 250 company1. The bottom line of connected thinking is shared interest: everybody — from customers and colleagues, to the wider circle of stakeholders, partners and communities — benefits from a virtuous circle of value creation.

  2. Growth mind-set. In a flexible culture where agility and change are actively encouraged, traditional role boundaries dissolve to allow for more cross-functional and role collaboration. It means that every employee has the ability to develop and grow, with new leaders regularly emerging.

    An example of replacing vertical hierarchies with horizontal networks is when a product development team partners with talent from marketing, finance, and engineering to bring a new item to market.

    At Liberty Mutual Insurance, teams developing customer-facing products sought to pool talent from different functions, thereby enabling a more agile approach to developing products and onboarding customers. Liberty has found that the teaming leads to improved products, and the team itself feels more empowered2.

    Another example is Microsoft. Microsoft roots its record performance in a simple cultural change: applying a growth mind-set. Their organizational culture centers on the belief that everyone can grow and develop; potential is nurtured, not predetermined, and anyone can change their mind-set, making the shift from being “know-it-alls” to “learn-it-alls”. The organization is now using their growth mind-set strategy to develop the company’s next leaders3.

    Responsibilities that were initially separated by different departments with different goals, are brought together to encourage innovation and ensure that unrealistic or overly expensive approaches are addressed early in the design process.

  3. Everyone an innovator. When employees are empowered to productively innovate how tasks, roles, and delivery are conducted between humans and machines, it allows all in the organization to unleash their own potential towards the common goal of the business.

    Tapping into crowdsourcing’s potential to drive innovation should also be on the tactical agenda. MIT Sloan Management Review4 found that ideation rates (i.e., number of management-approved ideas per 1000 active users) are positively correlated with company growth and net income. Innovation that moves a business forward is possible when people of all positions are committed to idea generation.

    An example of encouraged innovation can be seen at 3M. 3M's culture includes their famous 15% allowance for staff to develop their own ideas, the creation of career paths and forums for staff to develop and connect up across the organizations’ diverse technologies, the importance of reward and recognition schemes, and how they mobilize a huge base of knowhow to call upon. They encourage “boundary-less behavior” and give staff “permission to persevere” in finding innovations, which has not only led to the creation of new products but also new industries, including bringing the world’s most recognizable brands Post-it Notes and Scotch tape to market5.

    Innovation doesn’t have to start from the top. When employees are given the resources and the opportunity to innovate it makes going from idea to something tangible much easier.

  4. Courage to act and to challenge. In an environment that provides autonomy and the freedom to act in the support of collective business objectives, initiative is expected and encouraged. Courageous workers take on more difficult projects, are more resilient in times of change, and are more willing to bring up important, difficult issues. This could be reflected in not being afraid to accept new responsibilities, in having the confidence to make a bold decision, or in admitting a mistake.

    The courage of initiative is demonstrated in all pioneering efforts. However, by definition, courageous acts come with risk. So even if the initial effort fails, this cultural value allows a dignified reset and bounce back. The courage to challenge is the courage of voice. It’s speaking out to tell the truth — to your peers, to your boss, or to the CEO. When this is supported, courage is contagious.

    Leaders must trust employees to do the right thing for customers and strategy execution. This is demonstrated when the entire company shares priorities, projects, and progress — up, down, and sideways. It results in teams being able to form quickly and to operate with a high degree of self-determination. A top-down, command and control ‘alpha’ managerial mind-set is surely over.

The Winding Road Ahead

As companies exit lockdown and move into the new reality, they can choose to create exceptional workplaces — special cultures boasting a clear and shared sense of purpose and skilled people whose talents are celebrated and fully enabled. This can be achieved by adopting a digital mind-set and culture that maintains a sharp focus on people and values in the face of emerging technology. Just as those companies that were furthest in their digital journey adjusted the fastest in response to COVID-19, those that continue with digital transformation and go beyond organizational agility can position their organizations best to face the next event.

For further insights, please visit: Rise of the Humans series

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