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To have meaningful work that enables our independence and to live with dignity should be a basic human right

Talent: what REALLY matters

By Geoff Callard


The ‘Talent Management’ industry is a recent phenomenon – and it does not bear up under scrutiny.  There is no evidence to suggest that it helps organisations succeed and it ignores the need to take a deeper, systemic look at the best ways to develop people into consistently high performers.  As authors Pfeffer and Sutton declare in their book, Hard Facts, Dangerous Half Truths and Total Nonsense there are ‘…too many business adages…built on flimsy information, miracle cure hype and flawed thinking about best practice…’.   Talent Management is one of these.

We are all Biased

Talent Management is a multi-million dollar industry entrenched in most large corporate HR departments. People’s careers are built around it and those who need it to succeed are very likely to be subject to the very human biases that blind them to evidence that contradicts the fallacies that their industry is built on; that individual ability is largely fixed and invariant; people can be reliably sorted based on their abilities; and the context and the system in which they do it in is less important than individual talent.

In his book The Black Swan, Nassim Taleb summarises these biases’.  They include:

  • A Confirmation Bias in which we have a rule in mind that we then use to select examples to support an hypothesis
  • A Narrative Bias with which we fool ourselves with stories that cater to our desire for patterns in order to simplify and understand the world
  • A Remembering and Causality bias in which we more easily remember the ‘facts’ that support the outcome we have invested in and neglect the ‘facts’ that do not.

We are, of course, all susceptible to these biases.  It is part of human nature to filter that which we perceive to fit our world view and we are driven to find patterns and simplify the world in order to survive. ‘Talent Management’ is just one of the areas where we have ignored actual evidence in order to justify our actions.

Talent is not Fixed

‘Talent’ in the workplace is dependent on context, i.e. the support of the surrounding system, self-belief and effort.  High performance is more a function of having access to the right information and tools, than it is on a set fixed of attributes that are then treated as predictors of performance.

In addition, repeated studies show that abilities improve markedly when people believe they can get smarter. In other words theories of performance and ability become self-fulfilling. Talent it seems is far more malleable than we are led to believe.

The Flaw of Category Based Associations

In Situations Matter, Sam Sommers explains how we unwittingly view the groups with which we associate quite differently to those with which we are unfamiliar.  This book is a powerful reminder of how much context influences us in everything we do and it is not surprising that this is reflected in how we recruit into our organisations.

Put in behavioural terms, entrenched beliefs will cause perceptual bias regarding talent and performance. Sommers sites two examples relevant to the misguided notion that we can recruit ‘talent’.

The first is a University of Chicago and Harvard Study: ‘Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?’ in which 5,000 resumes were sent out. Using birth records the researchers gave half the resumes white-sounding names and the other half black-sounding names. They set up separate voice mail boxes for their black and white fake applicants and found that it took 50% more black applicant resumes to get a call back.  Why?  Sommers concludes that with the pressure of successive judgements to be made with little opportunity to scrutinise, our pre-existing (and often sub-conscious) default associations make a big difference.

In a similar Princeton Study white participants were asked to interview students (one white, one black) for an academic team contest. The researchers found that they spent 33% time longer with white candidates and were generally more engaged and communicated with greater warmth and confidence. The interviewers were ‘normal’ but their behaviour changed to create a different experience for white and black candidates.

In a second study one set of interviewers were trained to replicate the experience of the white interviewees; sitting close, taking more time, being more engaged, and so on.  The interviewees assigned to the ‘engaging’ interviewers consistently outperformed.  Watching the playbacks Sommers concludes that one would be convinced that that group were just a more qualified, impressive and interpersonally savvy group of people. So much for recruiting for talent.

Category based associations make a significant difference.  We are not as fair-minded as we think we are.


It’s All About the Environment

Bob Kierlin, co-founder of Fastenal, a US-based industrial supplies company, sums it up in Keith McFarland’s book The Breakthrough Company.  He says; ‘We started by believing in what people could do.  Then we figured out how to create an environment where ordinary people could do extraordinary things’.

As McFarland says, this is less about ‘getting the right people on the bus’ and much more about ‘creating a bus worth riding on’. Creating an environment that helps ensure people will succeed based on a carefully and precisely defined business model, access to the right resources and an infrastructure that supports their work is what leads people to achieve high levels of performance. In other words great systems are more important than great people.  This is precisely what W. Edward Deming was demonstrating more than 50 years ago when he ascertained that if there was a business problem, 9 times out of 10 any improvement required a change to the system not the people.

NASA is an unfortunate and regularly-cited example of how poor systems will override good people.  Seventeen years after the Challenger tragedy the Columbus Space Shuttle broke up upon entry back to earth killing all seven astronauts.  The subsequent Columbia Accident Investigation Board investigation concluded; ‘…cultural traits and organizational practices detrimental to safety were allowed to develop…’, citing ‘…reliance on past success as a substitute for sound engineering practices…’ and ‘…organizational barriers that prevented effective communication of critical safety information…’.

Tragically even though the people were different the system was not, producing a similar outcome to that seen seventeen years earlier.

Equally compelling is Boris Groysberg’s study of ‘star’ Wall Street investment analysts.  In his book The Myth of Talent and the Portability of Performance he traces the performance of thousands of star analysts who change firms. His research showed that they suffered an immediate and lasting decline in performance and that their earlier excellence appears to have depended heavily on their former firms’ resources, organizational culture, networks, and colleagues.

So why do so many companies put so much emphasis on ‘recruiting talent’ and so little on building and sustaining great systems to drive systemic high performance?  Is it partially due to our glorification of rugged individualism and reluctance to credit a systemic approach when things go right?  Is this another blindness that pervades the ‘talent mindset’; a tendency to over-attribute success and failure to individuals?

How do the Really Good Businesses ‘Manage Talent’?

It seems that the truly great businesses believe everyone is capable of the highest performance and focus on developing systems that makes it possible to turn that belief into reality.  They understand that hiring people with the right attributes is difficult not least because the right attributes today may not be what is needed tomorrow. McFarland’s research in The Breakthrough Company shows that the consistently high performing businesses ‘hire attitude and build aptitude’. A large part of the ‘talent’ equation has nothing to do with the way the ‘talent management industry’ says it works.

The old fashioned and unfounded virtues of hiring people of character and spending time and effort developing a supporting system that allows those people to develop into consistent high performers is what we should be focusing on.  The sooner the myth of talent management is disassembled and organisations focus on what really makes a difference, the better.

I am NOT your talent!

talent‘Talent’ is the HR word of the moment.  The many articles, conferences, blog posts, training programs and otherwise-concluded findings tell us that businesses need to prioritise their ability to ‘attract, retain and develop talent’ in order to ‘optimise’ their workforce.

Referring to people as ‘talent’, like telling employees they are an ‘asset’, seems complimentary at first blush.  Its purpose however is not so positive.  Such language is more than semantics; it is a deliberate approach designed to enable organisations to think of people as a factor of production.

Their overt use of ‘talent’ is based on its usual definition: every person has innate abilities, they are ‘potential’ to be ‘developed’. This is the idyll that workers is at the centre of the workplace, conveying the message that when ‘our people succeed our business will succeed’.  Therefore providing opportunities for people to succeed will produce mutual benefits.

Behind the façade are practices based on the definition of talent you would find in the urban dictionary, that is, judging people by the relative attractiveness of their attributes – ‘talent spotting’

There is a vast difference between valuing a person based on selected attributes rather than innate abilities.  When I talk about ‘talent’ referring to innate abilities, it is the person that matters.  When I talk about a person as ‘talent’ appearances (physical or otherwise) matter.  Innate abilities are about potential in the future.  Attributes are about that which is already apparent.  Innate abilities consider the whole person.  Attributes consider people as the sum of selected parts.  Innate abilities are unique to the individual – people are taken on their total merits.  Attributes are generalised and standardised for easy comparison.  Innate abilities can only be evaluated with the person in context.  Attributes can be evaluated individually and in isolation of the people who possess them.

A workplace that values innate abilities looks for whether a person can produce a desired outcome.  Work flows and systems are revised to assist the ‘talent’ to achieve those outcomes.  When the rules (i.e. procedures, standards, targets, and so on) are established and agreed the ‘talent’ is trusted to fulfil their responsibilities.

A workplace that values attributes looks for a person that fits a certain profile.  The profile, together with its key performance indicators, is decided against established work flows and systems.  The work is described in a series of competencies that tells the person how the work should be completed.  Trust is not required because it is built into the system the assumption that the person needs to be managed.

People with disabilities are examples of those who have innate abilities but not necessarily the attributes.  They may be talented but they are not talent.  People who are valued for the work they do but not enough for their input and ideas to be taken seriously learn how ‘talent’ can be a moving measure.

In early 2013, a story about a computer programmer named Bob who worked for a US IT infrastructure company emerged.  Bob was considered a star employee, regularly received glowing performance reviews and earning a 6-figure salary.  During a network-security audit his employers discovered that he had been outsourcing his work to a Chinese company costing one fifth of his normal salary.  So efficient was Bob at getting results that he managed to secure more than one job using this arrangement.

The questions of ethics aside, clearly Bob was talented.  If Bob had initially applied for the programmer position and told the company he would produce their desired results if they hired him as a programming team leader, however he would not personally perform the work.  Instead here were the CVs of his Chinese subcontractors.  Would the company have ever hired him?  Not likely.  The employer was happy when they thought the job was being done by a person with programmer attributes.  They were not happy when they realised that Bob had a talent for managing subcontractors.

Highly competent and accomplished individuals can crash into professional oblivion virtually overnight.  A single mistake or a minor change in the workplace can trigger a series of reactions where the formerly consistent achiever is inexplicably out of favour, cannot seem to put a foot right and is staring at a performance improvement plan where once they had their choice of projects.  Similarly there are those who, despite their credentials and track record, month after month are unable to score an interview, never mind a job.

Do these people suddenly lose their talents?  Of course not.  The problem is their talent was never the issue, it was only their attributes.  When attributes are not apparent, talent does not exist.

When a person’s value or ‘talent’ is based on certain attributes, we assume that if those attributes exist then a productive worker must follow.  This view of ‘talent’ fails to take the most important factors for productivity and performance into account.

When we evaluate a person’s ‘talent’ we draw conclusions about a person’s capabilities and capacity based on identified abilities.  Capabilities (the power or ability to do something) and capacity (how much the person can do) depend on a range of intrinsic and extrinsic factors.  Intrinsic factors are those such as desires, opinions, values and motivational drivers of the individual, and extrinsic are those such as support and other resources available.

What this means is that talent cannot really be evaluated.  To really manage talent you must work on an organisation that is designed for people, not the sort of organisations we have become used to seeing that are designed to be production lines.  Talented people are everywhere and a human organisation will value the whole person’s ability to perform.  The mechanised organisations busily working on ‘talent management strategies’ think singling out attributes is clever because they are working with the tangibles.  The results are visible.  The intangibles – and people are made up more of the intangible than the tangible – are the trimmed off cuts.  The wasted potential  and the costs to the business are invisible.

Managers who are really interested in improving business performance need to spend less time carving out the tangible, the ‘talent’ and get better at managing the intangible – also known as people.

The weakness of hierarchies

The linear hierarchical structure has, almost without exception, become the only type of structure used in organisations. The entrenchment of line-based management in modern organisations reflects the conviction that productivity is an outcome of time-and-motion efficiency.  Enterprises invest heavily in increasing motion, compressing time and utilising tools such as fish-bone diagrams, decision trees, organisation charts, pedigree charts, tree charts and flow charts to manage most of their activities in pursuit of their desired productivity increases.


10th Airborne Command and Control Squadron Emblem

De-layering in organisations has been a focus ever since those running organisations recognised the downsides of command and control structures include the cost of the structure itself. Those who sit in the middle and top of the chain of command cost more than those who do the work to deliver on production or service requirements.  To activate each line of production or service, the work needs to be broken down for each work group pushed down the line to each set of tasks to be completed, and then re-aggregated up the line to, hopefully, create a cohesive piece of work that meets all its separate requirements including financial, service, safety, quality and efficiency. Other costs are the time that organisational hierarchies take for decisions to be implemented and the degree to which they slow down the organisation’s ability to respond to the market. Concentration of power has also been a much-documented source of poor decisions with too much authority invested in the thoughts of too few. Two popular practices have been widely used to offset these drawbacks: downsizing (to cut costs); and promoting leadership as the quality that subsidises the reduction of management control.

Extensive research shows that what has appeared to be cause-and-effect or linear is often in fact small-world network behaviour.  Social network analysis on the relationships between individuals, groups and organisations, shows that performance is more influenced by our relationships and location within our network, than it is from our position in the chain of command.

Organisations that continue with the paradigm that performance must be ‘managed’ (i.e. top-down) must be very determined to ignore the social networks that occur naturally, and as the office grapevine proves time and again, operate far more efficiently than any corporate dictate.

Outdated management thinking assumes that given half a chance people will prefer to seek out friends and little formal attention is paid to their ability to build effective functional relationships.  It also wrongly assumes that even if people do prioritise social relationships, this is anti-productive.  ‘Outdated’ because it is thinking that fails to recognise the role of culture in the organisation.  When there is a culture of supporting co-worker relationships, the hierarchy becomes even less effective.  Gallup, the global consulting firm that has been studying employee engagement for decades has found that co-worker friendships increase employees’ satisfaction by 50 per cent, and employees who have a best friend where they work are seven times more likely to be fully engaged in their jobs.  This level of engagement has been correlated with company bottom line performance including earnings per share.

When the objective is command and control, the top-down hierarchy should be the organisation structure of choice.  However those that believe that the sort of productivity that comes from engagement is available from this structure are wasting their time and their money.

Hierarchical structures give us an illusion of effective control.  Sociological and organisational studies tell us people react and respond to millions of cues exchanged between people through all five senses at an estimated rate of 11 million pieces of information per second – and only a fraction of which occurs consciously.  Based on this information we decide what is important, what and who we can trust and how we will respond to different messages.  Nothing in the hierarchy acknowledges that any information we receive through the hierarchy is tested, and may be overridden by our responses to those in our network.

The increasingly technical and sophisticated approaches for managing performance and behaviour in the workplace convince us that people can be effectively influenced by the hierarchy.  This helps explain why despite the concerted effort to improve employee engagement, it continues to be persistently low costing businesses billions of dollars.

By depending on lines of authority or chains of command the enterprise all but guarantees that its organisation will have pockets of non-performance.

Many organisations dabbled in self-managing and autonomous teams at some point but few were actually game to understand and allow the social network to operate.  It would not only mean a wholesale dismantling of systems, and more importantly mindsets, on which we currently rely but it would seem that we would be risking control for chaos.  Here too, they would be wrong.  Hard evidence has emerged that networks are actually not random at all.  The activity that connects individuals, invariably follows a mathematical formula that leads the the formation of hubs (key connections) and hubs can then be used to manage everything from innovation to communication.

Even better, social networks are able to naturally produce many of the outcomes organisations have always desired and spent enormous energy and resources trying to achieve. For example, networks have been proven to:

  • Facilitate the creation of social capital for individuals and organisations
  • Allow authority to form where it is required
  • Operate in organisations effectively in place of hierarchies
  • Promote innovation
  • Assist in the development of trust and tolerance
  • Synchronise thoughts and actions
  • Diffuse organisational practices effectively across groups
  • Shape the way individual tastes and preferences develop

Author Nassim Nicolas Taleb in his book, Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder, argues that by managing a rigid structure we are actually creating the weakness we intend to avoid.  Anything organic is better allowed to develop and grow. “We humans, the more intellectual we are…the more we build things that are fragile because they depend so much on our projection of the future…they depend on theories, whereas robustness does not need theories…. When you are designing a system, it has more downside than upside…there is empirical evidence showing that anything top-down is fragile; anything that is bottom-up that takes place organically is [robust].

For organisations this means develop the strategy then support the network to deliver.

Industrial models vs. post-employment

Post-employment workers move from contract to contract

The knowledge economy was supposed to bring unprecedented levels of opportunities to workers.  As more work depended on the use of information rather than manual labour, these workers as contractors and freelancers would have the freedom to choose independence over traditional employment.  They would be able to negotiate contracts that recognise their unique abilities outside the confines of controlled employer remuneration systems.  They would be able to work at times and locations of their choosing to suit their lifestyle.

For some, the ‘post-employment’ era has met this expectation.  These workers have been able to shift from passively offering their skills as employees to commercialising and marketing their capacities.

For others, the need to maintain enough work to survive drives them to accept work that may be of a lesser capacity level and/or to lower their rate to win the contract.  Rather than the work on various contracts that would broaden their skills and experience, they are progressively becoming less skilled in their profession.  While platforms such as Elance and open them up to a larger potential market, they also facilitate a race to the bottom in fees.

There are also those who are not independent agents by choice.  Writers, academics, project managers, and in particular, recent graduates might all find themselves without the option of on-going employment and playing to stay may be as high on their list of priorities as performance of the contract.  Many, such as the writer of an article entitled, Surviving the post-employment economy, believe that the post-employment economy has simply allowed employers to exploit workers as they have no obligation to offer continued employment, or even to pay people for their work.

When things are not working well it can be tempting to yearn for the past, however, the days of people working like automatons in production lines for minimum wage were not so good either.  In the old industrial workforce, workers could break into higher ranks of specialised or management roles but they were at far greater risk of burnout and stress.  Yesterday’s bad old days are not today’s good old days.

For corporations, independent agents provide them the ability to be more flexible and agile to keep up with the rapidly changing and volatile business environment.  They provide greater access to diverse skills, abilities and experiences that is available on demand.  The combination of the in-house staff who understand the direction and culture of the business, and the outside view provide by external workers, offers great ability to find creative solutions and innovations that would not have been able to be developed by the internal workforce alone.

Corporations will be unlikely to be able to take full advantage of the opportunities offered by the post-employment economy without rethinking the basic organisation.

Under the industrial model workers are organised to serve the hierarchy.  The outcomes they produce are set and measured based on internal expectations.  Decision-making and planning are centrally controlled while work performance is managed at the local level.  This is a great structure for the control needed for production-oriented businesses in slow-moving industries.  However because of the layers and divisions that make up the industrial structure they can be unwieldy and the management needed to divide then re-aggregate work is expensive.  They are also clumsy and the ability of individual units to create the complete whole that the organisation was designed to achieve is always overestimated.

With last century’s business models where the greatest returns were achieved from the investment in physical capital, the cost of the top-down hierarchy was by comparison, minimal.  When production is physical, it is easy to see and make good any gaps in the process.  When production is based on knowledge it is impossible to see where all the gaps between the desired and the actual exist – in particular the gaps caused by different ideas, perceptions, values, opinions, experiences, preferences and ideals.  A physical product can be quality-tested, skills needs analyses can be conducted, but the discrepancies between individuals’ knowledge contributions can be difficult to see even when they are being specifically studied.


A Comcast representative’s ‘service’ goes viral

A Board or CEO cannot simply mandate how people should feel about and interpret every aspect of their role in the ‘production’ process.  Even if they could, the performance of the entire organisation is too dependent on meeting the expectations of too few.  A recent customer service call between Comcast and a customer which has gone viral on the internet is an example of why production-style management is always going to experience failures.

If corporate managers see the post-employment economy merely as giving them the ability to pay fewer people less money for the same work they will miss many opportunities to enhance their companies’ performance.

Firstly, devaluing the labour market only serves to enforce the lowest common denominator of skills.  There is no incentive for workers to develop highly specialised, well-tested capabilities available to the corporate sector – even if they had the means for acquiring them.  Benefiting from access to independent agents depends on their quality and availability.

The real benefit however will come when organisations are able to engage with the opportunities that occur when independent agents working with internal teams can respond to the market.  The organisation must have the strength of culture and clarity of direction so that strategy can grow from the ground up not just be dictated from top down.

Managers will need to be retrained to facilitate collaboration and manage it, and to create and manage situations that come with risks as part of such a structure.  Their role should be facing outwards to ensure that their unit is shifting and responding to the environment, rather than facing inwards chasing people to perform.  The task and responsibility of performance management becomes that of the individual, especially the independent agents.  Managers focus on and create networks to draw from them and contribute back so that the overall is continually enhanced.

The post-employment organisation structure is hard to set up, but become easy to manage as they mature.  In contrast the industrial organisation structure is easy to set up, but managers spend many difficult and unproductive hours trying to achieve a non-existent ideal – that is, the assumption that ideal people, doing the best possible work, being prepared for when things change, having no personal issues to interfere with the workplace, and at a cost that is consistently low can be a reality.

A loosely managed, tightly efficient post-employment structure is not only possible, it can be devastatingly effective.  Studies into the operation of al-Qaeda show an organisation that consisted of both hierarchical management but also of a network of cells, all of which could act independently guided by the ideological inspiration of the senior members.

Start-ups and small business entrepreneurs are taking advantage of the shift to post-employment.  Large businesses have the most to gain but their biggest barrier is not the size of their operations but their commitment to continuing that which has worked in the past.

Understanding Gen Y Part 2: why employers need to learn to love them

Businesses globally are unprepared to face the challenges of the changing business environment, as they struggle to manage the demands of Millennial (also known as Gen Y) employees and adapt to disruptions in labour markets.

This was the finding from a Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends survey released earlier in 2014.

Gen Y are frequently made out to be lazy and entitled.   An article from the Melbourne newspaper, The Age, a few months ago, “What your boss really wants to say to you”, included a quote from one employer that typifies the sentiments shared by many, ““The younger generation seem to want the boss’s job and pay but they don’t want to work for it,”

The attitude that Gen Y are people whose ‘demands’ should be ‘managed’ seems to be contributing to the lack of preparation for changing business environments rather than being part of it.  Given the things business should be focusing on, it seems remarkable that incessant Gen Y bashing continues.

The things that Gen Y are accused of are not new; workplaces have always had to deal with these issues.  There have always been those who thought there was a fast ride to the top.  Nepotism, cronyism and old boys networks provide many with their sense of entitlement.  Everyone knows that the phrase ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’ refers to advantages paid for reasons that are not ability and hard work.

Anyone who has spent any time in employment, particularly the corporate environment can pinpoint lazy pretenders who have mastered the art of slipping away when anything becomes too demanding.  They will be able to recall long-winded and tedious discussions about nothing more than golfing handicaps or who else has noticed the great legs on the new girl in marketing.  Those take credit for someone else’s work are no more or less lazy or entitled than the expectations the Gen Y are accused of having.

Of course Gen Y as a group are different to previous generations.  They have been brought up differently – every parent has their list of things their parents did that they would never do to their children.  Gen Y grew up in a world of technology, terrorism, 24-7 news; their grandparents aspired to the quarter acre block, their parents committed to lifetime mortgages, today both are out of reach for many.  Why would we expect they should join the workforce with the same understanding as previous generations?

The key to businesses being prepared for the challenges of the changing business environment is not in meeting the demands of Gen Y; it is in using Gen Y’s perspective of the world to fast track their capabilities for the business environment as it changes.

For instance, ‘work’ for older generations is likely to incorporate notions of service and subordination (to the company), hierarchy and divisions, succession and approval (reward and recognition).  ‘Work’ for Gen Y tends to include an expectation that they are part of a team that is there to contribute to the organisation’s objectives – which the older generation usually assumes is the role of the CEO.

For Gen Y, social currency is what matters.  This includes a team environment that collaborates, discusses and works together to solve problems.  Rather than viewing their supervisors as people moving towards the management ‘them’, Gen Y see their role is to support their supervisors – as long as they have built a good relationship with them. Social currency means being able to engage with the organisation’s story.  This is very clearly seen in Gen Y’s attitude to brands.  They are at the same time cynical about marketing but highly engaged with a brand’s values whose stories they relate to.

There are two examples to illustrate this.  Jeans brand, Levi’s, international ‘Make Our Mark’ campaign calls out to the artist inside us.  The company used #MakeOurMark and other hashtags to invite the public to contribute their artistic expressions to a living online ‘wall’.

McDonald’s, on the other hand, tried to hijack people’s values to promote their brand through a Twitter campaign #McDStories.  The aim was for the hashtag to inspire heart-warming stories about Happy Meals.  The campaign succeeded in engagement with horror stories about the company immediately filling the twitterverse.  Although the campaign was pulled within two hours, the momentum – and terrible stories – carried on for weeks.

So organisations should not see Gen Y as a problem to be solved, rather by understanding Gen Y’s perspective they may be helping their organisations to evolve in line with the changing needs of the business.  It does not mean Gen Y have all the answers.  Keeping in mind that the jobs young people used to fill while they were at school are not as available – because of automation, and often because their parents are still holding them – their first ‘real’ job is also often their first job.

The most common, and easily fixed, mistake employers make is sitting all employees down in an induction program that was written following a format as old as the company itself.  It would be sensible to develop an induction program for those – like Gen Y – that have little or no recent work experience and deliver it in a format – such as a podcast – that reflects how they are used to consuming information.

Gen Y have now been in the workforce for a decade or more.  It is time for us to get over the stereotyping and do what we should be doing: making sure the workplace is keeping up with change.

Four ways to get the best from Gen Y

  1. Develop an organisation where context is clearly defined.  Gen Y do not care about skills they way you do – they have all used Youtube to learn a skill.  They care less about your knowledge – information has always been at their fingertips.  Also they have grown up in a world knowledge and skills can be outdated in fewer years than it takes to complete a degree.  If recognition and authority is based on skills and knowledge alone in your organisation, they will expect to move quickly.Gen Y do care about wisdom and experience.  They want to be guided through real life.  Show them how skills and knowledge work in context so they learn it is not what you know or what you can do, it is how you use what you know or what you can do.
  2. It’s all about values.  Gen Y use the word ‘values’ in the same way we used the word ‘career’.  It drives their decisions about where they work, what they do, what they aim for, and what they are prepared to do to get there.  It is the importance of values to Gen Y that they will prefer lifestyle and flexibility over money and promotion, and choose an employer for what it cares about over the job it offers.  They work on the basic assumption that things can be fixed with enough people who care coming together to make it happen.
  3. Replace formal goal-setting with regular coaching.  You will get better performance from Gen Y by supporting them in the here and now.  Think about gamification which rewards incremental gain not goal achievement.  The thing that makes Gen Y easy to manage is they are practically hard-wired for change and continuous learning (such as the way they barely seem to notice when functionality changes on their iPhones while we complain with every upgrade).
  4. Gen Y are not impatient and insensitive so much as they are often poor at soft skills such as prioritising, managing relationships, workplace etiquette, teamwork, planning and managing distractions.  These are all trainable skills that somehow, in the way they are being schooled, they are underdeveloped.  They have a great capacity for feedback and work better with regular input and the opportunity to reflect on their achievements and improvements.

So with Gen Y in the workplace in increasing numbers and starting to reach management levels, looking down our noses at all their shortcomings is a cop out.  We have done a great job with them as parents, now our role is to coach them in their development at work.

Remember when we began our careers, as a whole we were more qualified than the generation before us.  They called us upstarts who needed to experience ‘real life’ before we earned the right to contribute.

It was true then as it is now that organisations will benefit from investing time in early career development as well as changing practices to encourage greater input.

Understanding Gen Y: Part 1

I recently came across an article written by a young man who identified himself as Gen Y (those born between the mid-1980s and 2000).  His article reflected on the life of his mother who had served her main profession and few employers continuously and steadfastly throughout her adult life towards the aim of enjoying a comfortable retirement.  As that time loomed near she had not achieved the financial security she needed for retirement.  Even a delayed retirement would provide her little more than a basic existence and the prospect of dependence on others as her health declined over time.

The writer vowed that he would never live his life in selfless service to employers to face the same late life insecurity as his mother.  His article provoked outraged criticism from many readers.  Comments saluted the mother as dedicated and selfless while he was branded ‘typical Gen Y’: entitled, ungrateful, insensitive and selfish.  Respondents compared their own parents who, like the writer’s mother, worked long and hard to provide for them but unlike the writer, they were proud of their parents who earned their pensions and they saluted their dedication.

The emotion of the responses seemed out of proportion to the sentiments expressed in the article.  For instance he was accused of having a sense of entitlement, yet nowhere did he write that he expected more than his mother.  He simply stated he wanted make different choices to his mother so he would have the opportunity to achieve a better outcome.  A look at the profile photos of the respondents suggests reactions could have had something to do with their ages and their own prospects for retirement in the years ahead.

Like this writer, I do not think we should call a system (economic, social or otherwise) that asks for compromises to be made during our working lives in exchange for freedom in future years, but then that freedom is unavailable, a success. Far from disrespectful, he was distressed that his mother’s financial situation did not do justice to the care she took of others during her working life.

What was typical of this writer as a member of Generation Y was his attitude that the system needs to be better. He reached out on social media so he and others can do something about it.  They think this way because we taught it to them.

As Gen X (those born between the mid-1960s and the mid-1980s) parents, we have sought to do what our parents before us have done: give our children a better life than the one we had.  With experiences of relationship breakdowns, mortgage stress, complying with society’s expectations at the expense of our own fulfilment, job insecurity and social inequality guiding our parenting approach, we taught our children to never settle for less than they deserve.  We have given them the expectations of respect, equality, choice and that they can be anything they choose to be.  We denied them little and protected them from harm that often existed only in our minds.  “Why don’t you look it up yourself?” we would say when they asked us a question and we saw an opportunity to develop their independence.  We drove them from activity to activity week after week, and that was worth it because these activities developed their confidence and their collaboration skills.  Their sense of responsibility to the planet and to the disadvantaged is a credit to us because we told them it was important to care about people more than title, money and power.

And now they are in the workforce, and Gen Y – with the values we instilled in them – and the workplace are out of sync.


Since the modern workplace developed in the 1950s, a clash between the establishment and the new generation has always been the case.  Boomers in the 1960s fought workplaces fraught with inequality and patriarchy.  Gen X in the 1980s fought being ‘treated like a number’ and demanded recognition and career opportunity.  The difference with the entry of Gen Y into the workforce is the previous generations are working longer; they are staying rather than making way for the new generation.

It is far too easy to dismiss Gen Y as a self-absorbed generation that understand technology better than people.  To them, we the older generation can seem not self-absorbed enough – complying with employers for their benefit at our own expense – without fighting to change it.

Gen Y are an educated, caring, confident, connected, inquisitive, socially-minded, innovative and entrepreneurial generation.  Organisations need to harness these attributes not beat young workers into our old thinking that time served equals achievement.  It will not be enough to accommodate them; we need to actively engage with them.  We should learn how we can keep up with an automated, technology-driven and hyper-connected world.  As the world ages, Gen Y will not just be the talent that powers the organisation, they will also be the customers.

As parents we told them not to settle for something they felt was not right, and there is much about work that is not right.  Like them we should also feel outraged when after a long working life we are faced with the fear that our savings will not be enough. Like them we should assume that this is something we should do differently.  As managers we should not even have the time to be complaining about Gen Y.  The time should be spent developing a workforce model that better serves the organisation in the new world, and provides better prospects for financial security in retirement.

Does a knowledge worker need a knowledge manager?

Here’s a thought: in a matter of years, the worker and the manager positions will be reversed in the organisational hierarchy.

There are three parts to the economics of pay and hierarchy:

1. Control of assets.

Workers have little control and authority over assets and are paid to ‘just work’.  At the low end, managers are given some control over the assets used in daily operations including stock and rosters.  Each promotion and pay rise recognises the expanding scope of assets under the manager’s control.  At the extreme high level is the CEO salary such as Charif Souki, CEO of Cheniere Energy who, according to Bloomberg, tops the list in 2014 with his $142 million salary package.

2. Contribution to results

The greater a person contributes to results, the higher the reward, such as the sales manager whose efforts directly impact the bottom line.  On the other hand, the human resources manager at the same level manages workforce costs and is generally less well rewarded.

3. Demand

As the law of supply and demand dictates, the more available or replaceable the skill or ability, the lower the pay.

In the industrial economy the hierarchical model was straightforward.  Because managers controlled more assets including the people who provided the labour, they command a higher position in the hierarchy and were paid more commensurate with that level of seniority.

Ricky Gervais in The Office

Everyone’s favourite nightmare manager, David Brent, played by Ricky Gervais

The dominance of the knowledge worker since the 1990s has been effecting a significant change for enterprises which could drastically alter how the manager position fits in the organisation.

In 1966, management guru, Peter Drucker, had already envisaged the knowledge worker disrupting the standard order of progression from worker to manager.  He wrote, “Every knowledge worker in the modern organization is an “executive” if, by virtue of his position or knowledge, he is responsible for a contribution that materially affects the capacity of the organization to perform and to obtain results.” (The Effective Executive 1966).

Wealth creation in the industrial economy came from the control of physical assets.  Industries such as mining, manufacturing and agriculture created the list of the wealthiest countries and companies.  As the knowledge economy’s growth accelerated in the 1990s, spurred on with the widespread adoption of the internet and technology, the value of enterprises has been changing in a way that most organisations are yet to fully realise.


Physical assets are owned by the enterprise, even physical labour which a company has bought the right to control through the employment contract.  The above chart shows how significantly this has changed.  While companies continue to promote and remunerate managers for their ability to control the enterprise’s assets, the majority of the company’s value is no longer in those assets.

Intangible assets are a product of knowledge work.  They include such things as brands, organisational culture, core competences, customer relationships, designs and inventions.  The fundamental difference with knowledge work is the assets do not belong to the enterprise therefore managers cannot control the greatest contribution to the company’s value.

Companies no longer need managers to sit over workers because the company does not own the knowledge.  Whether the ‘knowledge’ is a contact in the government, the knack for spotting the next big fashion trend, the ability to close a sale, or a manner that brings a team together, it will always belong to the person that provides it.  The company that maximises the value of its intangible assets will be the one that has an infrastructure developed to lease the knowledge it needs from the owners, such as through freelancing assignments, strategic alliances or employment systems that tap into the knowledge it needs when it needs it.

Taking Apple for example, a company valued at $400 billion of which intangible assets account for 96 per cent, and one of the most successful companies in history.  Innovation, design and a commitment to placing technology into the hands of people, is how the company achieved such an outstanding result.  It was not achieved through managers installed to keep the knowledge coming, checking whether the ideas were meeting KPI targets so that another market-changing concept like an iPad would emerge by the deadline set by the business plan.

So whatever managers do now, it must be something more than overseeing workers like pickers and packers, who process the company’s physical assets (and even these are being increasingly automated).  It must be something that enhances the organisation as far richer places than a collection of workers mechanically completing tasks.  A bright future would be one where the richness of people collaborating, creating and doing is allowed to happen without the oppression of pre-determined positions monitored by people who are there to manage actuality rather than possibility.  Otherwise in this world the prospect of being given a manager job might be one seen as a demotion.

Fairness – working it well

This week in the second part of our look at fairness, guest writer Geoff Callard, discusses how workplaces can be more fair.


For our primitive ancestors, fairness was a matter of survival.  Fairness ensured that members of the community would cooperate and share resources, especially during times of scarcity. It doesn’t take too much imagination to understand how important the concept of sharing scant resources is from an evolutionary perspective and how important it is to detect ‘cheaters’; those who promise to share but do not deliver.  In fact Stephen Pinker in the book ‘How the Mind Works’ thinks that our fairness response comes from our need to trade fairly.

While the way we live has changed dramatically, our human brains are still hardwired to respond positively to fairness and defend against unfairness. Whether we perceive we are dealt with fairly or not drives us very rapidly to treating people as friend or foe. In the modern workplace a perception of fairness will lead to cooperation and collaboration, allowing us to work together and be innovative and creative. A lack of fairness drives us quickly in to hyper-arousal, defensiveness and suspicion.  It reinforces a silo mentality where tribes are quickly formed to defend against perceived enemies.

We are at a time when there is intense interest in the health of the workplace.  There is not only evidence that an unhealthy workplace costs in employee absenteeism, turnover and disengagement, but there are also the risks of worker insurance claims and potential legal action against employer negligence.  Issues of lack of autonomy and loss of control are bound up with unfair treatment and the health impacts can be both traumatic AND without the clear types of tell-tale symptoms of other health conditions, hard to quantify and manage. This is where issues of workplace stress, anxiety and depression come to the fore.

These are three characteristics – scarcity, individual job focus and invisibility – that enable organisations to actively create and perpetuate workplaces that are inherently unfair.

1.       Scarcity

There is a distinctive ‘unfairness’ psychology that can develop in people who experience scarcity of resources.  Many workplaces deliberately create a ‘scarcity mindset’ in the short-sighted belief that it will encourage frugal (cost-cutting) behaviour, even when it is detrimental to the individual, for example, the company that publicly trumpets a constant rise in their share price while at the same time relentlessly pushing cost-saving measures on to its workers..  It sends a confusing message to workers that triggers a survival mode in which they must prepare for the workplace equivalent of drought and starvation.

Through poorly executed cost-cutting and disproportionate focus on insignificant measures of ‘improvement’ these companies make even the most basic amenities and facilities difficult to access through, for example, overly-bureaucratic and/or inadequate requisitioning processes.  Workers learn their survival depends on their ability to ‘hoard’ – knowledge, expertise, equipment, ideas, and so on.  These would be bad enough if one only looked at employee’s reactions to the inherent unfairness, but contriving the environment to exploit worker behaviour drives other highly dysfunctional behaviours.

Scarcity increases stress and anxiety and studies show that the scarcity mindset affects intelligence and the ability to make decisions that are good for us.  This is often seen in the many unpaid overtime hours that low-level (i.e. minimally-paid) managers put in to work.  Like the debt-laden person who goes on a reckless shopping spree, these managers make their position worse, as the more hours they work the lower their hourly rate drops, then the more stressed they are and the more out of kilter becomes their perception and reality of a healthy work/life balance.

As people become slower-witted and weaker-willed the scarcity mindset becomes entrenched, and they are unable to take the very actions that will improve their and their organisation’s position.  Rather than see the psychological damage being caused to individuals and the cost of an unhealthy workplace culture, these companies feel entitled to the gains they have made at people’s expense.

2.       Individual job focus/lack of inclusivity

Many, if not most, workplaces still labour under the illusion that the path to greater productivity is through a win/lose relationship with workers.  A worker that ‘wins’ a pay rise, for instance, causes a ‘loss’ to the company – one that the company will want to ‘win’ back somewhere.  The organisational approach to ensure the company ‘wins’ is to create an exclusive environment, that is, one that lacks inclusiveness.

Systems such as ‘targeted’ selection, job descriptions and competency-based assessment are specifically designed to enable the company to exclude people in a way that appears fair and therefore socially, ethically and legally acceptable.  Because the ‘exclusion factors’ are more important than the ‘inclusion factors’, i.e. the criteria are used to identify how people may be excluded not how they could be included, they promote an environment in which unfairness can thrive.

An experiment was conducted where three people – as avatars – played a computer game in which a ball was tossed between all three.  Halfway through, two of the participants began to toss the ball between themselves, excluding the third.  Excluded players registered high levels of activity in the area of the brain  that responds to pain.  The brain creates a fear response to exclusion that can cause a whole range of reactions, the human equivalent of an animal baring its teeth just wanting to ‘get out’.  In the workplace the fear response can manifest in ways such as passive-aggressive behaviour, departmental rivalry or office politics.  Status plays a huge role here and managers can easily create cliques that exclude those who don’t quite ‘fit’.

On the other hand, being treated fairly and inclusively means people have much greater capacity for thinking, planning and collaborating.

3.       Invisibility

It is not just that there are no immediate symptoms of unfairness, many workplace systems are designed to normalise unfairness, so that effectively unfairness gets to hide in plain sight.  Hiring practices are inherently unfair because they do not allow any person that can perform certain job requirements equal access to the job.  They are designed to filter out all but a select group of people such as those that are already working, those that are unencumbered by carer responsibilities, those that are native speakers of the local language, for instance.  The same goes for people selected for redundancies.

The thing that is most interesting about unfairness in the workplace is that unfair practices are meted out by people – people who are as susceptible to the pain of unfairness as the next person.  We humans seem to readily develop a blindness to empathy and remove the human element out of the equation – perhaps as a defence to being subjected to unfair treatment. It is a frequent criticism of ‘Human Resources’ that the ‘people’ function of the organisation is often characterised by its focus on policy and programs rather than empathy and genuine flexibility.

However unfairness does not have to be the ‘default position’ for organisations.

Look at ‘Valve Corporation’, the video game company who made the news when its employee handbook surfaced.  In this they say; “We’ve been boss-free since 1996.  Imagine working with super smart, super talented colleagues in a free-wheeling, innovative environment – no bosses, no middle management, no bureaucracy.  Just highly motivated peers coming together to make cool stuff. It’s amazing what creative people can come up with when there’s nobody there telling them what to do”. 

Or the case of Bob Chapman, who ran a large manufacturing company in the Midwest USA called Barry-Wehmiller, described by Simon Sinek in his recent TED Talk:

“In 2008 Barry-Wehmiller lost 30 percent of its orders overnight, and needed to save 10 million dollars, so, like so many companies today, the board got together and discussed layoffs. Bob refused. You see, Bob didn’t believe in head counts. Bob believed in heart counts, and it’s much more difficult to simply reduce the heart count. So they came up with a furlough program. Every employee, from secretary to CEO, was required to take four weeks of unpaid vacation. They could take it any time they wanted, and they did not have to take it consecutively. But it was how Bob announced the program that mattered so much. He said, it’s better that we should all suffer a little than any of us should have to suffer a lot. Morale actually went up, they saved 20 million dollars, and most unexpectedly and quite spontaneously people started trading with each other. Those who could afford it more would trade with those who could afford it less. People would take five weeks so that somebody else only had to take three.”

It seems when people feel safe and protected by the leadership in the organization and there is an explicit message of fairness backed up by action, the natural reaction is to trust and cooperate.


Making ‘People’ Work thanks Geoff for his two-part series on fairness.  I hope you enjoyed them as much as I did.

Connect with Geoff on Linkedin.

Fairness – it’s all in your head

This week’s post comes courtesy of guest writer, Geoff Callard.


I recently worked on a large IT implementation project with a team including a hand selected group of ‘Subject Matter Experts’.  These were eight of the organisation’s young stars – selected as part of their career development path.

Within two months of the project ending, five of the eight had left the organisation.

Why?  Predominantly because their sense of fairness had been violated by the organisation’s inability to keep to its promise; of the eight, six had been returned to jobs that were much the same as those they had left to join the project, despite two years of taking on significant responsibility and developing their skills and experience.

This is just one example of how organisations (often unwittingly) betray their people’s sense of fairness. In fact issues of fairness are pervasive and can be triggered by many things including a perceived inequality of treatment, lack of respect, lack of consultation, work not being recognised, unwillingness to help with special circumstances or apparent low concern about employee well-being.

What does Brain Research Tell Us About Fairness?

In an experiment by Golnaz Tabibnia and M.D. Liebermann at the University of California, participants were split into pairs and given money. One participant was given the responsibility for dividing the money (e.g. 50/50, 60/40 and so on); the other could choose to accept or reject the split depending on whether they thought it fair or not. If the offer was rejected the participants would receive nothing.

Rejecting the offer occurred more frequently as the split became less, well … fair. Why? It seems our brains are wired for fairness and we would rather no one benefit if both people can’t be treated fairly.  In this experiment and many others like it, the reward centre in the brain (the striatum) will light up more when the offer is fair even when no additional money will be gained.  On the other hand unfairness activates the anterior insula, the part of the brain associated with feelings of disgust.

The research also suggests that the neural mapping for fairness is similar to that of the more ‘primary circuits’ in the brain for things like food and sex.

In a twist to this experiment, participants at the California Institute of Technology took part in a simulation in which they were asked to distribute food to a group of orphans in Uganda. (As a sidebar they actually did raise thousands of dollars from the research).

When they were able to give food to the children, the study participants’ orbital frontal cortex, the reward region of the brain, lit up. When instead they had to take food away, the insula region was activated.

Steven Quartz the author of that study suggests, “…the emotional response to unfairness pushes people from extreme inequity and drives them to be fair”.  This observation, he adds, suggests that “our basic impulse to be fair isn’t a complicated thing that we learn.”

In yet another study variation ‘rich players’ were asked to distribute money as they saw fit to ‘poor players’.  The brain activity of ‘rich’ players indicated they preferred to close the monetary gap, while the ‘poor’ players seemed to prefer transfers that boosted them up toward the other players’ monetary level.

“Overall, it looks like these regions were responding most when the outcome would be the most fair, and the least when the outcome would be the least fair,” said the author of the study, Elizabeth Tricomi, a professor of psychology at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

It seems even animals have a rudimentary preference for fairness.  In one of Frans de Waal’s experiments Capuchin monkeys reject being ‘paid’ with cucumber when they see another monkey paid in grapes.  Take a look at the YouTube clip; the rejection is a wonder to behold.

The experiment has been replicated many times.  In a Nova Science YouTube clip: ‘Do Animals have morals’, Peggy Mason, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago, demonstrates one rat setting another free so they can share a snack of chocolate chips.

What are the Implications?

Issues around fairness can cause emotions to run high; whether its trigger is political (look at reactions to the 2014 Australian federal budget); or more personal (our reaction to when someone wants to cut into OUR lane during peak hour traffic).

David Rock in his wonderful book ‘Your Brain at Work‘ warns that we often underestimate the importance of fairness and can be blindsided by the intensity of our response to unfairness.

He confirms that perceiving unfairness generates intense arousal in the limbic system which essentially tracks your emotional relationship to thoughts, objects and people.  It reacts to unfairness the way it does to a primary threat and impairs your ability, basically, to think straight.  Accidental connections, for example, become easier, causing you to misread someone’s intent leading to an altered perception of events in turn leading to a rapid downward spiral.

On the other hand fairness is rewarding. The human brain responds to being treated fairly in the same way as it responds to winning money and eating chocolate.  Being treated fairly turns on the brain’s reward circuitry and is connected in the brain to relatedness and increased trust.  It makes you more open to ideas and more willing to connect, creating a great state for collaboration.

Tabibnia and Liebermann suggest that social reinforcers like fair treatment are more likely to increase intrinsic motivation, which predict better job performance and satisfaction.

So, if the desire for fairness is in fact a fundamental driver for humans what does this mean for the way organisations are structured?  If our reaction to unfairness is so strong and has such a limiting effect on our ability to reason, connect and perceive, then what are we building in to our culture and infrastructure to help ensure fairness in all our dealings with staff, customers and suppliers?  How much impact does a perception of fairness have on customer satisfaction, for example?

How much do we expect fairness in our dealings?  Are we really transparent in how we work?  Are we still playing favourites and being sucked in to office politics?  As leaders, how accessible are we? Do we, for example, give credit generously?  How fair are our systems and processes?  Is evaluating performance a few times a year ensuring fairness?

Scott Halford, author of ‘Be a Shortcut’ says, “There are exceptions to the fairness rule.  Some people are numb to its effects no matter how fairly you play.  They are the exceptions and you may need to play hardball with them, but it’s doubtful that you’ll feel good about it afterwards.  Practice playing by the fairness rules and most of the time you will win — and so will they.  Fair enough?”


Connect with Geoff Callard on LinkedIn.

Some things change; some things never change: future work imagined


Fast forward fifteen years from 2014.  The robot has not completely taken over but they and automation have definitely changed the landscape of work.   This post is not meant to be a crystal ball into our future world; rather it attempts to extend what we already see happening in work and imagines the movement of these practices from the fringes of ‘innovative workplaces’ to the mainstream.  Being a worker in this future world might look something like this…

Tish wakes up to the alarm she set so she can make it to her department meeting.  It’s been a while since she has attended one because she has been on the ‘bench’ of her company for the past few months.  As the company needs different skills it changes the work group members to suit.  “I hope there are some new people to meet,” she thinks as she waits for her computer to start.  As the staff arrive for the meeting, Tish scans the map that appears on one of the screens in front of her.  She sees attendees joining from several countries including China.  “Great!” she says to herself, “I need to practice my Mandarin!”  Tish has been studying Mandarin through online videos for three years.  She uses a combination of the course available from one of the US’s leading universities which give proper structure to her progress but she also likes the YouTube videos that give her a better sense of the colloquialisms used by present-day speakers.  Unlike the university videos many of the YouTube ones are hilarious.

After the meeting, Tish plays with the idea of contacting her Mandarin learning leader but she knows it is more important that she spends time with her Business Ethics learning leader as she needs this to finish the tasks in her current contract.  This course also gives Tish credits towards her professional status for which she has been studying.  According to Tish’s mum ‘studying’ used to mean reading books, writing about the things you would be doing and then sitting an exam to see if you can describe how they should be done.

Before Tish gets ready to go to work, she checks her clearing account.  Last month she earned money through four different sources (she is amazed that the online business she started while at high school is still paying – it’s only a tiny amount but, then again it was seven years ago and she was only fifteen).  Her clearing account already has her earnings sorted into her net pay, remitted her income tax and topped up her pension account.

Tish walks to work at her ‘third office’.  The coworking space is where she meets with some of the team on the community project her company sponsors.  The community project is more than an industry collaboration, it also serves as a development program for young people leaving school.  Her manager has been encouraging Tish to improve her coaching skills so this program came up at a good time.  Although they are working on testing one of their competitors products, it is a product that her employer does not sell and for a market her employer does not service.  Tish loves these community projects because it has given her the opportunity to practice new skills and learn from people who have more experience than even her own manager.

During a break, Tish wanders over to an open session being held by the coworking host looking at the style of a renowned designer.  Artists have been ‘safe’ jobs since robots began dominating industry.  Manufacturers using licensed art and design work to apply to their goods has become the norm.  Even though Tish does not have an artistic bone in her body, she still finds herself contributing her opinion on some of the designs discussed.  She strikes up a conversation with the person sitting next to her – someone who obviously does know a lot about design – and is delighted to learn that he is a freelancer who can help her organise and upgrade her online professional portfolio.  She takes a scan of his freelance profile and promises to submit her brief to him in the next week.

Tish wraps up her session and waits for a friend coming to meet her.  They first met at work and discovered a common interest in driving.  Almost no one drives on the roads anymore as driverless cars are faster, cheaper and easier to use.  Tish had already qualified for her probationary driver’s license when nearly all vehicles switched over to automated technology.  Her brief time as a driver gave her the bug so she joined a car club with her workmate where she can drive recreationally.  Today she might try the mountain track again.

Before her day ends Tish has one more task she needs to complete.  She spends the next hour working on the peer reviews she has promised to submit.  She does the easy one first – this was for her last project leader who achieved the great result of coming in on time and under budget.  The next one is trickier.  Unfortunately this team member made a lot of mistakes but worse, would not take suggestions to fix them never mind how he could have avoided them in the first place.  Tish accesses her company’s knowledge bank and follows the guidelines for giving difficult feedback.  Finally she is satisfied that she has met the required standards of honesty, practicality, transparency and context.

Although this task took longer than Tish had planned she is really pleased with the outcome and decides it is worth a few minutes to share the experience with her followers.  Unlike a lot of her friends, Tish did not care for sharing every detail about her life on social media, but the social mentoring platform was different.  Among her mentoring followers are people from emerging industrial economies and students.  However Tish gets the most satisfaction from her followers who are people who entered the workforce during the industrial age and who became underemployed through the old ‘one job’, ‘one employer’ paradigm.  They also missed the shift that they, not their employer, were now responsible for maintaining their professional knowledge and skill assets.

The last of her jobs completed, Tish is looking forward to the end of the seven-day, 10-hour days stretch of work that she planned for herself.  She can now have that five-day break to attend her friend’s wedding.  Tish is excited because it will be her first overseas trip without at least one of her parents.  Instead of wedding gifts, the guests are going to work for two days as volunteers with the charity her friend supports.  With the whole village attending the wedding after the two days, it will also be the biggest wedding Tish has ever attended.  Tish lies in bed wondering what she would do for her wedding one day.  Her last thought before drifting off to sleep is whether she would have a retro wedding where the guests just turn up for a ceremony then eat and drink at the reception.

Tish is, of course, a character from the Millennial generation.  Based on this narrative she would have been born in 2007.  For Tish this world of work is not new or different.  There is nothing described here that is not already changing employment as we currently understand it.

  • Virtual teams are already the norm for many industries, but now ‘traditional’ work including surgery, manufacturing and warfare, are being performed remotely by dispersed co-workers.
  • Leading universities including Stanford and Harvard already offer courses free online.  All MIT courses are now open and free.  As far back as 2007, futurist Thomas Frey was describing the shift of expertise online where teachers would no longer act as topic experts but coaches and guides.  Today coaching is the second fastest growing industry in the world behind IT.
  • Management thinker and author, Charles Handy, had proposed the concept of ‘portfolio careers’ in the mid-1980s.  As work fragmented, choices other than ‘having a full- or part-time job’ or ‘not working’ were becoming mainstream.  Today’s younger generation have been encouraged to follow many courses of interest in their early years as we encourage them into sports, arts, hobbies, community activities and other interests.  They are simply continuing this into their professional lives – which is fortunate given how work is becoming more a series of projects than labour carried out along a predefined continuum.
  • Innovators and start-ups are coming up with new ways to make process-driven activities easier on a daily basis.  The technology to aggregate personal income can now probably be programmed by a high school student.  Government policy and economic infrastructure must move ahead of the potential for us to be more productive as a nation.  Worryingly few governments seem to have anything even closely resembling a plan that will maximise the potential of more people working at fuller capacity.  Instead they sit fiddling with unions while Rome burns.
  • Coworking spaces are growing at an ever-faster rate.  Start-ups are no longer the only users as large companies realise it is cheaper to reduce their office footprint and support their staff in spaces that offer convenience and the opportunity to interact with a broad range of people.  A recent Deskmag report found that 71% of workers in coworking spaces believed they were more creative, 70% feel healthier and 62% report improved work output.

We have spent the past 100 years mechanising work and in the process have created whole generations that are prepared to submit themselves to, while civilised, no less inhumane conditions where compromising family needs, over-regulated work practices, relentless demands, goals and targets that bear little resemblance to the benefits the workers are supposed to be enjoying (career, progress, satisfaction, etc.), has become not just accepted, but expected.

The younger generation are being brought up by parents who tell them personal fulfilment is their right but with it comes responsibilities to society, to those less fortunate and to the environment.  They are highly confident, highly social and unlike their parents need reasons for not changing more than they need reasons to change.

We have a great intersection of opportunity before us: the automation that will remove the inhuman part of work and a new generation of workers that can clearly distinguish work that is uniquely human.  We have very little time to take advantage of this window of opportunity.  Unless we stop training our young for careers that depend on jobs that will soon no longer exist we will soon have an enormous problem of too many workers with the wrong skills.

The only guarantee I can see that we can solve our future mass unemployment problem is to fix it now.  Today.
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