At the start of his keynote session at Gartner’s ReimagineHR summit in London last week, British organizational theorist, educator, and author Dr. Eddie Obeng offered a glimpse of the fast-arriving virtual workplace. A wearable mouse attached to his wrist, Obeng gave the audience a tour of a 3-D classroom projected on the screen, walking to different chalkboards and interacting with his colleagues present in the virtual room while actually participating from a remote office. In this way, Obeng illustrated the potential of flashy new technologies in shaping the future of work.
In our HR research practice at Gartner, however, we know from hundreds of calls with HR leaders and professionals that when many of them see this flashy technology, they say: “We’re not Google, we’re not Amazon; we simply can’t afford this level of digital enhancement.” They want to know what the future of work means for them: What can they actually do with the resources they have? When Obeng asked the audience to share some of their fears about the digitally-enabled presentation he was showing them, they said it would be “impractical,” “too techy,” and “too expensive” for them to implement.
But Obeng very quickly challenged the audience by telling them to forget about technology, that we’re using it all wrong. New technology, he asserted, is of limited value if we don’t rethink the processes by which people work. Technology may be changing around us, but our habits and behaviors have not. Our habits and practices are deeply ingrained, and as a result it is difficult to imagine what the future should look like; instead, as he put it, we “imagine the present, but shinier.”
Relating his topic back to HR, Obeng noted that everything about our organizational structure and talent processes, from compensation and benefits to learning and development to the hierarchical org chart, is designed for the world as it used to be, when organizations were able to see what was coming. Today, that’s impossible: Change happens faster than we and our processes can adapt. A senior leadership team making all decisions for an organization, Obeng said, can process about the same amount of data in an hour as our mobile phones can in a minute. Rather than trying to simply move faster, we need to reimagine the way we move.
The best way to do that, Obeng argued, is to take a people-centered approach to the future of work. For leaders who want to turn ordinary people into valuable talent, he stressed, they have to start with the people, not the technology. To apply this thinking, leaders must imagine what they want their people to be capable of achieving, and only then design or invest in the technologies to make it happen. After all, any organization can buy AI or machine learning or virtual worlds or whatever the next fad is, but competitive advantage comes from the ability of people to imagine new ways of creating value.
To that end, he shared three simple lessons for organizational leaders in the digital age:
- We can’t design work for the future workforce alone. For the first time, we have five generations in the workforce, and that won’t change. Instead we have to leverage the experience of different generations and the relationships between then to combine their perspectives and create better value.
- Stop thinking of technology in terms of how it will replace people. Instead we need to look at how we can harness technology to increase the capabilities of our people.
- A digital workforce doesn’t mean providing employees with an information-rich, tech-heavy experience for them to navigate. Rather it allows organizations to play to the human strengths, freeing their people to be more creative, to make better decisions, and to become the high-empathy contact point with customers.
In our latest research at Gartner, we also show that starting with technology is a misguided digitalization strategy that can lead to wasted investment. Rather than thinking of the digital era as defined by technology, we find that our employees really want what the experiences that technology represents, meaning an experience that is faster, more interactive, personalized, transparent, and connected. Employees value the organizations that allow them to work in this way, whether or not they use technology to do so. Rather than running straight to technological investment, we find that the HR functions providing the best digital experience are doing three things:
- Taking the employee perspective into account and looking through their eyes to address their actual needs and day-to-day pain points.
- Working with employees to collaborate on and experiment with products and services that employees will actually value.
- Designing processes for employees that thoughtfully control the amount of information they receive, rather than overwhelming them with it, so that they can get what they need to make the right decisions faster.
Gartner Corporate Leadership Council members can read our full report on digitalizing to improve the employee experience here.