A snowdome that captivates a tableau of our old world, as idealised as a Dickensian Christmas scene, slips from our deathly grip and descends to the floor. As the sentimental snow shroud softly settles, it reveals – not a scene from our past, where power distanced us ever further away from what really mattered – but Tooting Broadway. Yes readers, we must let Citizen Kane die, as Citizen Smith raises a defiant fist and proclaims “POWER TO THE PEOPLE!”
HR can present to the world of work a model that is as old as time, yet as fresh as if it has just been born. There is no better evidence of this than when HR strategies are not even recognised. In what looked like an extract from a Machiavellian essay, I recalled my farewell event a few years ago from a large public sector employer. The farewell speech given by one of the longer tenured directors eloquently showered me with many heart-warming platitudes, but none were more impactful on me than when they said: “When you first arrived, we didn’t like your new-fangled ideas about how to work with our staff, but once we moved you into our way of thinking, you were okay”. My employer had undergone a meteoric change in its approach to organisational structure, spans of control and staff participation, yet many in positions of leadership still wanted to believe they had found new, bold and innovative ways to do everything the same way as they had always done it. Fortunately, under the leadership of their very decerning Chief Executive, this epoch of change that was feared by so many, was understood by their leader as offering their organisation the charter they so needed to untap and inspire a new workforce ethos.
Who would have imagined that a simple phrase first spoken in 2015 by Klaus Martin Schwab, a German engineer and economist, would set in motion a set of thought processes and philosophy that would finally start to openly address this century’s double industrial false start? After a first decade of flat productivity and a second decade that fared little better, as industry and commerce seemed intent on wallowing in “pilot purgatory” the concept of “people over process” was quietly born and its arrival became the catalyst that would trigger the accelerated rollout of the fourth industrial revolution. Since then, organisational disruption has become the very platform upon which challenge and defiance are the new forums upon which HR must engage with their workforces. Where the new normal has finally waved goodbye to any suggestion that “managers tell and workers do”, HR Directors and their employers are facing a tsunami of protest, as employees are demanding a cultural reset of their organisation’s operations, values, focus and corporate and environmental responsibilities. As the boundaries between the physical, digital and biological worlds collide, a blurred and incoherent societal experience is becoming apparent that future business success will be the result of a freed-up innovative workforce, rather than elaborately pre-designed processes and standard operating procedures. As AI, robotics, genetic engineering, quantum computing, social media et al, become the golden threads that weave a web that is fast becoming indispensable to modern life, the same is happening in the workplace, where aptitude and expectations of a freed-up workforce are driving an evolution of how we work and learn. Effectively, whether we like it or not, everything we have learned from the first, second and third industrial revolutions are now obsolete and have been swallowed up into new understanding, that is paving the way for transformative changes now being called the 4th industrial revolution. Don’t misunderstand me, like so many before me, I do love a process and throughout my long career, Process Management has offered multiple solutions to measuring progress and productivity and processes have made my HR teams feel more efficient and accountable, as they have standardised and simplified the necessary tasks that keep businesses running smoothly. I cannot disagree that Smart Processes encapsulate and protect organisational knowledge, but it has gone too far and, despite pockets of success, like a creeping fungus, relentless “death by process” has reversed the ideology of so many organisations, as they restrain the people they’re supposed to help and strangle the very innovation people were expected to bring to their roles. So, whilst far too many work teams continue to spend their days asking for permission before executing suggestions and continue to attend redundant meetings or answer irrelevant emails the time left to be innovative has become nothing more than a dark corner in an already busy shop floor. This situation cannot be allowed to continue or the prospect of conflict between quasi-human/machine workforces is inevitable and has all the hallmarks of ending like its predecessors, as another luddite tragedy. But relax it’s not going to happen.
The human land grab for innovative and creative jobs has already begun and it’s about to take off in a manner and at a level never before seen. Whilst it started with the dotcoms and other exciting hitech companies, we can already feel the rumblings coming from every employment sector, as workforces who have survived the imposition of home working or furlough are joining the rallying cry for a meteoric shift of mindset that will ensure the future world of work accommodates this quasi-human/ machine workforce, that not only coexists but thrives, develops and grows. Pious management across industries presided over impersonal and uninviting environments, where the absence of inspiration and vision resulted from sterile and uncomfortable workplaces. Nothing short of revolution which flattens convention and redefines the importance of people, will lead to a successful reset. Maybe Citizen Smith was right all along.