It’s a cliché to proclaim that we live and work in an increasingly volatile and unpredictable world. Competition is intensifying, the pace of change is accelerating, and an increased number of disruptions are advancing from nowhere, often totally unexpected. As John Hagel puts it: “We are moving into a world of increasing performance pressure.”
John Hagel is the Co-Chairman of the Deloitte Center for the Edge Innovation, author of The Power of Pull: How Smart Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion and a prolific writer at Edge Perspectives. Over the years, he has developed extensive knowledge about the forces impacting the world of work.
I wanted to discuss with him the radical changes to the workplace. In this interview, Hagel shares his view on the impact of technology on new ways of working, the power of scalable learning, passion, and the ability to make connections to increase work performance. Plus, the best strategies to drive a business forward.
Gloria Lombardi: There have been many radical changes to the way we work over the past decade. What do you consider to be the most remarkable drivers of new ways of working?
John Hagel: The key drivers of new ways of working are the digital infrastructures and digital technologies that are continuing to improve at an exponential rate. They include everything from communication platforms to Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics – clearly, they are all having an increasing role in our work environment.
Secondly, the pace of change is accelerating – everything is advancing at a much more rapid rate. Our skills are becoming obsolete and at a faster rate. In terms of work, this rapid change challenges the traditional model that we had, where we would go to school for a period of years, we would get some certificates confirming that we have learned something, and then we would go to work.
Now, we are living in a world where we have to learn constantly or we will become marginalised.
GL: You mentioned Artificial Intelligence. In which ways it is changing how organisations operate?
JH: At one level, AI is helping us to be more productive in terms of having the tools to perform analytics on large sets of data. There’s a general proliferation of data. And having the technology that can help us to make sense of all that information certainly helps us to get more value from it.
The challenge is that AI is also increasingly taking some parts of the work of people and making it feasible to do it by software. This creates the pressure to continue to learn faster because AI is becoming smarter and smarter. But, as an optimist, I believe that this creates an opportunity to redefine what type of work human beings should be doing. My belief is that some of the repetitive and routine tasks can be done much more effectively and efficiently by computer algorithms than by human beings.
Yet, the work that people will continue to do in the future will require creativity, imagination, social intelligence, and emotional intelligence – that is really the work that we should be doing as human beings.
GL: How can companies – and workers – best prepare for what is coming?
JH: First, what used to be secure employment is no longer secure – many workers recognise that they have to develop their own skills and talents more rapidly. But, there is a sense of increasing frustration, particularly from those working for larger companies – they simply are not developing as rapidly as they need to. This is one of the reasons why an increased number of workers go off on their own and become independent contractors. They feel that they can learn faster if they are independent rather than if they are stuck in some routine job in a large enterprise.
The challenge for large companies is that they have developed a model of operating that I call scalable efficiency: it involves tightly specifying, highly standardising and tightly integrating all their activities – as a result, they create an environment where there is no real opportunity to learn. Workers have to follow the manual. They have to follow the instructions. This type of environment is very hostile to learning. The challenge is to recognise that scalable efficiency, which was quite successful for many years, even centuries, is no longer effective.
There needs to be a shift to a fundamentally different approach to organising work. It is something that I call scalable learning: it is a commitment to the notion that if everyone in the work environment learns faster, performance improvement will increase more rapidly and the company will gain more benefits. But, it involves redefining the work environment at a fundamental level.
GL: Beside technology, what other factors are impacting the ways we work?
JH: There is a whole range of factors that are coming together. Part of it goes back to the notion of undermining the sense of job security or work with a single company. As a result, we are moving into a world of increasing performance pressure. If people go to work just to earn a living, they will experience stress within such an environment. In fact, an increasing number of workers are feeling that stress. But, in many cases, this situation can become a catalyst to find work that has a purpose, where workers can be really passionate about the work that they are doing – they do it because it is very meaningful to them and motivates them. Not just for the paycheck.
Those who have passion for their work do not feel the pressure of stress – they actually get excited by it. It is an opportunity for them to learn faster and have more impact.
GL: You mentioned two important elements that can contribute to greatness at work: learning and passion. What else would you suggest individuals to look at if they want to be more productive?
JH: There is another element, which relates to the first two. It is about being more focused on how to connect with other people in ways that can help us to learn faster and drive performance improvement. No matter how smart we are as individuals, we will be a lot smarter if we work with others. This is particularly the case with diverse groups of people who don’t come from the same background nor have the same beliefs and perspectives. The key to creativity is being able to tap into different points of views and work together with mutual respect.
The evolving work environment is going to be a driver for people to connect in different ways with each other – not just within their own company, but also outside. For example, hackathons, and other work environments where people can share their interests and address challenges together. It is about recognising that there are a lot of smart people outside of our company. And, one of the most effective ways to be more productive is to connect with them so that everyone can learn faster.
GL: Could you give me a couple of examples of organisations that are capable of thriving in this ever-changing working environment by nurturing scalable learning?
JH: There isn’t a single company that has embraced scalable learning in a holistic way, systematically. But, there are examples of companies that have addressed slices of it and have seen some significant improvements.
For example, there is a company that provides large companies with customer call centre operations on an outsource basis. They have 20,000 workers. The firm was inspired by an online video game called World of Warcraft. The players in the game have a performance dashboard that gives them real-time feedback on how they are doing in the game. The company took that idea and gave one of those performance dashboards to all of their workers so that they could have real-time feedback on their performance. But the company went further. They encouraged employees to ask for help if they were having performance issues. They created an online environment where the workers could go and just says, ‘I am having problems with handling this kind of customer call. Does anybody have any suggestion?’ Ultimately, the organisation started to watch, recognise and reward the workers who were helping other colleagues to improve their performance – so they created a powerful peer-to-peer learning environment in which workers became coaches and advisers to their peers.
Another good example comes from the software company Intuit. They have created experimentation platforms for all their workers, from all parts of the company – not just in the product development area where you would expect to see the experimentation and testing of new product ideas. They have an experimentation platform in every unit – from customer support to logistic and marketing. They encourage all their workers to test out new ideas, and new approaches to their work. This is creating an environment where people can learn and are allowed to fail. In fact, one of the challenges that holds workers back is the fear of failure – but through those experimentation platforms, Intuit encourages more risk-taking and more learning as a result.
GL: Scalable learning, passion, and ability to connect. What final suggestion could you give teams to help them drive their business forward?
JH: One final suggestion is to get alignment and clarity around performance metrics, which will indicate how well teams are doing – and to measure that performance on an ongoing basis. This means not just looking at snapshots of how they did last week or last month, but looking at the trajectory of their performance. Are they improving their performance? And, is it a linear improvement? Or, is it an accelerating improvement?
The most successful teams are those that accelerate performance improvement over time. This requires taking the time to step back on a regular basis, and reflect on what those performance metrics really mean. What didn’t work as well as expected? What seems to have a greater impact? And how can they do more of that? This process of reflection and adaptation is very powerful. It is unfortunate that many team members feel that they don’t have the time to do that – they feel under pressure to just go on to the next task. But, if they really want to be successful in the long term, they need to make the time.