Every Moment A Doorway
You can go any direction, although directions can be impeded.
Quote of the Moment
I like to think of a new year being possible at any moment, as every moment is a kind of doorway. You can go any direction, although directions can be impeded.
| Joy Harjo, poet laureate of the United States
Happy new year, I hope.
I have plans for Work Futures that I will unveil in due course.
I read an IBM report, COVID-19 and the Future of Business, and here’s some takeaways and tea-leaf reading.
First of all, the executives polled seem to have too many priorities:
The report explains:
Two years ago, relatively few executives considered competencies in crisis management, enterprise agility, cost management, workforce resiliency, innovation, or cash-flow management as critically important to their business. Today, however, top executives tell a different tale.
New research from the IBM Institute for Business Value shows that executives are now prioritizing all these capabilities. In the next two years, our findings show that we should expect another huge shift in prioritization. Executives are clearly telling us they plan to emphasize workforce safety and security, cost management, and enterprise agility.
Can they really do all of that? My hunch is everything will be skewed toward cost reduction. For example, transformation:
Leaders are expecting more from their transformation initiatives. They identify competitiveness and workforce resilience as the benefits they most want from ongoing digital transformation. Transformation is also accelerating among a majority of organizations. But strikingly, greater focus on transformation seems to be at the expense of customer relationships and partnering opportunities.
Executives identify competitiveness and workforce resilience as the benefits they most want from ongoing digital transformation.
Whether reflecting on current conditions or future plans, business leaders’ needs for speed and flexibility have been amplified dramatically. Old barriers are being brushed aside under the pressure of unrelenting disruption, rapidly evolving customer expectations, and an unprecedented pace of change. There seems to be renewed clarity in their perspectives. Motivation is not aspirational—it has become existential.
In my opinion, the change-or-die mantra is overused: that meme is just another way for executives to shift their aura of decisiveness from the context of business operations -- where uncertainty has taken control -- to the strategic transformation context.
The researchers offer some epiphanies:
Epiphany 1: Digital transformation was never just about the technology
No, in reality, it was (always) about reducing costs.
[…] Something bigger and more long-lasting than crisis management is underway. Before the pandemic, many organizations seemingly distrusted their own technological capabilities and doubted the skills of their own workforces. Yet, in the blur of this year’s pandemic-induced reactions, those anxieties proved largely unfounded.
Executives have become more trusting of what technology can do, and they are pushing ahead with digital transformation.
Reliance on tech platforms became more acute, and those platforms—along with the corporate teams who use them—delivered results. It’s not that new tech was suddenly discovered and implemented; rather, the tools already at hand were deployed to fuller potential. Previous barriers to implementation were unceremoniously shoved aside, and those who moved first saw nearly immediate results.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forever altered how organizations around the world operate. Some 55 percent of respondents say the pandemic has resulted in “permanent changes to our organizational strategy.” An even larger 60 percent say COVID-19 has “adjusted our approach to change management” and “accelerated process automation,” with 64 percent acknowledging a shift to more cloud-based business activities.
I wonder how they defined ‘organizational strategy’? Automating everything that can be?
Epiphany 2 is ‘the human element is the key to success’, however, the researchers are dubious about what companies are actually planning to do:
Our analysis confirms that the business competencies that account for the largest part of an organization’s expected growth are those centered around employees and customers, such as workforce training and customer experience management. But remarkably, these factors seem to have eluded executives. More than three-quarters of executives expect changed customer behavior to continue after COVID-19, trading face-to-face contact for more shopping and customer service interactions online. To that end, 84 percent of executives say that customer experience management will be a high priority over the next two years, compared to only 35 percent just two years ago. And yet, “improved customer service” sits in the bottom half of the list of benefits that executives seek from digital transformation.
Is 'the human element' really the key to success? Where is that proven? And even if so it seems 'to have eluded executives', so executives don’t agree? Confusing.
What about workers in this brave new world?
If executives are conflicted about how they’re connecting with customers, they’re doing even worse with their employees. While workforce safety, skills, and flexibility are important, employee satisfaction has been deprioritized. Executives recognize that their employees have been under intense pressure, and they contend that employee well-being is among their highest priorities
But our research highlights a gaping chasm between what executives think they are offering their employees and how those employees feel: employers significantly overestimate the effectiveness of their support and training efforts. Only about half of employees say they believe that their employer is genuinely concerned about their welfare. Clearly, there is massive opportunity for leaders who can get this right, when most seem to be struggling.
'Only about half of employees say they believe that their employer is genuinely concerned about their welfare.' The question is ‘are employers actually concerned about employees’ welfare’? No more than necessary.
The researchers offer other epiphanies — Epiphany 3: Traumatic stress has hijacked corporate strategy, Epiphany 4: Some will win. Some will lose. But few will do it alone. — but I was unpersuaded by these. And a few assertions seem to fall from the sky, not from the research. Like this new chunk of the emerging conventional (meaning totally anecdotal) wisdom:
The pandemic was a wake-up call that the unexpected and the unlikely are more tangible and plausible than anyone previously anticipated. For many, it has been a bitter reality: painful, costly, still unresolved. For a few lucky others, it has offered an unforeseen windfall; one that organizations have struggled to capitalize on. Either way, executives must accept that pandemic-induced changes in strategy, management, operations, and budgetary priorities are here to stay. Accelerated investment is coming in digital tech, transformation, and cloud adoption.
We are on the leading edge of a self-reinforcing process, promising even greater acceleration ahead. This presents an enticing opportunity for executives who can manage complexity and drive competitiveness by tying digital transformation to business priorities—while others are still waiting for things to “go back to normal.”
There is no going back to normal. The risks and opportunities are too great. The stakes are too high.
Organizational complexity remains the biggest hurdle to progress. More than twice as many executives mention it as a barrier today as in the past. Another related obstacle: employee burnout. Data indicates that employees feel tired and overloaded, potentially as a reflection of that complexity.
Excuse me? 'Organizational complexity remains the biggest hurdle to progress.' Huh? Where did that come from? Doesn't resiliency rely on new sorts of organizational complexity? This assertion seems totally backward to me, or at least not well explained.
They close with a restatement of the old ‘companies must do exactly x, y, z to survive and flourish’, with the addition of ‘there is no going back to normal’. And with startling lack of self-awareness, they preach 'prepare for ongoing uncertainty', while presenting, with great certainty, exactly what companies must do to succeed.
Is this cognitive dissonance, an essential paradox, or just giving the readers — senior leaders in IBM’s target market — what they want to hear? Perhaps all three.
work futures is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
In How companies can make remote working a success, Andrea Alexander, Aaron De Smet, and Mihir Mysore do a nice segmentation of various sorts of hybrid work:
They offer these insights into their findings:
Our experience—and the experience at HP, IBM, and Yahoo!—is that the in-person culture comes to dominate, disenfranchising those who are working remotely. The difficulty arises through a thousand small occurrences: when teams mishandle conference calls such that remote workers feel overlooked, and when collaborators use on-site white boards rather than online collaboration tools such as Miro. But culture can split apart in bigger ways too, as when the pattern of promotions favors on-site employees or when on-premises workers get the more highly sought-after assignments.
First let’s eliminate the extremes. We’d recommend a fully virtual model to very few companies, and those that choose this model would likely operate in specific industries such as outsourced call centers, customer service, contact telesales, publishing, PR, marketing, research and information services, IT, and software development, and under specific circumstances. Be cautious if you think better access to talent or lower real-estate cost—which the all-virtual model would seem to optimize—outweigh all other considerations. On the other hand, few companies would be better off choosing an entirely on-premises model, given that at least some of their workers need flexibility because of work–life or health constraints. That leaves most companies somewhere in the middle, with a hybrid mix of remote and on-site working.
They explore the various models in the middle. It’s a good segmentation and captures trends of the emerging hybrid models, well.
Joshua Rothman in The Meaning of “Culture” explores the myriad meanings of the word, without explicitly getting into the ‘company culture’ genre:
The critic Raymond Williams, in his souped-up dictionary, “Keywords,” writes that “culture” has three divergent meanings: there’s culture as a process of individual enrichment, as when we say that someone is “cultured” (in 1605, Francis Bacon wrote about “the culture and manurance of minds”); culture as a group’s “particular way of life,” as when we talk about French culture, company culture, or multiculturalism; and culture as an activity, pursued by means of the museums, concerts, books, and movies that might be encouraged by a Ministry of Culture (or covered on a blog like this one). These three senses of culture are actually quite different, and, Williams writes, they compete with one another. Each time we use the word “culture,” we incline toward one or another of its aspects: toward the “culture” that’s imbibed through osmosis or the “culture” that’s learned at museums, toward the “culture” that makes you a better a person or the “culture” that just inducts you into a group.
There’s a historical sense, too, in which “culture” is a polemical word. In the nineteenth century, Williams explains, “culture” was often opposed to “civilization.” Civilization, the thinking went, was a homogenizing system of efficient, rational rules, designed to encourage discipline and “progress.” Culture was the opposite: an unpredictable expression of human potential for its own sake. (It’s for this reason that a term like “the culture industry” has an oxymoronic ring.) Today, we don’t often use the word “civilization”— we prefer to talk, more democratically, in terms of culture—but we’re still conflicted. We can’t help but notice how “civilized” life seems both to facilitate culture and to deaden it. Museums make it easy to see art, but they also weigh it down. Rock and roll sounds better in a club than in a concert hall.
I think company culture is similar to the culture versus civilization dichotomy Rothman presents.
Many, when talking about company culture are making a counterpoint between company-culture-as-a-designed-and-managed-attribute-of-corporate-strategy and an organic, perhaps more complex and self-organized outgrowth of the community of people that comprise a company. ‘Civilized’ versus ‘uncivilized’.
In Your Guide to the New Language of the Office, Emma Goldberg highlights (or makes up) some useful modern terms, like 'al desko' dining, and ‘polywork’.