The Future of Work?

The way we work has been undergoing massive changes over the last decade or more, but today, I believe, we are at the cusp of a fundamental shift in the relations of work, facilitated by the developments in technology. By relations of work, I mean the role each individual plays in a ‘value chain’ and how the part contributes to the whole.

Before the advent of the modern corporation, people worked not for a corporation (they weren’t around, remember?). Rather, artisans, for instance, manufactured their final product, say a bicycle (if they were around …) as a single entity, and sold their products in a marketplace.

With the advent of the corporation came the concept of people working in jobs where they did specific work, which contributed (often in indefinable ways) to the overall value chain. In this way, the individual would do their part of the work, and pass on their output to someone else, who would do their part of the work (value add) and so on …

This aspect is changing, and, I believe, set to change in bigger ways. As we are seeing there is a trend towards organizations outsourcing their work to freelance contractors. As this grows (and we are seeing this happening more so in the technology sector) we would likely come to a state where instead of many individuals being brought together under the ambit of the organizations, people would work more in their capacity as individuals, being brought together under the ambit of the value chain. This value chain, by definition, would span organizations, which means that we can expect to see, more and more, the value chain being formed as a loose federation of individual freelance contributors, their output orchestrated by a set of organizations partnering together to create a certain set of products or services.

So in terms of work structures this could likely be a move towards towards ways of working the modern corporation replaced, though in ways which are very much the new millennium. This has massive implications on the aspirations of youngsters (I don’t quite rely on the generation nomenclature, partly because I don’t understand it …), in that they can probably no longer aspire to long term jobs and designations may lose their meaning, the content of work, and the satisfaction that generates being the main defining factors there.

In a way, going back in time, but in a 21st century way.


Virtual Education

Over a period of time, I have written about how virtual education can be used to address some of the problems facing education today, namely, shortage of good faculty, and the high cost of getting high-quality education to a large number of students. Few days back (which is when I had made a note to write this, but didnt quite get round to it, maybe because of the New Year holidays, but then, that would be just an excuse) I read about virtual courses offered by IITs being attended by students from other colleges (please help with a link if you could find … have been searching, but not to much avail). In this, the college from which the participating students come from decides whether they want to give credit to students for the courses they attend virtually, but if they do, then this is a step in the direction I have written about. For the participating colleges, there is, of course, the additional aspect of building the infrastructure to support the learning around these courses, in the form of labs, Q&A sessions, tests, and so on, but there is a benefit too. This would arise in the form of the content being made available to students, around which the learning then takes place.

Taking this one step further, is the possibility of building Centres of Excellence, hosted by one or two colleges, and have courses around these topics being delivered virtually by Professors from these colleges. For instance, these centres could be like Material Science, Thermodynamics, Engines and Turbo-Machines, Operations Research, and so on. Based on mutual agreement, specific colleges could be identified as CoEs for each of these, and courses delivered on these areas by Professors from these colleges, with students participating from all participating colleges. This would give the benefit of standard, high-quality education being delivered to students across the country, without necessarily replicating faculty skills at multiple locations, and enhance access as well as address cost issues.

From here, the individual colleges could take over, in supporting the learning process around these courses. This would be in the form of Q&A, homework assignments, labs, case studies, projects, exams, and facilitating cross faculty-student collaboration. In this way, the participating colleges get access to world-class content, delivering colleges build a source of revenue, and there is a symbiotic relationship between the two. The participating colleges give credits for these courses, manage the learning process, and give degrees based on their own criteria.


Humility & Leadership

This one is something probably a lot of folks wont agree with. Something that sounds logical, and yet, something which is quite contrary to the popular picture we have built today. The idea that humility is a greater gift for leaders than arrogance is. Something I have read, and thought about before, and something which came up again in this article. The popular picture seems to equate arrogance with getting things done, and somehow, the assumption seems to be that leaders who are more humble dont command respect, that people dont look up to them. This, in my experience, isnt true, though we still hold on to this notion in spite of many case studies, personal experiences, and plenty of research.

The importance of humility is underlined by the business environment we are operating in. In the past, when business environment and markets were more static, leadership wasnt too complex a subject, but today, as forces working on a business, both external and internal, strategic or structural are far more diverse, the information and skills required by a leader to understand, assimilate, analyze, and act upon these is humungous. Its just not possible for many people to be able to do this, and that too, in double quick time. This is why, a leader needs the ability to be able to let go, so to say. To summarize, a leader needs to:

  • Understand that they dont necessarily have to understand all the dynamics and analyze their impact on the business.
  • Be able to accept that they need to rely on the advice of experts who are far more capable of handling these.
  • Build a team of capable, motivated people to support the decision-making.
  • Listen to the advice of these experts, even if the leader doesnt like it.
  • Learn to accept advice, and act upon it, while at the same time taking ownership of the advice.

All of this requires tremendous humility, as this requires the leader to accept their limitations, and to listen to, appreciate, and accept viewpoints of others. This also requires leaders to understand the importance of continuous learning, which is an important ingredient to continuous improvement. Most importantly, this requires the leader to let go some influence. All of these require humility in large doses.


TM/HR

Over a period of time, the concept of Talent Management has become a hot topic in HR circles, and many people are talking about the idea. However, I dont quite know any two sources which give the same definition of Talent Management. A number of things I have read include:

  • Talent Management is strategic while HR is transactional
  • Talent Management is about retaining high-flyers while HR is for lesser mortals
  • Talent Management is about managing skills while HR is about managing the policies related to people
  • Talent Management is old wine in new bottles
  • Its a term coined by clever management consultants to make a quick buck (no I havent read that but thats always a pet theory of quite a few people, isnt it?)

Are these true? I dont quite think so. To some extent, I feel Talent Management is the natural progression from the HR philosophy. Essentially, I feel the difference between HR and TM are more to do with how the organization looks at its main asset … people! In the earlier, HR world, people were one of the factors of production, and of creating value for the organization in a sort of undistinguished way, somewhat (though this is not exactly an accurate parallel, but just to create an illustration) like one machine is interchangeable with another machine, and none the wiser.

TM is based on the understanding that each individual is a distinct one, and each one has a distinct personality, a particular set of talents and skills, aspirations and potential which is unique to each one, and so, need to be treated iondividually. This means that the growth needs, based on their aspirations, would be different for different people, which means that development plans, both in terms of skills development and individual growth in the organization need to be tailored to the individual needs of the particular person. And this, I feel, is the primary difference between TM and HR.


L&D Aligning with TM

Whether you are a Talent Management practitioner, or a Learning & Development practitioner, you would have the question about how these two should align. The question is one of how one can enable the other. To answer this, one must explore the source of L&D initiatives, with which L&D initiatives must be aligned. This source is higher people performance. If we take this as the premise, then it stands to reason that L&D must be strongly aligned with TM strategy.

People performance is defined based on the performance management framework the organization would have in place. Broadly, the levels of this framework (in a theoretical scenarion, and many organizations differ widely from this) could be seen here, and one can also see the levels and ways in which L&D can align with, and enable this TM strategy.

As you can see, the inputs from L&D initiatives at different levels need to be aligned to the requirements of that level, and the learning objectives which need to be met at that level.

At the level of KCAs, where the need is to build behaviourial capability, the training requirement primarily is for soft-skills, the details of which are based typically on a combination of role and the level in the hierarchy of the employee (commonly called band).

At the employee-goals level, the requirements are either in terms of organization needs from the employee, or in terms of employee aspirations, and these are primarily met in the form of technical training, or in form of training designed to meet the needs of succession or progression. From the perspective of succession or progression, organizations usually have programs aimed at equipping people for meeting specific roles, wither at the same level or at a higher level, and these would typically form part of the training needs at this level of the framework.

At the project/operational level, the training needs are primarily project-focused, to build capability inventory aligned with the requirements of the project or operations, and this forms a large part of the training requirements, mostly technical or functional.


Teaching Maths Without Words

Thats a somewhat crazy question. I came across this video, and i would say its quite a nice watch.

This video makes a compelling case for the why and the how of teaching maths in a visual way. After all, maths is not about words or languages, is it? If so, why should mathematics education be so language heavy? It should be about the concepts of mathematics. And i have found that the visual impact of mathematics is quite powerful. I tried this trick with my then 10-year-old … I introduced him to the concepts of integers, and multiplication with negative numbers without bringing in negative numbers to begin with.

We started with directions. Left and right. So, theres 3 to the left and 2 to the right. Or, 4 to the right and 5 to the right. Now, adding the 4 to the right and the 5 to the right is easy, but how does one add 3 to the left and 2 to the right? This is where the concept of the negative sign came into the picture. And once this was done, then it was a simple extension of this to see how multiplication with negative numbers simply changed the direction and nothing else.

What this did is help him build a mental picture of these concepts. In my experience as a trainer, i have found that these mental pictures are far more enduring than theoretical concepts. To take an example, i used to teach the concept of min-max planning, or the sawtooth curve, using the analogy of mom planning to go out and buy rice. Now, a few days after the class, the students, even if they had forgotten the min-max planning theory, or the sawtooth curve, still remembered the rice story, and this helped them to relate to the concept. The rice story here helped build a mental picture which is more enduring than theoretical concepts. So this isnt just about children learning mathematics, but also about adults learning.

Now, knowing him, he would have built a picture of Ben10 doing something which saves the world from the wildest aliens imaginable while multiplying two negative numbers, but hey, thats a picture i can live with!

Oh by the way, where there are integers, can vectors be far behind?


Leaders …

The question of leadership, and who leaders are, or ought to be, has been around for a while. I remember the discusion going on about whether are born or whether they can be made for two decades, and i suppose we werent the first people in the world to discuss this. This is a question i keep getting asked When i am running a leadership development training program. Of course, this is a question to which everyone has an answer, and everyone would be confident theirnanswer is the right one.

Well, i too have an answer, though i am not sure if this is the right one. I feel leaders are born, but having said that, there are some principles of leadership which can be generalized (this in the face of believing that every leader has their own distinctive style, not all of which can be generalized, because its relevant to the context) and so, can be taught to some extent.

Having said that, men look up to leaders. Which means that if we can identify the people who people look up to, then we have identified natural leaders who have emerged. This is something this piece from managementexchange talks about.

What you will find really cool about the piece is that it describes that natural leaders emerge based on the level to which they are ready to share expertise or knowledge they have, and the level to whch they are able or willing to collaborate with each other. This, i feel, is the learning paradigm of knowledge-work in a flat world, as they say, that “knowledge shared is knowledge squared”, now it also seems that this paradigm of squaring knowledge may also be at the core of emergent leadership.