As Mohammed Ali finished addressing 2000 graduating Harvard University seniors in 1975 he responded to a call from the crowd to “give us a poem”. Ali paused, locked eyes on the audience member who had yelled out, then ad libbed the world’s shortest poem: “Me, We”, the champ said. Though few realised it at the time, it was a powerful statement to the most privileged members of the “Me Generation” about a coming global collective consciousness that would define their children’s world.
Fast forward 40 years and Ali’s words can also be seen as a theme song for the changing face of HR practice in the second decade of the 21st century. Perhaps the greatest illustration is the shift in emphasis within the profession from talent management to team and work management. Like all great shifts in how we organise ourselves as social beings, this movement in HR is driven by the technology that underpins economic production in our society.
The demise of the linear career
Ali’s Me Generation audience in the mid-1970s were living at the height of the industrial age when the highest value production took place in massive factories and on industrial scale office floors. The critical communication technology of the time was copper telephone lines, and although it felt to people in the seventies that phones had shrunk the world dramatically, the level of connectivity they lived with was hugely limited in comparison with today. That meant organisations and the individual careers were far less impacted by others around them.
The Harvard class of ‘75 had been prepared for linear careers in which they’d select a sector of the economy, develop highly specialised skills and make a career-long progression from the bottom to the top. Many would spend their entire careers with one organisation. Some would move around between organisations, but few of that generation would anticipate working for more than three significant employers throughout their career.
What a different world the class of 2018 will be entering. Digital technology has created a hyper connected world that has transformed the makeup and operation of organisations,and made the experience of working all but unrecognisable to the 1970s.
An organisation no longer exists like an island, apart from all others. Today every part of an organisation has the potential to be in constant contact with every one of its stakeholders 24/7. Connectivity used to be a premium product, now it’s our society’s most ubiquitous commodity.
Knowledge used to be power, now it’s also a commodity. Things like knowing the most accurate market price for a product or service used to be something gained through painstaking and expensive research. It was premium knowledge that gave its holder a distinct advantage in setting prices in the market. Now market knowledge is open to everyone. The newest AI algorithms will give you an instant appraisal of what the price is for a product or service anywhere in the world at any moment in time, and what the fair market price is for that product in your market today.
From island to ecosystem
For the HR practitioner in an old-world island organisation, success was dictated by how you could build a unique corporate culture that developed and retained talent in competition with every other potential employer. In today’s organisations, that dynamic has been flipped on its head. Successful organisations today see themselves as part of a dynamic and constantly changing ecosystem. The most successful organisations today are those with the richest connections into the societies they serve. Successful careers are portfolios that see individuals move fluidly between organisations. Talent is no longer regarded as a raw material in the economic equation to be retained for the productive working life of a human, but something to tap into according to the changing needs of the organisation at any moment.
An HR practitioner’s measure of success used to be how stable the workforce of her organisation's army of permanent employees was. Now it’s a far more complex equation. The HR practitioner finds herself managing a constantly changing mix of employees, freelancers, gig workers, part timers, and volunteers.
From individuals to teams
In this world the emphasis naturally falls less on the individual and more onto teams. There’s a realisation today that different people are good at different things. The HR practitioner is tasked with building an organisation culture that facilitates the formation of teams to perform specific tasks, then allows them to dissolve again as new teams are formed for new tasks.
Central to this shift from individual to team, from talent management to work and team management, is the understanding that individuals were never really the source of productivity in the first place. Productivity comes from how individuals work with other individuals. The sum has always been greater than the parts.
The progressive HR practitioner today understands that their most important skills are team building, team management, and measuring team effectiveness.The greatest value of an employee to an organisation in this world is not the ability to be productive as an individual, but the ability to play a role in the most productive teams.
New connected tools
To succeed in this connected world the HR practitioner needs connected tools.She needs tools to help her measure the effectiveness of teams that move beyond the old measures such as profitability or production volumes or sales levels. Those are essentially accounting measures. They’re always going to be important measures of business success, but they don’t offer any insight into the contribution people made to success. Most critically, they don’t offer any insights into the dynamics at work within the organisation’s most successful teams.
The first move to developing tools to make more meaningful measurements was the staple of 1990s HR -the engagement survey. Engagement surveys gave HR practitioners their first insight into the psychology of individuals within a workforce. For a decade they were a revolution. But now their limitations are exposed and most organisations are looking for what comes next. An engagement survey would alert you if something was wrong, but it couldn’t provide any insights into what was wrong, or how to fix it.
The rise of the Continuous Involvement System
What’s required for a connected age of constantly evolving teams is an information system that provides insights into the dynamics at work within your different teams. The system should complement your financial measures to tell you why the top performing teams are doing so well, and what the underperforming teams need to do to make improvements.
This new generation of HR information system is called the continuous involvement system. It allows managers to identify where improvements to the human dynamics of a workplace should be made, and then to measure the effectiveness of changes that are made.
By using a continuous involvement system, an HR professional can identify and encourage the kind of behaviours that make teams stronger -openness, willingness to collaborate and cede authority.
That’s important as we transition our organisational cultures from the command and control systems built to manage the Me Generation, people who began work in the 70s, 80s and 90s. HR’s challenges today is transforming old school command and control cultures into the ‘collaborate and share’ cultures that the We Generation need to succeed.
The growth in the importance of HR over the past decade reflects this generational change that’s underway right now in the philosophy of business. Its expression in business management and HR practice is the shift in emphasis from talent to team, from individual production to team productivity.
Or as Mohammed Ali might have put it, the shift from Me to We.
*Original article: HRINZ magazine, Spring issue 2018.
For more leadership thinking and insights, visit our resource hub, follow us on Twitter and connect on LinkedIn.