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How Can Leaders Guide Talent Through Tech Disruption?

Partner at Mercer’s Multinational Client Group

This piece is the second in a week-long series on the workplace of the future. You can read the previous piece here.

As technology becomes more embedded in our work, the way we collaborate and contribute at work is changing in fundamental ways. From using digital platforms to engage with our teams, to automating repetitive work, to using real-time data to guide decision-making and people management, technology firms are continuously deploying new technologies in the service of human productivity and organizational performance. Advances in exponential technologies such as cognitive automation, robotics and the Internet of Things are not only transforming work in technology businesses, but also driving significant shifts in other industries.

Work Is Changing—and the Workforce Must Too

Global teams and increased deployment of intelligent technologies in the workplace have transformed the way work gets done. Especially for those in the technology sector, whose business processes are integrated and powered by information-based technologies, creating unprecedented opportunities for efficiency and impact through improved visibility of the data underlying work processes. In the process, organizational silos are being breached, expertise codified, and barriers to information reduced, placing new demands on the human workforce.

There is no question that the technology workforce will perform differently in a digital workplace. Assisted by an array of software robots and smart applications on demand, technology talent (e.g., software and system engineers, UX designers, accountants, marketers, recruiters, cybersecurity analysts or data scientists) are well positioned to undertake complex activities that require uniquely human capabilities that machines have not yet mastered—tasks involving contextual intelligence, empathy and continuous learning.

It is also important to recognize that the path forward is not predictable; comfort with ambiguity and willingness to work through risk and failure will be critical to succeeding in the digital era. For this reason, building tomorrow’s workforce includes reinventing the workplace and organizational context to enable new ways of working and the cultural readiness for new work.

Ecosystems Are Here to Stay, Including Talent Ecosystems

Platforms and ecosystems are everywhere in the technology industry, enabling disruptive companies to enter other industries. The economics of the platform business model hinge on, among other things, leveraged assets. Uber, for example, does not own the fleet of cars it uses to transport its customers nor does it hire the workforce that provides mobility services. There are also network effects: The more people you have on the platform generating or consuming services, the more valuable it becomes for other participants. In other words, the value is generated by the entire ecosystem—not just the firm that owns the platform.

Both of these differentiating factors—leveraged assets and network effects—impact the human workforce in technology enterprises in important ways.

Source: Mercer

With the rise of the talent ecosystem, organizations are leveraging an integrated workforce—employees and contingents—to deliver products and services to their consumers. They are also able to harness the vast global cognitive surplus through crowdsourcing platforms such as Kaggle and digital work platforms such as intelligent product builders and Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, which enable unbundling of work into projects and discrete activities that can be executed remotely and on-demand.

In a global environment, the emergence of a talent ecosystem delivers unprecedented access to critical talent pools, helping organizations override talent constraints present in their geographic footprint. It also creates unique challenges around legal context and business continuity risk through geopolitical instability.

Your Journey Begins From Where You Are

Over the last year we have explored the impact of these shifts inside the enterprise as organizations transform and people strategies are reinvented for tomorrow. It is abundantly clear to us that an innovation disposition is a key driver of the transformation journey—and while not all technology organizations are disruptors, all industries and business organizations face disruption and must prepare for it. For example, organizations that focus deeply on operational excellence and market share may discourage innovation as their culture; governance models and incentive structures reward certainty and near-term benefits over a willingness to risk failure.

Source: Mercer

By baselining the current state, technology organizations stand to gain a stronger understanding of their unique barriers to transformation and the levers they must move to broaden their capacity for organizational and workforce change. It also answers the oft-asked question: “Where do I begin?”

People leaders, especially in human resources, also have to redirect their focus from business as usual to better anticipating future talent needs. In a business environment characterized by compressed innovation cycles, this is hard, especially if there is a deep functional focus that lengthens the learning curve for people strategy.

Source: Mercer

By identifying enterprise-level shifts, as well as transformation efforts that are being undertaken at a business-functional level, HR can partner with business effectively through the rough and tumble of fast-paced, technology-driven change.

For human resource leaders, this would require moving toward distributed ownership of people capabilities and readiness for the future and reaching outside the enterprise for targeted partnerships to achieve outcomes—very much the way their peers in business operations do.

Sheela Sukumaran

Partner at Mercer’s Multinational Client Group

Sheela Sukumaran is a partner with Mercer’s Multinational Client Group. She has over 19 years of experience leading global business transformations and designing strategic people initiatives.

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