The global COVID-19 pandemic is impacting us daily from all angles — health, economics, logistics, politics, education, relationships and more. For people working in all industries and sectors, this crisis is creating a huge amount of fear and anxiety. In many ways, it illustrates just how vulnerable we are as human beings, and it is causing us to question every assumption we had about the future.
This pandemic is happening as we enter what has often been described as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, with a number of profound cultural and technological shifts. In our new book, “Share: How Organizations Can Thrive in an Age of Networked Knowledge, Power & Relationships,” we talk about how the Fourth Industrial Revolution has also spurred a sharpened real-time focus on the distribution of assets and human capital across the world. Many of the HR and organizational practices at enterprise organizations have been in place since the first industrial revolution and will no longer be relevant or effective in this new digital age.
The three previous industrial revolutions were primarily about advancements in technology and productivity. The concept of total quality management, or TQM, was about eliminating waste, especially in HR, with an underlying quest to find methods, processes and talent that could accomplish tasks in an exponentially faster way. Consequently, organizational practice has traditionally been based on optimizing efficiency in human capital management.
As we navigate the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we need to move from the TQM model to one focused on the well-being of everyone. In order to do that, organizational practice has to change.
For the past few years, there has been a lot of talk about the skills gap and the need for new ways of thinking about how to best utilize resources to address it. But in order to effectively close the skills gap, we first need to imagine a new type of workplace that is more human-centric and puts people in a place where they can be enabled by machines, rather than the other way around. The average worker these days has to juggle 24-plus different e-systems, sometimes within the organization, sometimes outside of it. We are expected to continuously expand and improve our use of technology.
In the Fourth Industrial Revolution, continuous access to learning and development should be seen as a basic human right. It’s the only way people will be able to remain employable in a world of constant change. In the knowledge economy, what you know how to do will determine whether you design or operate a machine — or work for a machine.
But technology, in and of itself, is not the answer, unless it is created from an ethical set of values based on long-term sustainability. For example, a technology like videoconferencing won’t necessarily inspire people to speak up if the organization’s values don’t support sharing of opinions. As another example, artificial intelligence can be helpful in many ways, but if it is used on social media to connect people only with others who share similar views, it will merely amplify mistrust, fear, anti-intellectualism and xenophobic tendencies in our society.
Conway’s Law states, “Any organization that designs a system (defined more broadly than just information systems) will inevitably produce a design whose structure is a copy of the organization’s communication structure.” This means if you want to design technology that actually improves people’s lives, you need to design it in a way that reflects the kind of environment you want to create in the future.
Up until now, technology has been released without concern about the impact it will have on people. Governments can’t move quickly enough to control, regulate and keep pace with the speed of industry. As we emerge from the COVID-19 crisis, we will be operating in an age in which every aspect of society will change more quickly than ever before, and entire industries will constantly be disrupted. Many traditional organizations are unprepared for this new digital world, as they fail to recognize the extent of the changes that will be required to operate and compete.
Right now, the power and influence that corporate institutions hold over wider society has reached new heights, as global brands and technological monopolies infiltrate every aspect of modern life. With respect to making the big decisions about allowing workers to work remotely, health care benefits and other forms of economic relief, corporations are stepping up to fulfill a leadership role. For leaders, this necessitates a closer look at the values and underlying purpose of their organizations and reexamining the way they are making decisions. People are looking to business leaders for answers: Are they putting people first? Communicating openly? Acting with empathy and compassion?
In “Share,” we make the case that there is a better way for organizations to interact and become responsible corporate citizens by developing new business models based on sharing, reciprocity and cooperation. We issue a call to action for HR executives and institutional leaders to take a careful look at the social and environmental context of the world today and reconsider how their organizations may benefit from engaging more effectively with local communities and wider society. We propose this 4-step process will allow organizations to align and be congruent with empathy, values and purpose:
- Discover what is important from each individual to align on purpose.
- Define what this means in the context of strategy and how the organization competes.
- Develop a plan to align the purpose-based values and empathy at the core of how everything is done.
- Deploy “how we do things around here,” through the actions of every employee, everyday.
Changing behaviors and culture can be difficult to achieve and even harder to quantify, but it is of critical importance. Success requires the attention of the leadership team and a strong execution paradigm. Over time, new leadership styles and behaviors will enable a fast-sharing environment where stories are told and concepts shaped. By building successful, involved, ethical organizations that have empathy at their core, we will increase the chances of creating a better world for all of us.
L&D will play an important role in helping to shape our future society. The pandemic and ensuing economic crisis requires us to build a host of different skills and capabilities, including the ability to take risks, stay open-minded and agile, learn from experimentation and from each other as well as learn from our failures — even when we are anxious and afraid or uncertain about the future.