Three questions in September

Tomorrow I head back to Washington DC after a month's worth of work travel: 5 countries (China, Austria, Romania, UK, The Netherlands), 10 presentations and workshops, various hotels, airports, railway stations, metro systems, buses, taxis and languages. At this point I'm tempted to write about packing techniques, hints for mastering airport security lines, methods of minimizing currency confusion, how not to lose important items, and what seems to work to keep the 'day job' going during a period of patchy internet access, changing time zones, and missing smart-phone alerts to call-in to a meeting back at base. But instead I'm sticking with the organization design theme.

One of my colleagues on Friday asked what were the preoccupations and questions I was hearing from people in these various presentations and workshops – anything in common across them? It was a great question that caused me to mentally skim over various perspectives of organization I'd been discussing over the month: four workshops on methods of organization design, four seminars on aspects of the future of work and how this might affect organization design, one session on organizational health, and another on changing the culture of an organization. All told somewhat over 350 people representing private and public sector, multiple nationalities and job roles attended the events. Each event needed a different set of information, PowerPoint, handouts, etc.

So coming up with 'the headline', as the jargon goes, wasn't that easy. I remember once being asked to present my entire PhD dissertation, 4 years of work, on one page – a similar challenge. But there were three consistently asked questions across the month:

1. How do we design organizations for insecurity?
2. What skills, leadership and management capabilities do organizations need for meeting the future?
3. How can we design with the changing demographics we are facing?

Below is a brief discussion on each of these.

How do we design organizations for insecurity?
The word 'insecurity' came up a lot in various guises, 'precarity', 'ambiguity', 'agility', 'resilience' and 'not knowing' among them. One person in a non-profit that got government funding said that they knew they would get funding cuts but didn't know when or how much. Another talked about how last month's anxieties about oil prices were affecting their business. Others talked about difficulties in assessing where their next competitors' would come from, when, and what they – the upstart competitors – would do to disrupt the market. The whole part social organization and social media plays in keeping businesses on edge was a topic of discussion in some meetings.

As these discussions proceed it's evident that thinking traditionally about organization redesign (or restructure or reorganization) as a 'project' that has a beginning and an endpoint is increasingly pointless. A better way is to make continuous adjustments in much the same way that an aircraft pilot (in the old days before auto-pilot) was minutely adjusting course 99% of the time. He/she was keeping an eye on all sorts of instruments, information, and insights to fly safely and land at destination. Sailing in heavy weather is another analogy for the skills needed. Read this piece and you get the idea that there's no room for sitting back. Constant vigilance is called for. Just read the current BlackBerry, Nokia, or Microsoft stories and you'll see the need for dynamic organization design. It is one that Foursquare practices (and is still working on)

'Dennis Crowley, CEO, Foursquare believes that his product needs to be radically different every few months because he faces so much competition. Believing this he wants to oversee 'a company under constant reinvention'. (Foursquare is a free app that helps people and their friends make the most of where they are). As he said, 'Reorganizing a company is generally considered a bad thing. We're trying to see it differently. It has to be built into the culture, this idea that we haven't got it right yet – product or organization design.' '

What skills, leadership and management capabilities do organizations need for meeting the future?
This is a difficult question to get to grips with. STEM skills (science, technology, engineering, and math) are increasingly difficult to find globally and increasingly required. There are a whole range of new skills, I think, related to social organization/social media and technology use. It's no good saying 'I'm a technophobe' – as a person in one of the presentations said – and expect to have any voice in an organization's design (or even future), organizations are increasingly driven by technology and require digital confidence. We're already seeing more people interacting with robots and this will become increasingly common calling for machine/human interaction skills that may have to be developed.(e.g. how do managers manage a mixed team of humans and humanoid robots?)

Other skills gaps are reported in Manpower Group's 2013 "Talent Shortage Survey". It states that

'Worldwide, 35% of over 38,000 employers surveyed report they are experiencing difficulty filling jobs due to lack of available talent. This represents a slight rise in comparison to the 2012 survey and is the highest proportion of employers expressing concern about talent shortages since 2007.'

The report does offer examples of methods for mitigating some of the talent shortages. For example, 'More than two in five (44%) EMEA employers who face a talent shortage at present say that their strategic response involves modified people practices, while 22% adopt strategies which focus on work models and 19% include talent sourcing solutions. ' These types of responses involve redesigning aspects of the organization.

The report goes on to note 'However, the region has the highest proportion of employers who are facing skills gaps but don't have a strategy to deal with them (29%).'

Leadership and management skills for meeting the future are based in wholly different notions of what leadership and managing mean. Gary Hamel, a management speaker, is one advocating 'leaders everywhere' which automatically counters traditional infrastructures around hierarchy, seniority, and 'climbing career ladders'. He talks about leaders being seers, architects, connectors, mentors, contrarians, bushwackers, guardians, and citizens. Not a traditional list of leadership roles. See these roles explained here.

In some cultures unraveling the differences between leaders and managers may well become a semantic nonsense as we dispense with managers, and leaders are 'everywhere'. But in other cultures hierarchies are alive and well and any ideas of changing these causes difficulties. The immediate challenge for multi-nationals is how to design organizations that successfully integrate traditional and new concepts of leadership/management

How can we design with the changing demographics we are facing?
Changing demographics are another big challenge. Many people I met talked about the aging population and the difficulties of changing infrastructures and, in some countries, laws that will enable older workers to remain in the workforce. A UK publication Working Better: the over 50s the new work generation has useful information on some of the barriers and opportunities. It includes discussions on working hours, staying healthy, making workplace accommodations and the legal frameworks around pensions.

At the other end of the age range youth unemployment is a global issue. The International Labor Office report on this is a dispiriting read:

"The global youth unemployment rate, estimated at 12.6 per cent in 2013, is close to its crisis peak. As many as 73 million young people are estimated to be unemployed in 2013. At the same time, informal employment among young people remains pervasive and transitions to decent work are slow and difficult. The economic and social costs of unemployment, long-term unemployment, discouragement and widespread low-quality jobs for young people continue to rise and undermine economies' growth potential.

Skills mismatch on youth labour markets has become a persistent and growing trend. Overeducation and over-skilling coexist with undereducation and under-skilling, and increasingly with skills obsolescence brought about by long-term unemployment."

The under-education and underskilling particuarly in levels of literacy, numeracy and 'emotional' skills has given rise to a lot of hand-wringing followed by ideas on how to design organizations and organizational schemes to remedy this.

End point
I found it interesting that there was this commonality of questions across the geographies and industries. Are you asking these same three questions and if so, how are you addressing them? Let me know.