People Management in the Digital Age

By Ade McCormack, Digital Strategist

This article is from featured blogger Ade McCormack of his Digital Strategy Blog. Republished with permission from the author.

A one-sided relationship?

People management, like customer relationship management, involves a unidirectional dynamic. Suppliers manage customers and employers manage employees. These are notions of the very industrial era.

Over the years, people management has undergone several branding transformations, including the use of terms such as people, human resources, and talent. But we must bear in mind that the modus operandi of the industrial age is based on the notion of the factory. Factories are synonymous with efficiency, speed and quality. Machines, including computer systems, play on these engines. Unfortunately, for much of the Industrial Age, the full set of machines needed to run the factory did not exist, so humans were introduced into the system to, in effect, act as spaces technological reservations.

Meet the Digital Steamroller

Over the past few decades, as technology has matured, we have seen an accelerated automation of this manual labor. But even so-called white-collar workers are at risk, as it turns out that much of what they/we do lends itself to automation. We are therefore all potentially in the cross threads of digital progress.

Either way, we needed humans in the building while we waited for the technology to evolve to a state where the human cogs were no longer needed.

And of course we had to deal with these humans, with their tendency to think for themselves. Because of this industrial-age framework, HR has become an extension of the purchasing department, specifically designed to manage resources that:

  • Had a tendency to laziness.
  • Despite an educational system optimized for Industrial Age work, some people still had a lingering tendency toward self-expression rather than conformity.
  • Has not consistently adhered to an international standards specification. Despite the invention of specifications and a factory operating manual.
  • Were prone to mechanical and even mental failures.

I suspect that as AI, robotics and IoT become more mainstream, some of these will also be issues facing consumer purchases.

Are you Beyonce?

As we enter the the digital age, many people will indeed be automated out of the building, but they will be replaced by individuals whose thoughts and actions result in differentiated customer experiences that command a high margin and cannot be replicated using the technology. These creatives will display all of the worst HR characteristics of the industrial age and will therefore be an HR nightmare. They will be in many ways reclaim your humanity.

Unlike the industrial age, where compliance was the primary human skill required and HR was effectively a supply and maintenance function, the digital age puts people at the center of the business. And build the technology around them so that their cognitive ability is harvested as much as possible.

The workplace matters

Because these people are rare and often not primarily focused on economic gain, the axis of power shifts from the employer to the employee. Giving money to your talent challenges won’t be enough.

We need to create great places to work to attract and retain top talent, because ultimately they want to do great work alongside other great talent.

They also want to work with organizations that help them progress on their own path to mastery. Moreover, they want to work for organizations that have a purpose other than enriching shareholders or, for example, poisoning children with chemical potions disguised as food.

It’s show time!

So what is people management, when the name of the game is attracting and retaining rock stars with possible diva tendencies? I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this. May I suggest performance management. As we move towards a truly human-centered organizational model, the relationship between employer and employee is likely to evolve into something akin to a coach and athlete. The employer wants the athlete to perform to the maximum of his or her abilities. And the athlete too. Thus, the stage is set for both a high degree of confidence and therefore high performance. Unions will need to reinvent themselves for a world where employees are in the driver’s seat and happy to work with purpose-driven leaders. Please note that by employee, I really mean any talented individual, regardless of their actual legal employment status.

This moves appraisal management from an annual tick-box exercise to a real-time talent engagement review model, in which performance issues are recognized before they become visible to the worker or his boss. Technology has a role to play here, as does cognitive management. I explore the latter in my recent book titled: Dynamics of Attention: High Personal Performance in the Digital Age.

People management or performance management is shifting from a concern for “purchases” to a driver of business strategy, and therefore a matter of board of directors. Acquiring the services of Beyoncé, Salvadore Dali or Renaldo will literally determine how you move the business forward.

Strengthen HR

I would see this as a red flag and an opportunity for the HR function to reinforce its strategic relevance.

But HR needs to move beyond the perception that people are replaceable cogs to be acquired and kept cheaply.

Of course, there is a need for the old model. If you have it in place in your organization, then conveyor belts or not, you’re working in a factory. And yes, we will continue to need factories, even if they will be increasingly unmanned.

Originally published on Digital Strategy.


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