HR Director: Agile is More a Direction Than an End
27 August 2019
Posted by: Tamsin Fox-Davies
Our Head of Marketing, Tamsin Fox-Davies, recently wrote an article for HR Director magazine.
First Published: HR Director, 19th August 2019
"Change is a word with connotations. It’s divisive and, when used in a business context, it invariably induces a collective rolling of eyes and desperate sighs, as it dawns on people that their lives are about to be disrupted. In the tide of constant change, having to always adapt must stand as the greatest disruption in business today. No firm can cope with clunking change every five minutes, so what is the answer?"
Right now surviving and thriving means facilitating and embracing continuous organisational change through business agility. The foundation stones for this are embracing an agile culture and fostering a new generation of agile workers. The starting point for workplace transformation has to be in the classroom - beginning at primary school level - but current education curricula are not equipping the workers of today or tomorrow with the skills of agility that would make them flexible and adaptable. Agile courses are beginning to make their first tentative appearance in Higher Education. However, such programmes are an exception so, in general, education is not currently supplying businesses with the employees they need to compete and thrive. The other side of this coin is that young people are not being helped to develop the skills and mindsets they will need for life and work in a constantly shifting world. It is an omission that does a disservice to future generations entering the workplace as most signs indicate that the factors changing the employment environment are going to persist.
The changing nature of work is seeing distributed teams and asynchronous working become commonplace, contracting is on the rise, and there is an increased need for specialist experts. Additionally, faster technological change means technical education in schools is likely to become obsolete by the time the students of that subject enter the workforce, and today’s technical professionals must be continually learning to keep up. Most sectors are disrupted industries, including; communications (particularly due to the mainstreaming of AI technologies), finance (with crypto-currencies being just one example), and manufacturing (which is ever-more reliant on robotics), as well as many other examples. What is called for is a more agile reform of the education system. America Succeeds, is a coalition of business leaders who seek to ensure the USA’s public education system prepares every student to succeed in a competitive global economy. The thinktank’s The Age of Agility: Education Pathways for the Future of Work report last year, highlighted some key issues: "We expect and receive continuous improvement in our lives but that’s not true of education. It’s antiquated, it’s a one-size-fits-all factory model in an age of individualisation. We shouldn’t be teaching to the skill, but building the mindset of agility from a young age. There is a misalignment between what the education system produces and what business requires". On the same wavelength is Jack Ma, the Chinese billionaire entrepreneur behind Ali Baba. Speaking at the 2018 Davos summit, the ex-teacher warned against an over-reliance on knowledge-based education, adding: “If we do not change the way we teach, 30 years from now we will be in trouble.”
In 2018 The World Economic Forum looked at the top ten skills for jobs that would be required by 2022 and found they included a large proportion of specifically agile attributes, such as; analytical thinking and innovation; creativity, originality and initiative and critical thinking and analysis, amongst others. Skills like complex problem solving, creativity and innovation are what enable the changes that we are seeing, and are also the skills that will allow employees to succeed in this changed landscape and help businesses cope with changing organisational frameworks. The onus, though, does not fall solely on the shoulders of the world of education. Businesses, too, must play their part. At the very least they need to shed those aspects of their company culture that kill both the human spirit and innovation. People who are micromanaged, bullied, not listened to or disempowered may well turn up for work but are unlikely to do any more than the bare minimum to get by. They are certainly not going to be enthusiastic agents for change. The principles and practical steps of business agility can help shift the dynamic in the workplace to make it a place where change is more effectively handled.
Gallup’s 2018 report, The Real Future of Work: The Agility Issue, looked at what agility meant for business leaders, and firmly positioned business agility as a way to navigate disruption. Gallup researchers spoke to employees in the UK, France, Spain and Germany: 20 percent of employees strongly agreed that “The leadership of my company makes me enthusiastic about the future” - but that figure rose to 48 percent among employees who regarded their companies as agile. The report highlighted that traditional command-and-control styles of leadership need to change if leaders are to bring about the empowerment and level of collaboration required for business agility. The nature of the workplace has changed dramatically in recent decades. No longer is it almost universally expected that conversation is kept to a minimum and that everyone’s head is down. An agile culture encourages ongoing conversation, collaboration, and relationship building. With a reduced reliance on a command-and-control hierarchy, team members are accountable to each other and strong relationships strengthen that bond. Cross-functional working, knowledge-sharing, and interdepartmental collaboration have the power to break down the silos that often obstruct the path of transformation and reduce the potential to pull together different perspectives around challenges. One of the criticisms levelled at millennial employees is that they expect to work within a meritocracy, rather than an environment where time served dictates seniority. However, if we believe that decision-making should be delegated to the level closest to the problem, where the employees have the most knowledge of the issue, a meritocratic approach makes perfect sense. Delegating authority in this way, and allowing teams to self-organise to solve problems and plan workloads, constitutes a major shift in the way that most organisations operate, so it will be difficult for some to implement.
Gallup’s research highlighted that existing systems in organisations often create barriers to information flow. Researchers found that only about one-in-four overall strongly agreed that they were satisfied with the cooperation between their department and other departments in their company. It’s a phenomenon that is often encountered. Encouragingly, organisations are increasingly recognising the value of agile ways of working, but often they are ‘doing’ agile rather than truly ‘being’ agile. Delivering products in an agile way is undoubtedly valuable, as are agile operations such as budgeting, agile contracts and agile HR. But the true value of being agile - and its ability to help organisations adapt to changing circumstances and to pivot to seize new opportunities - only comes when the whole culture of an organisation is agile, with agile leadership and an agile business strategy, i.e. business agility.
According to business strategist Steven Parry, founder of the LloydParry consultancy, who champions the concept of the Adaptive Business: “A key enabler for organisational adaptability is designing the organisational structures and governance systems to create a culture that devolves decision making much lower down in the organisation. This, along with autonomy, resources and freedom to explore new ways of working can create an adaptive work climate.“Put simply, adaptive organisations develop staff and managers to seek out and remove organisational constraints, systematically removing obstacles that impede the ingenuity and learning of teams and the flow of continuous value to customers. Adaptability requires much higher levels of collaboration and necessitates a new relationship between managers and staff.”
As custodians of their organisation’s culture, HR professionals need to be at the forefront of this transition to becoming an adaptive organisation. To make a final coherent whole of an organisation’s business agility, they need to have an agile business strategy. Conventional strategy tends to produce its outputs in particular formats - often very long-term goals or outcome-based objectives such as being the largest player in a given market. While the execution team has a degree of latitude as to how that objective should be achieved, there is often a lack of clarity over what is expected and how progress can be assessed.
Agile strategy, by contrast, works in smaller chunks - a series of actions and manoeuvres so that the strategy’s execution and effectiveness can be checked progressively and adjusted in light of both internal and external feedback, or even completely reassessed.
Once the workforce, culture and strategy are aligned and agile, an organisation can face a world of continuous disruption with more confidence, in the knowledge that they are better able to adapt to whatever comes next.
*Pearl Zhu from: Digitizing Boardroom: The Multifaceted Aspects of Digital Ready Boards.
Tamsin Fox-Davies is Head of Marketing at Agile Business Consortium