8 – Prepare for career disruption in the digital age
This post is the eighth in the series of Biz 4.0 posts; the aim of which is to address misunderstandings in respect of digital transformation and to provide guidance on how to succeed in the digital age. In the previous post, we looked at the importance of ensuring your people were onboard in respect of the transformation journey. In this post, we will explore how we reconcile the changing nature of careers with the transformation process. Initially I will focus on the career disuption piece and then on the changing nature of business. With this foundation, I will address the matter of what we do with our industrial era workers.
The changing nature of careers
As I have written and talked about many times, the notion of a career for life is morphing into a life of careers.
Many of us have hopped onto a career conveyor belt because of a short chat with a career advisor in our teenage years or possibly because of the vicarious needs of our parents.
Some conveyor belts were well defined in respect of qualifications needed and career-step sequencing; law, medicine and architecture come to mind. Others are less well defined. Consider a new technology career path. One might start out as a technologist, but end up as CTO (Chief Technology Officer) or possibly a programme manager leading largescale IT implementations. In any case, we associate careers with an opportunity for professional development, economic betterment and possibly even enhanced social status.
The professional services firms have an extreme model whereby a carrot is dangled to encourage their new entrants to do the ‘hard yards’ in the first half of your career in order to enjoy the spoils of partnership in the second half.
In any case, once you chose your career conveyor belt, you didn’t have to do too much thinking thereafter beyond turning up, doing what you are told and ensuring you are compliant in every respect.
There is still much of this conveyor belt career infrastructure in place, but it is crumbling. Young people don’t want to invest heavily in the first half of their career in the hope that they might cash their chips in the second half.
AI is increasingly eating into white collar work. This will redefine what it means to be, say, a doctor both economically and socially.
Some of us will increasingly make major career changing decisions at certain points in our lives. There is an increase in such activity around the ages of 50 and 65; the latter traditionally being the age when we entered our post-career phase. Today for both economic and brain health reasons, the notion of retirement is becoming a relic of the industrial era.
But keep in mind that having a series of careers is not that radical. Parallel careers will more likely become the norm. In the morning, I might focus on my ‘side hustle’ startup. During the day I focus on traditional work, in as much as it is available. In the evening, I pick up on my hobby, which now has a business model underpinned by a ‘go to market’ framework.
Perhaps you might develop a network of Zumba-Boxercise studios based on your experience of both forms of exercise, and a recognition that people are generally susceptible to perceived health-related shortcuts and anything new and ‘shiny’.
Conceptually the notion of a career might well be consigned to the industrial era archives, because in many respects a career can only be conducted when there is some degree of certainty. The transition to the digital age is in effect a transition to an era of hyper-uncertainty.
The lean career
The term ‘career’ is culturally ingrained, so I suspect it will be some time before we come up with an alternative term that better reflects a world where career conveyor belts no longer exist. For the time being, the notion of a lean career might be helpful. Lean being a reference to lean startup. In essence, I encourage people to run their careers as if they were running a fledgling enterprise. Thus, career decisions are purely driven by what the market is telling us. If demand for our capability dwindles, we will need to pivot such that our economic relevance is restored. This might require the acquisition of new skills or the dusting down of dormant capabilities, or both.
Career management is becoming a real-time activity, rather than something conducted at a handful of points in our lives. This has implications for talent acquirers as well as the talent.
The business of business is changing
So how do we reconcile the changing nature of careers with the talent management needs of a transforming business? Firstly, I need to introduce the concept of polymodal business. Traditional businesses typically have one model that to be successful must:
- Meet the ‘wants’ of the market.
- Have an effective ‘go to market’ framework.
- Have a financial model that maximises the amount the customer will pay.
Once these three conditions were met, the business could enjoy decades of positive cashflow. Beyond the day to day operations, some attention might be given to refining the business processes to gain greater operational efficiency. Such is the nature of running a factory.
We might call this business model – Plan A. Take any traditional business today and the chances are that it only has a Plan A. In fairness, Plan A might well run for many more years. But by the same token, it may get ‘taken out’ by a 99-cent app next week.
The traditional approach to business is not designed for a hyper-uncertain future.
Smart businesses recognise the risk of just having one plan, so they are creating Plan B, C, D etc. Because they have no idea what the future holds, they are endeavouring to create new business models that reflect all possible future destinies. Such businesses know that one day, the Grim Digital Reaper will arrive at reception and announce the end of your Plan A business. At this point, one of the other plans will kick in as the primary business. I refer to such an approach as polymodal business. Business leaders need to think less in terms of managing a factory and more in terms of presiding over a portfolio of experiments.
This is good news from a cash flow and people perspective. Unlike traditional approaches to business transformation, the polymodal approach does not require an infrastructural overhaul, a funky new office in a shady part of town or for senior management to become comfortable wearing jeans and a t-shirt. Your Plan A can trundle along for as long as it generates cash. By all means digitise some of the processes to squeeze out more efficiency, but your resources would be better spent on growing / acquiring new business models than optimising a model fast approaching its ‘sell by’ date.
What will we do with our process workers?
You could put your process workers on various lateral and design thinking courses with a view to turning them into corporate Leonardo Da Vincis. But given that you recruited them specifically for their switched off creativity gene, such an exercise would simply bewilder your people, incur cost and possibly disrupt your cash flows.
It is better that you do not disrupt your process workers, because process is what they do well, and your
Plan A needs this. However, your process workers will eventually see what is happening in your Plan B, C, D etc. businesses. They will notice the freedoms that those digital age environments offer. They may recoil at the lack of structure, and seat of the pants modus operandi. Or it might trigger an awakening from their ‘sleep working’ state. For the first time perhaps, they have witnessed that work can be fulfilling and that it is possible to construct a workplace where their anthropological drivers would be met and their cognitive capacity funnelled into doing great work.
Such people should be actively encouraged to move to one of the newer business models. They may need some support in respect of the cultural shift they will experience and the change in clock speed at which they will be expected to operate. Being adaptable and becoming comfortable with uncertainty and failure might also need some professional input. But I believe it is worth supporting this transition, for these ‘old school’ people will act as binding agents across the different business models. It will also enable you to salvage some of your people investment to date. And of course, not everything about industrial era business models is bad, so they will arrive with business practice wisdom that perhaps the funksters in the emerging businesses have yet to learn.
Portfolio careers for portfolio businesses
Given the increasing velocity at which new business models grow, shine and die, it is likely that the talent needs of the organisation will be much more dynamic. Thus, there will likely be a tendency towards employing people as freelancers, or in the new parlance gig workers.
Gig workers are not just people who deliver your Amazon goodies to the doorstep, they can also include business professionals and senior executives.
From the talent perspective, it might be more fun to be involved in several projects / businesses at any one time, than the traditional one job – one employer industrial era model. In fact, it is, based on my quarter century experience of being a gig worker.
Don’t be a victim of the future
So firstly, employers need to come to terms with the polymodal business model and the implications for talent management. And the workers need to understand the changing nature of careers and how, if they take a data-driven approach to following market demand, they can pick and choose both the work they do and increasingly when they do it.
The power axis is moving away from the employer and towards the talent.
Career disruption coupled with the changing nature of business presents both challenges and opportunities for both the talent acquirers and the talent. If we accept the discomfort of these seismic shifts, then we can spend less time fretting over an uncertain future and more time creating it.