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Obsoletely fabulous

Once upon a time, the great management historian of his time Dr. Mick Jagger, seemed very definite in his sentiment when he sang the following during his ‘Out of Time’ ditty :

“You're obsolete, my baby, my poor old-fashioned baby”

But in the field of our evolving workplaces, our organisational constructs, our precious functional silos and god forbid our own personal skillsets, we seem evidently less certain. At what point do we recognise something becomes obsolete is one of those things that proves how hard it is to drive meaningful, progressive change inside organisations. To understand the crux of the issue, then I’d refer folk to the words of Paul Kearns of the very worthwhile in all things progressive, Maturity Institute, when he quotes:

“Obsolescence is not about usage, per se,

it is about comparative disadvantage.”

So whilst I see the battleground today as a focus on the ever growing use of technology in society / the world of work, we’ve had this issue circle around our change efforts for as far as back as Peter Cheese was wearing nappies. The start of this century, as we carried over the dying corpse of an enduring yet previously successful Taylorist business model, some have been justifying the extended shelf life of the associated people practices that came with it, in the belief that they continue to produce ‘results’. The selection processes built on gut and bias, the siloed functional organisations with all their limited systems thinking, the gamed feedback loops constructed every year at best and the one-dimensional, classroom-based training rollouts that drive widespread behaviour change all still have advocates and all still provide warm, comforting reassurances to those who build structure around their own daily working lives. HR functions, and the boards who’ve grown up with said practices, can point to people being hired, organograms being populated, engagement scores being registered and training rollouts hitting large swathes of the organisation. HR dashboards throw up impressive (yet absurd) numbers at the end of the tiring weekly management meeting that the other executive members treat like an obituary column – all very interesting, all a bit retrospective and all focussed on dead data.

The decision to pivot the organisation away from the tried and trusted is a tough one and I duly sympathise with those who try to turn their mirrors on their busienss to drive some strategic thinking in the vain hope of aligning with the future rather than being in homage to the past. For the record, I show nothing but deep disdain for those who see that past as something to hang onto as it aligns with their outdated skillset that overdoses on concierge (they call it relationship-building) and servitude (they should call it providing reassuring lies) in deference to a CEO who is top of the crop, king of the pile and the undisputed ruler of everything in their realm. And typically a fragile, balding, under pressure, middle-aged white man.

So to the technology curve. All ‘trusted’ commentators suggest that ‘we ain’t seen nothing yet’ but its impact to date has been focussed on satisfying the CEO with a tangibility bias and a need to manage costs, not necessarily to create dreamy, new age, workplaces. Inside Manufacturing, R&D, Healthcare, etc we are stepping forward and seeing great strides in enabling technology helping us to do things better, quicker and more productively. Rightfully and wrongfully, in the people space, we are too often caught between either realising the benefits on productivity and relevance in the workplace, and the scary, transformational vision of robots, nature of work and singularity at some date yet to be determined.

Technology is yet another catalyst that allows us to make changes in organisations. The approaches outlined above are perhaps not obsolete per se, but we are now in a space where competitive advantage can allow us to use technology to address bias in the hiring process ; create and encourage meaningful collaboration networks at work that minimise wasted effort ; survey our organisations in real-time that gives more meaningful, authentic feedback and curate content on a variety of social platforms that creates legitimacy to the value of learning ‘in the moment’ and sells in the thing that keeps us all relevant – updating our skillsets constantly throughout our working lives to stay on top of the changing landscape.

Finally, it does require a new leadership mindset in HR, away from the slavish generation we’ve become accustomed to – one that provokes and counteracts group think, that takes its organisation beyond siloed fiefdoms and that demands that the C-suite invest in HR technology and have a supporting workplace strategy. It won’t be easy but it sure can be more interesting. And it will take more than an annual away day to the HRD conference in Birmingham to help unleash the forces of good.

Until next time, be like Dr Mick Jagger, recognise that ditching the obsolete might just give your business a competitive advantage.

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