KYRAN FITZGERALD: Barrelling towards a brave new world

Experienced executives need to shed many of their old notions as the digital revolution’s profound implications are realised, says Kyran Fitzgerald.

These days, management theorists seem almost fixated on technology and its influence on a new generation of employees believed by many to be quite different to their predecessors.

Broadly speaking, there are those — a significant group — who believe that the world of work as we have known it is drawing to a close.

The pace of technological change is accelerating and senior executives by and large are being left behind.

According to John Mahony, Group CEO of Reputation Inc, “The train has left the station. The new, coming workforce has different aspirations. The days of traditional employee engagement are over. It is no longer about gathering people into a room and inspiring them. They want to be part of the discussion.”

Mr Mahony was speaking in a discussion on the topic of competition in the age of disruption. His views are contained in an Ibec podcast.

Niall McKeown, a Belfast-based “digital transfer educator” gave an address at the Ibec HR Leadership Summit in Croke Park last week, where he warned about the impact of exponential change and the shrinking life cycles of many businesses under such a scenario.

“The job displacement will be radical. Business is built for growth, but when many get to the top of the hill, the decline can happen quickly,” he said.

Another speaker at this conference, Dr Paul Redmond, director of Student Experience at the University of Liverpool, opted understandably to concentrate on the new generation of graduates, some of whom he and his colleagues, have been helping to shepherd into the world.

Mr Redmond describes himself as a ‘specialist in generational analysis.’

He is frank in his assessment about the role currently being played by educators in this rapidly changing society.

“The biggest risk is that the young are being prepared for the wrong century,” he said.

His core thesis is that the workforce is divided into discreet generations which differ to a marked degree from each other.

Much of the current workforce is made up by Generation X born between 1964 and 1973, Generation Y or millennials, and Generation Z, born after 2000 and now entering the workplace.

As he sees it, we are like the Dr Frankenstein described by Mary Shelley, two centuries ago.

We have unleashed a monster in the form of technologies over which we have little control. This has implications for those involved in running organisations.

The new breed of employees are “digital natives” in tune with the world.

As a result, these Generation Y employees should be treated quite differently than their predecessors, he argues.

They work best when they are treated as collaborators and what they are seeking is “radical candour” in their discussions with management.

Managers in turn must do what they can to keep up so as not to lose touch.

Dr Redmond is now being mentored by one of his young digital savvy colleagues – he describes it as ‘reverse mentoring.’

Experienced executives need to shed many of their old notions.

Everyone is pretty much agreed on a key fact. We are in the middle of a digital revolution and are witnessing the emergence of a generation of digital natives who think in images and communicate instantly.

For the HR profession, the implications are profound.

Ailing Teillard, founder of Tandem HR Solutions, cites a recent survey which shows that four out of five employees now seek feedback on a weekly basis.

“There is a move from a famine to a feast in feedback. People are hungry for personal development.”

There is a move away from grading and from annual performance management reviews which are seen as passe.

But is the new generation of employees really that different when it comes to their personal ambitions?

Vicky Godolphin, Head of Digital at Accenture Ireland, believes that “school leavers still see the benefit of permanent employment.”

But she also senses an emerging generation that requires constant stimulation and outlets for creativity, a group with entrepreneurial instincts.

This presents senior management with a challenge. They have to engineer the removal of silos from the organisation as part of an effort to unleash dynamism.

Without such energy, the task of recruitment and retention of key people, particularly the younger cohort, is made harder.

Is the Brave New World of feedback, self-improvement, collaborative cross-functional team really that widespread or is it confined to those parts of the economy which are currently growing rapidly on the back of technological innovation?

Adrian Wooldridge, columnist and management editor at The Economist magazine views matters from a more downbeat perspective.

Speaking on the Ibec podcast, he points to a world dominated by a “small number of super companies” with a cadre of privileged employees in a position to embark on structured career paths.

Around them is a wider workforce made up in large part of people —many of them young — in precarious employment.

He contrasts these often involuntarily mobile workers with employees of super companies subject to tight control.

This is a rather different vision of today’s tech workplace to that promulgated by many consultants.

Mr Wooldridge also points to the stagnation in productivity which has been a feature of the Western world since the 1970s when the oil crisis hit.

This, if true, is one of the great paradoxes of our times.

We are awash in gadgets some so sophisticated they threaten many human functions and yet in the West, output growth has slowed to a trickle — if the data is to be trusted.

What is clear is that technology is bringing massive alterations to working lives and is acting to challenge the thinking and practices longer established business professionals.

A key question is whether all this disruption will act as a means of jump charging a renewal in productivity growth across the Western world, or whether in fact, these waves of change may be simply serving to distract peoples’ attention from core activities?

During World War Two, technologies across many fields leaped forward, helping to generate the new activities that underpinned prosperity in the 1950s and into the 1960s.

Are we witnessing, or about to witness a similar leap forward as artificial intelligence, in particular, enters the mainstream, leading to the much more efficient use of increasingly scarce resources ?

One can only hope so.


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