Strategist, Speaker, Designer, Instigator

Square pegs, dodecahedral holes (part 2) [post 32/100]

Yesterday I wrote about the idea that we might be able to change the way we think about employment – building roles that suit people’s skills, rather than forcing them into boxes that might not be the right shape for them.

That came out of a chat I had last week with David Nordfors, the mastermind behind i4j. We talked about an idea he’s working on to use technology to help not only matchmake skills with business’ needs, but also to better understand how skill sets can be applied or repurposed laterally across industries and contexts. I think this is a brilliant idea; lateral thinking can uncover great opportunities, as I’ve seen with a number of my friends who’ve changed careers. It’s a challenge, but with a balanced combination of technology and human curation/input, I think it can be done.

There are, however, still a couple of fairly big challenges to be overcome. These shouldn’t be considered dealbreakers, but rather problems that we’ll need to crack if this kind of thinking is going to be successful.

Corporate risk-aversion
Big businesses are not known for their enthusiasm for risk-taking, especially when it comes to processes like HR. This is understandable – ensuring that candidates are evaluated fairly and existing employees have access to a fair and comprehensible career path requires some fairly robust, reliable infrastructure, and it’s hard to build heuristics and measurements that embrace and encompass lateral thinking. But it’s not impossible.

When I was with the BBC, I did a fair amount of hiring, and the BBC has a very formal, very robust process for recruitment. While I did start off resenting the process, I later came to realise that it did more to support me than to hinder me; it was just a matter of figuring out how to work with it creatively. I suspect getting people inside large corporates to think differently about recruitment and hiring will take some rather extensive support, but without these businesses on board, only half of the bigger picture can be addressed.

How much do you know about what you know? How well do you think you could describe yourself, your strengths and weaknesses, your skills and capabilities? It’s been my experience that complete self-awareness is relatively rare, especially when it comes to the deeper things that drive our core capabilities. I include myself in this – it took me years to learn what I was actually good at, and how to apply it. This is probably partly because most of us have spent so much of our educational and professional lives being presented with a list of boxes to tick, and not been afforded many opportunities to think more freely about what we’re good at or, for that matter, what we really enjoy doing.

It’s a similar challenge to one I’ve had several times as a strategist: a client’s business is declining and they are looking for new areas of opportunity. The process of uncovering those is invariably a combination of understanding the patterns in the marketplace and understanding the nature of the assets (intellectual and physical) the company has. If those two things are understood, then ways to repurpose those assets can be uncovered and explored, opening whole new lines of business. But this process can be surprisingly difficult, not to say traumatic, for the clients – it stands to reason that the equivalent process for an individual could be even more so.

Walking someone through the process of self-assessment, inventory, whatever you want to call it, will be a critical part of the process. Making sure someone really understands their strengths, especially when they come in unexpected packages, can be challenging. Again, this is an area where support will be required, ideally across the whole career cycle from education onward. It’s something that technology can help with but that I suspect will, at least for the foreseeable future, require a human touch.

Titles vs. Roles
The accepted way of running a business is to create an organisational structure that reflects what the business needs to accomplish, and then populate that structure with names next to the titles. The titles then remain fixed by definition, until such time as a reorganisation is required to adapt to changes in the business’ landscape.

Is it just me, or have reorgs become more and more frequent in the last few decades? As technology advances faster, ways of doing business change and evolve faster, and thus businesses need to evolve to keep pace. Perhaps it would be an interesting experiment to try to create a working model based on roles rather than a fixed structure based on titles that may or may not become obsolete.

I don’t yet know how the answer will look, but am keen to explore these questions. What seems certain is that we could and should be using technology to improve not only the levels of (un)employment but also the quality of employment. The more we can do to enable ourselves to be flexible, to put our skills and talents to good use, the more satisfaction we gain individually, and the more benefit we bring to the businesses and ecosystems in which we work.