Personal finance and KiwiSaver columnist at the NZ Herald

Business Innovation: Workers need to go with the flow

The future belongs to the 'liquid workforce'.
Flexibility and the ability to learn are becoming more important than traditional technical skills. Picture / Getty
Flexibility and the ability to learn are becoming more important than traditional technical skills. Picture / Getty

When Mary-Anne McCarthy, Accenture New Zealand's technology lead, is called on to lecture university students, she likes to show a favourite slide.

It says simply: "technology is not everything".

McCarthy, who has spent nearly two decades transforming organisations, says technology is only part of the solution; people are the other piece of the transformation puzzle.

But in an environment of accelerating technological change, in many cases there isn't a corporate culture that can handle the pace.

That means organisations can't capitalise on opportunities, she says.

"To have an agile business, you've got to have an agile workforce and that by definition is the liquid workforce," says McCarthy.

"If you think of liquid in its form, it can change to any shape, you can fit it in any mould, you can move it, it can flex and that's the fundamental thing that we see as the missing part of the transformation."

She says the challenge for organisations is to shift from traditional structures which valued employees who "knew their bit".

Digital demands mean executives are now ranking the ability to learn and quickly change more highly than deep expertise in a specialist area.

Pulling together in the more collaborative working styles needed, also means a shift from organisational silos, she says.

"If you've got an organisation that is traditional and based on siloed business functions you're not going to get any ability to learn quickly and change quickly." Innovation suffers as it tends to be the realm of the "lone wolves", where the best and brightest are dropped into innovation hubs with no real connection back into the rest of the workforce, McCarthy says.

Getting organisations from this point to the goal of a liquid workforce requires a focus on three key areas: skills, projects and organisation.

Human resources suites are now providing the analytic tools for organisations to identify skill gaps, the roles that are increasingly hard to fill and where employees need upskilling.

McCarthy says greater connection with universities will ensure graduates are joining the workforce with the right skills -- something many workplaces are already doing.

Mary-Anne McCarthy, Accenture New Zealand's technology lead. Photo / Bloomberg
Mary-Anne McCarthy, Accenture New Zealand's technology lead. Photo / Bloomberg

Other firms are taking it a step further and using bootcamp-style training to get grads upskilled and work-ready, says McCarthy.

With the rapid computerisation of workplaces, routine jobs will disappear and the focus will go on value-added work. Analytics will provide the information needed to make informed choices about what skills exist in your workforce and where they can be matched with value-added work, she says.

The second pillar to the liquid workforce is project-based teams with a start-up mentality that can break through workplace silos.

New Zealand organisations have an advantage in already being reasonably small and nimble, says McCarthy, but even the big global players are working along these lines.

GE, for example, created a programme called FastWorks, which has introduced technology start-up tools to its product development.

Through small teams rapidly prototyping on minimal budgets, a new high-end fridge design was developed in a fraction of the normal product development cycle and far outsold its predecessors.

"I really like that idea.

"I'm in consulting because I like to go from project to project.

"I like to work with really smart people who have really great ideas because it's contagious.

"If you're sitting in your office job you really lose that, I guess, inspiration that you get, particularly from the young crowd."

As of last year, millennials have the lion's share of the workforce, says McCarthy, and businesses should be tapping in to these digital natives.

She says it's a generation who are excited about the opportunities of the liquid workforce, such as internal crowdsourcing for projects, or skill-based teams to work through problems.

At the organisational layer, the hierarchy will be chipped away, in favour of structures that support the liquid workforce.

To have an agile business, you need an agile workforce.
Mary-Anne McCarthy

McCarthy says research points towards an increase in freelancers coming in to provide deep technical expertise or a fresh set of eyes and innovation within the organisation.

Accenture predicts organisational charts will become obsolete, "gobbled up by software".

"We need to address that workforce disruption now," says McCarthy.

"Organisations very quickly need to get a strategy on how they are going to create a liquid workforce to be able to keep up with the digital pace and, essentially, harness the digital natives."

McCarthy draws a comparison between two groups waiting for a plane at the airport.

The plane is late to board but one group is being told nothing, so are getting increasingly anxious and argumentative. The second group has been told there will be a short five-minute delay until boarding, so they are more relaxed.

"It's not a hard thing to make sure as you're working with your organisation and your people.

"Communication is key.

"Taking them on the journey of what's the future and what that means to them.

"I think if you energise them in the art of the possible and how they're going to be upskilled as a result and be able to focus on the stuff that they're passionate about, then what that means is you actually have a strategic competitive advantage because people will want to work for you."

• 43 per cent of the US workforce will be freelancers in 2020In 2015, millennials became the largest generation in the workforce.

• By 2025, that proportion will be 76 per cent globally.

• 38 per cent of businesses globally are struggling to find the right talent53 per cent of business leaders are finding it hard to attract and retain millennial talent.

- Sources: Intuit, Pew Research Centre, RedBrick Research, ManPower Group1

- NZ Herald

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