People Management in the Digital Age

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By Ade McCormack, Digital Strategist

This article is by Featured Blogger Ade McCormack from his  Digital Strategy blog. Republished with the author’s permission.

A one-way relationship?

People management, much like customer relationship management, implies a unidirectional dynamic. Vendors manage customers, and employers manage employees. These are very industrial era notions.

Over the years, people management has had several branding makeovers including the employment of terms such as personnel, human resources and talent. But we need to keep in mind that the industrial era modus operandi is based on the notion of a factory. Factories are all about efficiency, speed and quality. Machinery, including IT systems, play to these drivers. Unfortunately for much of the industrial era, the full set of machinery needed to run the factory did not exist, so humans were introduced into the system to, in effect, act as technology placeholders.

Here comes the digital steamroller

In recent decades, as the technology has matured, we have seen accelerated automation of such blue-collar work. But even the supposed white-collar workers are under threat, as it turns out that much of what they/we do lends itself to automation. So, we are all potentially in the cross-wires of digital progress.

In any case, we needed humans in the building whilst we waited for the technology to evolve to a state where the human cogs were no longer needed. 

And of course, we needed to manage those humans, what with their tendency to think for themselves. As a result of this industrial era framework, HR became an extension of the procurement department, specifically designed to handle resources that:

  • Had a tendency towards laziness.
  • Despite an education system optimised for industrial era work, some people still had a lingering tendency towards self-expression, rather than compliance.
  • Did not consistently adhere to an international standards specification. Despite the invention of job specifications and a factory operations manual.
  • Were prone to mechanical and even mental failure.

I guess as AI, robotics and IoT become more mainstream some of these will also be issues facing mainstream procurement.

Are you Beyoncé?

As we enter the digital age, many people are indeed going to be automated out of the building, but they will be replaced by individuals whose thoughts and actions give rise to differentiated customer experiences that command a high margin and cannot be replicated using technology. Such creatives will display all the worst characteristics of industrial era human resources, and thus will be a nightmare for human resources. They will in many respects be reclaiming their humanity.

Unlike the industrial era, where compliance was the primary human skill required, and where HR was in effect a procurement and maintenance function, the digital era puts people at the centre of the business. And builds the technology around them such that their cognitive capacity is harvested to maximum effect.

Workplace matters

Because such people are in short supply, and often not primarily focused on economic gain, the power axis is shifting from the employer to the employee. Waving money at your talent challenges won’t cut it.

We need to create great workplaces to attract and retain the best talent, because ultimately they want to do great work with other great talent.

They also want to work with organisations that help them move along their own personal path to mastery. Plus, they want to work for organisations that have a purpose beyond making shareholders rich or, for example, poisoning children with chemical potions masquerading as food.

It’s show time!

So what do we call people management, when the name of the game is attracting and retaining rock stars with possible diva tendencies? I am curious to hear your thoughts in this respect. Might I suggest performance management. As we gravitate towards a genuinely human-centric organisational model, the relationship between the employer and employee is likely to morph into something akin to a coach and athlete. The employer wants the athlete to perform to the peak of her capability. And so does the athlete. Thus the scene is set for both a high degree of trust and thus high performance. Trade unions will need to reinvent themselves for a world where the employees are in the driving seat, and are happy to work with goal-driven leaders. Please note that by employee, I really mean any talented person regardless of their actual legal employment status.

This then takes appraisal management from an annual tick box exercise to a real-time talent engagement analytics model, whereby issues in respect of performance are recognised before it becomes visible to either the worker or their boss. Technology has a role to play here, as does cognitive management. I explore the latter in my recent book entitled: Attention Dynamics: High personal performance in the digital age.

People management or performance management goes from being a concern for ‘procurement’ to being a driver of business strategy, and thus a boardroom matter. The acquisition of the services of Beyoncé, Salvadore Dali or Renaldo will literally determine how you take the business forward.

Step up HR

I would regard this as a clarion call and an opportunity for the HR function to enhance its strategic relevance.

But HR needs to move beyond the perception that people are replaceable cogs to be acquired and retained with the minimum of cost.

Of course, there is a need for the old a model. If you have it in place in your organisation then, conveyor belts or not, you are working in a factory. And yes, we will continue to need factories, though they will increasingly be devoid of people.

Originally published on Digital Strategy.