Over the last few weeks, there seems to have been a welter of articles and events on the changing shape of work and – as a consequence – how we need to throw our models of change and organisational design out of the window. Whether it’s the robots coming to take our jobs, the gig economy, globalisation or Brexit, everything’s changing and we’re living in scary new world where nothing is certain.
Except perhaps it’s not changing quite as much as we think. For example, recent data suggest that the rate of increase of the use of robots has actually slowed across Europe in the last five years and is at a lower rate in the US. That might speed up again but even now is only at a level of 2.5 robots per 1000 workers.
Similarly, the gig economy – as recognised by a recent CIPD report – still only forms a small percentage of the workforce, most of whom remain in traditional employment relationships. Even if we extend that to all self-employed workers, despite the growth in recent years they still only form around 15% of the working population.
I’ve been hearing about the impact of the VUCA world for at least 5 years now. Looking around, most of the organisations I work with are still structured in a very similar way to the way they were in 2012 – and I suspect they will not look that different in 2022.
The reason – humans adapt slowly to change. The technology to create driverless cars may exist, but until they are socially accepted they won’t take off. And that won’t be until numerous ethical and political issues are resolved. How many people talk to Siri/Cortana/Alexa currently? A growing number, but still only a tiny minority. Many humans find the idea of conversing with an inanimate machine a difficult concept. It will come no doubt, but over a longer timescale than the proponents suggest.
So while we should review our models and theories of change (particularly dumping the outdated Lewin model in the dustbin of history) we should remember that change will be controlled by the speed that humans want it to – not simply by the fact that we have the ability to do something.
Last week I needed a taxi to Lime Street station in Liverpool at 530am, so I tapped an app on my tablet and within 5 minutes a car was outside my front door. Chatting to the driver he told me that he chose the hours he worked and he tended to work 5 in the morning till around 230pm as it allowed him to pick up his children from school. As we pulled up at the station he pressed a smartphone screen on the dashboard to accept his next job from the taxi firm.
Was I using Uber, the “disruptive” firm that is now apparently the world’s largest taxi company? No, simply the same local firm I’ve used for the last 20 years. Their drivers are all self-employed, use their own cars and pay a weekly “settle” to the firm for the work that is pushed their way. Probably the only difference is that the company still operates a small office so that if you are not smartphone savvy you can ring for a taxi.
Which is why when I saw this graphic being tweeted it brought a wry smile to my face.
I think we’re meant to think “wow, aren’t these companies radical and different?” But in truth, they aren’t. What they have done is to use technology successfully to minimise costs and to trade more easily across international boundaries, but otherwise they are little different to traditional models.
Let’s look at some of the others. Facebook – “creates no content”. Neither do most cable/satellite TV channels – they are simply media platforms which generate income by selling advertising. Where does Facebook get most of its income? Advertising.
Alibaba – well here’s how it works: you pay them a fee to have a presence on their site and then sell your goods. Sound like a giant fleamarket or car-boot sale? That’s because that’s what it is. Markets don’t hold inventory either.
Airbnb – back in the 90s I used to get a brochure for “Rural Holiday Cottages”. Some were people’s homes they’d let out for a couple of weeks, some were renovated farm buildings, but they were all available to rent for a week or fortnight. Rural Holiday Cottages charged a fee to advertise them but didn’t own a single one. Again, the Airbnb model – they just operate on a global scale
And what’s this to do with HR? Well, if business isn’t really changing – merely incorporating new technology – then the skills, knowledge and practices that HR people should use probably haven’t really changed either. We may need to react faster and jettison some cumbersome procedures (and perhaps even use new technology) but the fundamentals of good people management remain the same.