The E-Competent Workforce:
Pragmatism and Paranoia in a Wired World
Keynote presentation by
2002 Human Capital Summit
February 28, 2002
Charleston, South Carolina
Being invited to speak here at the closing gala dinner of this Human Capital Summit is a great honour. It is also a little daunting in the light of the great speakers we have learned to much from over the past few days. Last night you heard a talk by one of my marketing heros, John Sculley, about the specifics of resourcing a business with the right people. Tonight I want to step back from specifics and talk strategically about culture and change and the new economy, as it relates to our people.
Itís here. It's disruptive, and energizing. It is not going to go away. Itís just going to get more complicated. "It" is the new economy; the Internet; the wired world; e-business; the digital age. Your IT people and your strategic managers, and possibly your marketing people may be exploiting this new operating environment. But is the majority of your workforce floundering, faking it, or just hoping to get by?
It matters! The power of networked people grows exponentially with every added mind. Building e-competence is more than simply teaching people to use a Web browser, it is about creating a profound understanding in each employee of their significance and potential in your wired world, and encouraging them to contribute to the way the company innovates, solves problems, makes decisions, and manages. You have to get the company fit to thrive in the new economy by fundamentally changing the way it thinks and behaves, especially in your interactions with your customers. But how?
Never has the fear of doing things wrong been such a prominent reason for doing nothing. Never has fear of being left behind been such a motivator for doing, well, anything.
The nature of the new economy is not linear evolution, itís churn and burn. Suddenly "managing change" goes way beyond a finite project. You have to give your people the competencies to assimilate — and generate — change on an ongoing basis, at every level in the organization. And if your wired workforce is going to use its new competencies to collective advantage, youíd better be ready to relinquish some of those ideas about hierarchy and central control, and empower people to learn from each other.
Traditional businesses tend to define their corporate competencies by their internal processes, the things that they do well. But the more businesses move online, the more they are starting to define their competencies by the value they add to their customersí processes. Thatís because e-businesses share the same nervous system as their business partners, suppliers, and customers. It is people, not technologies, who are the architects and caretakers of your processes. The e-competence of those people is a determining factor in the health of the nervous system, and consequently of the companyís competence.
E-what? "E-": the universal adjective and adverb of the new millennium. If you want to make what you do sound modern or hip, stick an "e-" in front of it and you have joined the bandwagon. While the ubiquitous "e-" was once helpful in differentiating new-economy processes from traditional processes, its over-use has diluted its value and made it mean just about anything you want it to. That is precisely why I use the term "e-competent" in the title of this talk. What does an e-competent workforce mean? If I had everyone write down their definition, we would probably produce dozens of divergent notions.
What comes into your head when you hear that "e-" term? Amazon.com? Supply chain management? XML? Do you envision selling through your Web site? How about strategic IT infrastructures? Online learning? Dot-com stock disasters? All of these are components of the whole "new economy" phenomenon, and fresh issues get imprinted in our minds daily as the headlines change and our work priorities shift.
But the overwhelming impact of the Web — the central thread that makes e-business so different — is connectedness, and the resulting communication and synergy.
Who in your organization is most fundamentally affected by all of the e-phenomena? The obvious answer is your IT people. But the obvious is invariably not enough. Clearly your marketing people are affected because they are doing all of that Web-site development and e-mail marketing. And, of course, your business development folks are migrating into online sales, and that in turn affects your value-added resellers. And there are the corporate communication people doing all the online PR work. Donít forget the customer service people who are having to deal with the customers who bought online. Your administrative departments have to integrate their operations online with those of suppliers and business partners.
And then there are the strategy groups and senior executives who are building a new vision for the future of the organization. Come to think of it, your legal people are rethinking contracts, intellectual property issues, and management of privacy. Your corporate campus is increasingly moving learning online. Your HR systems are becoming real-time, and more of your recruiting is being done through the Internet. Your financial people are doing more transactions online, with customers, suppliers, and financial institutions.
And anyone who is not directly responsible for making e-changes is finding that the world they used to understand is increasingly unfamiliar. They are being asked to speak a new language, use new tools, and to think and communicate in new ways.
For companies, the "e-" in e-business heralds efficiency. For individuals, it heralds disruption, uncertainty, and even alienation. And it affects everyone profoundly.
The Web as we know it started only about nine years ago. That is when Marc Andreessen released Mosaic, the first graphical user interface to let you click your way through the Internet. More content has gone online in the past two years than in the previous seven. Today half a billion people world-wide have access to the Web, and most of them are still new to the environment.
And, because the wired world is changing so rapidly, there are no experts. As recently as 1997, I was told by a business partner, quite adamantly, that the Internet would never amount to anything. The first irony was that he had been knighted for his services as technology advisor to the British government. The second irony, which escaped him completely, was that he said it in an e-mail. He is now running a restaurant.
We now live in a world of perishable competencies, as companies and as individuals. Lifelong learning is no longer a Utopian ideal, itís a survival requirement. What you know today is often irrelevant tomorrow, and it is foolish to think of your familiarity with current processes as having a shelf-life of more than a few months. Indeed, the more expert we are in how we do things today, the less able we are to even conceive of dramatic changes, let alone make them. We go into denial, we rationalize the viability of the status quo, and we seek evidence to support our intransigence. That is probably why the media spend so much more time reporting failure than they do success.
We all know that the world is changing, and that the pace of change is accelerating. If that were all that was happening, weíd have our jobs cut out for us just trying to climb an exponentially steepening learning curve. But the reality is worse — change itself is changing. We can no longer rely on change to be a linear extrapolation of the past. Frequently, itís a demolition of the past. Steady progress gives way to unexpected disruption. As Kevin Kelly of Wired magazine has so clearly described it, we can struggle to climb the hill we are on, and find when we get to the summit that it is the wrong hill. And the more desirable hill that we are looking at across the valley wasnít even there when we started out up this one.
This is particularly true of corporations, and has scary implications for individuals. That unpredictability, and its implied requirement to continually redefine yourself, is tough for people to adjust to. And in the field of human capital, itís not just our personal competence that we have to worry about — itís everyone in the organization.
It is no surprise that people at all levels in business feel a tinge of paranoia about the new economy. There is a sense that unless you are a technology expert, you can have no control over events. Can it really be true that the geeks shall inherit the earth? Or are we simply looking at the emperorís new clothes? We donít really know what we are looking at, but we are told that it is wonderful. We see something that appears mundane and feel we have to admire it. We feel uncomfortable admitting that we just donít "get it".
Without basic confidence about the Internet, people either abdicate decisions to technologically more confident people, make decisions based on what seems safest ("nobody ever got fired for buying IBM"), or they procrastinate decisions altogether. The result can be costly mistakes or misguided strategies, which in turn feed the paranoia. This is not only true of executives and managers, itís true through the length and breadth of any organization.
There are two factors in particular that can contribute to e-paranoia: growing alienation from technology, and the increasing irrelevance (or "disintermediation") of just about every hierarchical authority structure.
Letís look at alienation first. At the risk of being ageist, alienation may be a bigger problem in people no longer in their twenties than in others. Unfortunately, many of those are in middle management roles, carrying much of the burden of making the e-changes in organizations work. If they donít understand the technological base of their culture, they can become alienated from their foundations. That makes them less willing and less able to make the kinds of rapid decisions and conceptual leaps that are increasingly called for in dynamic businesses. And as the technological base changes more and more, the make-up gap gets too wide, and alienation becomes isolation.
In simple terms, if we donít understand our day-to-day technology early enough, we risk never being able to.
Typically, of course, people do not realize that they are alienated. They may be openly defensive, cynical, or resentful. Or they may just be quietly desperate. Some will be looking for help, most will be denying that they need it. Advertise a voluntary seminar to target some of the angst, and the wrong people show up because those that most need it are reluctant to admit the fact.
This is why it is important to make any e-competence training both anonymous and mandatory for all employees, irrespective of rank or function. Protecting the privacy of the individual is vital — nobody will take such a training program if they think that their course performance is to be reviewed by management. And to make the program less of a burden for those who feel they are already Web-savvy, you need to have some kind of pre-assessment system that steers people to relevant subject matter. E-learning is clearly the best vehicle for accomplishing this.†
The second issue is disintermediation, andit has big implications. It is a term used primarily in e-business to describe the removal of (or changed roles of) intermediaries in the sales channel. Buy a laptop online directly from Toshiba.com, and CompUSA gets disintermediated.
What has happened is that the unique power of the Internet — that ability to connect people directly — has made the purchasing process so much more efficient for both buyer and seller, and the "middlemen" are left looking for a role. But disintermediation is not happening only in the sales pipeline — that ability to communicate directly is having profound impacts on all communication chains that previously were characterized by sequential gate-keepers of knowledge in various hierarchies of control.
The foundations of those hierarchies were already coming unglued — in an organized fashion — as a result of the increasing dominance of Project Management. Now the wired world is disintermediating the silo-like departmental towers of communication within companies in a way that is often chaotic. It may start to disintermediate groups of managers, whole hierarchies, even corporations themselves.
Instead of having to follow channels of communication, wired workers now get answers to questions from anyone at any level anywhere in the organization. Managers may see this as an erosion of their authority — do they really want their level 15 marketing employee exchanging communication ideas or document templates with a level 5 person in Legal? Most IT workers, if they have a coding problem that their immediate cube neighbor cannot solve, go directly to the Web, seeking an answer from the members of any of hundreds of special-interest bulletin boards, newsgroups, or listserves. Those members can come from any country or any company, even a competitor.
The employing corporation is no longer a non-porous container of expertise — its boundaries have disappeared. We are already in an era where some workers feel more loyalty to a network of like-minded individuals who can help them get their work done, than they do to their company or division. The more members they have, the more vibrant and powerful those networks become. The reverse tends to be true of internal hierarchies.
So vertical silos of expertise and control are yielding to spheres of knowledge and influence. Such spheres can bypass traditional concepts of seniority, job function, and corporate allegiance, ultimately making those concepts irrelevant and those who staff them redundant.
Being always-available sources of help, advice, experience and inspiration, those spheres of influence are very useful environments to the individual members — and consequently to their employers. But membership of relevant online networks is patchy. It is limited to those Ďwiredí individuals who know their way around the Web and have the confidence and competence to use its endless resources.
There is a growing digital divide in companies, measured not in access to hardware but in attitude to the Web and in competence in using it.
Much of the attitude problem springs from a fundamental misunderstanding about the Internet. To so many, the Internet is a network of computers and databases. But it is really a network of people.
The most-used applications on the Internet are e-mail, chat, and Instant Messaging. The Internet helps people find each other and communicate in a way that no other technology has ever done, and it is that property that has made its adoption grow at almost viral rates. The age of networked communication is just beginning. There is a school of thought which compares the Internet to a human brain, except that instead of individual neurons connected to each other to form a single mind, you now have individual minds connected to each other. The formation of special-interest communities is likened to the formation of synapses, and collectively we are seeing the evolution of meta-minds. It sounds like sci-fi, but in reality the creativity and spontaneity that has been unleashed by the collective minds on the Internet is unprecedented.
While Marshall McLuhanís "global village" has not happened as he envisioned it forty years ago, the past couple of years has seen an explosion of tens of thousands of world-wide specific interest "villages" or communities. Those groups crystallize because their potential members can at last find each other, and can communicate quickly and easily. The knowledge and experience of any individual member may not be significant, but collectively these groups become vital, powerful resources for all of their members.
The technology to set up and access such social networks is intuitive and inexpensive, often even free. As your employees become more Web-savvy, they will seek out and join communities of interest. They will look to the Web to find such communities, completely bypassing the boundaries of your organization. But if relevant communities exist internally, and the policies exist to nurture and develop such communities, you may find that your company can benefit hugely from the resulting synergies. There are no obstacles, other than motivation and the e-competence of your workforce, to establishing informal corporate villages within your own organization, even if people are geographically dispersed.
The digitally connected world gives you an opportunity to rewire your corporate mind, to focus the communication inwards, and to change the way your organization thinks and behaves.
To me, this is the real promise of e-learning. E-learning should facilitate the sharing of experience, not simply collect and re-broadcast information.You canít compel people to participate in learning communities, but you can encourage them. You canít even create the communities — they need to spontaneously evolve from the collective needs and interests of individuals. But you can plant the seeds by establishing basic environments which in turn can spin off special interest groups. And, if you provide the base e-competence, the infrastructure, and the freedom to use them creatively, people will exploit them.
Why does it matter? Simple mathematics. Unlike a hierarchy, the power of a network increases exponentially with the number of nodes on it. Think of it this way: the value of a network can be defined as the number of unique one-to-one and one-to-many connections that it facilitates. The number of possible connections is 2 n-1 where n is the number of people on that network.
In a classroom, say, of one trainer and 20 learners, the network value is about 20. Maybe a little more if people talk to each other occasionally. But in a networked e-learning community of the same group, the value of the network is more than one million. Add a few more people, and the value explodes upwards. Now think what it means if you add a few hundred, or a few thousand, or a whole corporation.
While a workforce that is floundering in their changing environment is a liability, an e-competent workforce is an asset. You may be able to build on that asset, dramatically, if you can energize just a proportion of them to connect, think and communicate internally like those few wired workers are currently doing externally.
The real value of an e-competent workforce lies in what happens when they start to freely network their experience. That is why it is essential that you leave no employee behind in the pursuit of basic e-competence. The more people who enthusiastically embrace the tools and potential of the new economy, the more powerfully you can generate and apply corporate knowledge, and the more exponentially you can leverage your human capital.
Getting there is surprisingly simple. You can use the tools and techniques that you want employees to be comfortable with to teach them that comfort. E-learning that leads people to use informal e-communication tools can in weeks start an enterprise-wide transformation process and get it snowballing. Not only is e-learning the fastest, most efficient way to do this, it is the most direct way to get large groups of people comfortable in the "e-" environment. If you structure the program as an experience-sharing communication-rich excursion, you can generate huge amounts of positive "buzz".
You can then capitalize on that buzz and make it self-sustaining by pro-actively establishing and promoting online threaded discussion groups, bulletin boards, or forums in multiple areas of interest, and by providing and encouraging the use of other communication tools such as chat rooms, blogging, social networks, and Instant Messaging. Naturally, you should overtly respect privacy, avoid central control, and empower individuals to establish their own discussion groups.
It is worth restating that the technology required to do this is really inexpensive and already exists in most companies. Any employee who knows how to find a Website and how to send e-mail already has the technical expertise needed to participate. All that is lacking is the context and the motivation.
Such an e-learning program can follow a simple low-tech high-touch model. Itís the type of thing that MindRise has been doing for years. A learner communicates online with course content, in a self paced mode — that is pretty much where most peopleís concept of e-learning begins and ends. But you can add tremendously to the learning experience by building people-communication into the course requirements. For example, you can require learners to participate in moderated chat sessions, or to post comments to a threaded discussion, or to collaborate with other learners using simple tools like e-mail, chat, or Instant Messaging. If the learning experience is mentored, even simply using e-mail, the level of one-on-one communication between learner and Subject Matter Expert is more intense and intimate than it could ever be in a classroom. And if you provide a dynamic library to the community of learners where they or their mentors can post useful documents, templates, examples, case studies, or links to relevant material, your community has begun.
Being e-competent is not the same as being a skilled technician. E-competent employees are both comfortable in using the everyday online tools, and understand the basic technological foundations of the new economy. They are not alienated from the changes that take place around them, can understand the relevance of new developments, and embrace their role in a more communication-rich organization and more customer-centric environment.
We have a right to be paranoid. Our more Web-savvy employees are not only thinking and communicating out of the box, they are no longer even aware of the box. The less Web-savvy employees are increasingly alienated from the changes going on around them, and are seeing the digital divide grow daily. Our managers and hierarchical structures are being bypassed. New alliances and spheres of influence are growing. Our very concept of human capital is in flux.
We see potential to massively upgrade our organizationís ability to thrive, not through leveraging technology but through leveraging peopleís thinking. But the fear of getting it wrong, or fear of becoming vulnerable to a new transparency of information, can become a reason for doing nothing.
In building an e-competent workforce, you have to be pragmatic. Do not wait for things to stabilize, because they wonít. Your corporate strategy will change continuously, as will your technology base, your policies, and your operational priorities. Donít wait for people to "catch up" on their own, because many will not. Donít expect technology to do it for you, because itís not about technology — itís about context, confidence and motivation. Aim to permeate all levels of the organization with the basic knowledge and understanding that helps individuals find their feet. Then build on that foundation. Donít make a huge project out of it either — start with a prototype, learn from it then roll out a larger project. Start now.
The processes and systems around us change rapidly. Our values and principles do not, and they, not technology, should be the drivers of our vision. To many, a corporationís only unique competitive advantage is its knowledge. To others, it is the corporationís internal processes. But it is in the conjunction of knowledge and process where a corporation will find the fulcrum around which to massively leverage its human capital. And that competitive advantage is not only unique and sustainable, it is infinitely scalable.
Godfrey Parkin is the President of MindRise, a consulting firm in Washington, DC. In 25 years as a marketer and performance improvement specialist, he has run companies and divisions in the US, UK, Switzerland, and South Africa, including the international management services operations of A.C. Nielsen, worldís largest marketing research and consulting firm.