Turbulent Times Part 2: What is Smart Working?

“China and India are phenomenal innovators. We won’t just go down, we’ll go down big time if we don’t watch out.

We have to think of the clever new ideas and be ahead of the game
while we have the affluence and economic growth to invest in way-out

That includes the way we work.”

That was Professor Cary Cooper in the Institute of Directors magazine, Director, in 2006.

You are probably sick of hearing me saying in past posts that the quality, lean and agile manufacturing approaches that emerged from the mid 80s onwards
were fundamentally based on creating value through customer focus and
engaging the entire workforce in a philosophy of continuous improvement,
problem-solving and knowledge sharing across process boundaries, both
within factories and across supply chains. That is what I am calling the
first wave of smart working.

Legacy of learning

Vineet Nayar, CEO of the Indian IT services company HCL says that:

Nayar, CEO of the Indian IT services company HCL, is gaining
recognition for transforming the business through a radical ‘Employees
First, Customers Second’ philosophy. He talks about the value zone being
where customer value is created. He says:
traditional companies, the value zone is is often buried deep inside
the hierarchy and the people who create value work there.
The value zone in the first wave was on the shop floor. He is reported in an article in the Financial Times as also saying:
era of employee empowerment is on us and businesses need to harness the
skills of their workforce to improve productivity and meet customer
needs. This is created by giving front line employees the responsibility
to take action that will benefit the customer without layers of
bureaucratic approval.

The era of employee empowerment is on us and businesses
need to harness the skills of their workforce to improve productivity
and meet customer needs.

And then we have Gary Hamel proposing that three of the most pressing
challenges facing businesses today are adapting to the pace of
change, making innovation everyone’s job and creating a highly engaging
work environment that inspires employees to give the best of
themselves. Making innovation everyone’s job through continuous
improvement and creating enabling performance environments were core
requirements of the first wave.

What Nayar and Hamel are saying is right. What they don’t say is that
there is already a legacy of learning from the past era. Instead, there
are proclamations of novelty. It was suggested in an article in the
McKinsey Quarterly, No , in 2009 that “substantial, scalable and
sustainable gains are achievable by focusing on the ‘soft’ side of lean,
which is being linked to a “new era in management”.

A new era in management?

That was then and this is now? Everything that applied then continues
to apply now. In addition there are some massive developments in the
emerging second wave of smart working. While the focus remains on
creating knowledge-based customer value, knowledge is increasingly tacit
and novel. Processes are abstract and hidden within our heads. Tacit
knowledge is shared and distributed. Work is highly mobile, networked
and distributed. All this has significant implications for working,
managing and leading.

Overcoming the status quo

Too few businesses are applying smart working principles and
practices. What chance have we got of transforming working practices if
we apparently have trouble reaching the first base of the first wave,
let alone adapting to current external developments?

Who said it was going to be easy? Is it not worth experimenting and
engaging with the confusion and mess of innovation, given the business
benefits and the fact that self-determined people working together to
apply and develop their skills and knowledge is psychologically
satisfying? The alternative is businesses that are not viable in the
long run and disengaged workforces.


I said in the last post that I would use this one to say how I intend to do my bit, and also said that:

technologies really do provide us with opportunities for
self-determined action. We have no-one to blame but ourselves if we do
not grab the opportunity.

Well I will continue to work with senior teams withing businesses to
help them explore global workplace trends and how they can best make the
transition to new ways of working. I also want to try to provide a
‘curriculum’ of topics online to people who might not otherwise come
into contact with a business school.


Using blogs, wikis, discussion forums, Twitter and a toolbox of
things to try out, I am hoping that people will be enticed to explore
smart working topics, learn about work-based learning, gain confidence
and courage and then join one of our learning communities to experiment
with a real business project they would like to try out.

The prospect scares me silly. What if it fails? I do what I am
advocating. Get up. Dust myself off. Learn. Try again. Next post will
talk a bit more about the learning communities and our learning
approach. Subsequent posts will be about the ‘curriculum’.

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