At our previous Sphere Network discussion on the topic of the Future of Work, we focused predominantly on the extent to which human redundancy, ‘any time, any place’ working and participation in the gig economy are becoming the norm. We also spent time looking at PwC’s ‘four worlds of work in 2030’. Considerations of where these developments may lead both for organisations and for the human experience of work are widespread. Reports aplenty continue to provide insights and hypotheses for us to ponder.
This time, the session was established in response to two drivers: first, a direct call from business leaders across two or three different sectors who had described the difficulty they perceive in introducing digital solutions either to enhance efficiency, to solve a problem or to bring incremental innovation to their operations. Secondly, and directly related to this, several reports identify the productivity lag in the UK as being at least partially attributable to our business leaders failing to introduce digital technologies not only to enhance technical innovation in products and services, but also to improve business practice.
Journeys in digital transformation
Our two experts spoke with humour, deep knowledge and informed personal insight. The conversation covered a rich range of considerations for the leadership of digital transformation for the future workplace. It was acknowledged straight away that the term ‘digital transformation’ itself is contested and can mean many different things in different contexts.
Andrew Besford charted his own journey as a young man who had grown up in the North East, leaving the area in the 90s, hungry to engage with ‘all the new digital technologies he could get his hands on’. After significant experience in telecoms and then designing and leading government transformation programmes, he has returned to this region. One of his key observations for us was that significant complex tasks such as this kind of organisational transformation are set up to fail if a simple success trajectory is what is expected. He helped attendees understand how efficiencies can be made with the introduction of digital technology, taking advantage of natural wastage in the workforce rather than necessarily causing redundancy. He spoke of the human dimensions fundamental to the successful adoption of new practices, and which are arguably more likely than the quality of the technology itself to determine success.
Our second speaker, Karen Elliott, is a specialist in key aspects of transformational organisational practice, such as agile project and programme management. She talked to us about her journey from business into academia. She identified her lifelong learning dispositions as highly relevant to her own capability for adaptation and shared her conviction that the findings of academia need to be applied so that theoretical models can bring benefit to practical circumstances – especially when these are characterised by complexity – in order to make a positive difference.
Managing the unpredictable
A wide discussion ensued, with skills and education coming to dominate. After long debate, the unpredictability of ‘the future of work’ was acknowledged. This highlights the need for us to develop transversal and transferable skills for new working cultures if we are to meet the long term need for a healthy society and a well-equipped workforce. There was broad consensus that the current approach to education and training is wildly outmoded, as is our reliance, for example, on written examination to assess competence in adaptive and relevant disciplines and skills. It was repeatedly demonstrated throughout the discussion that digital transformation will depend for its success on the adoption of new practices by humans and human cultures.
The ‘multi-headed monster’ of leading digital transformation, as one of our discussants described it, is a challenge both to implement and to embed. It also proved challenging in discussion to maintain the focus to which we are accustomed in our Sphere network discussions. As well as the rich ideas and the new contacts we made at this session, SPHERE facilitators have been considering as a result of this session the importance of our maintaining a sharp focus on our agreed topic. Our attendees – ‘experts’ and ‘explorers’ alike – seek to learn from and question discussants’ deep expert knowledge, and sessions work best when we trade more knowledge and enquiry than opinion!