A New Zealand perspective on workplace transformation

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By Amanda Sterling

Edition 6 – October 2015 Pages 30-33

Tags: human resources • learning and development

The industrial revolution is often remarked upon as the period of the greatest change in how we work and live that we’ve ever seen. The cornerstone of that change was the introduction of steam-driven machinery in the 1700s. Steam meant greater efficiencies, increased production, and unprecedented growth in income and populations for developing countries. It also meant that workers flocked to big cities to work in factories. Craft production, where small quantities of goods were produced by hand at home, became a diminishing art.

Then Henry Ford came along in 1913 and introduced the moving assembly line for automobiles, further increasing production and lowering costs. At about the same time, Frederick Taylor designed the principles of scientific management, which divided work into tasks to be performed by each individual as goods moved down an assembly line. Work became more fragmented and more controlled. Organisations got even bigger and more hierarchical.

We’d like to think that a lot has changed since then, but I don’t think it has. We’ve modernised our work, but we haven’t transformed it. There’s a big difference between the two. My friend Heather is a school teacher who works for a progressive school in Auckland, New Zealand; and I like how she explains this difference.

“Formal education began as a result of the industrial revolution and the need to provide a skilled labour force. As a result, our schools were built around a factory model where you were pushed along the assembly line from one year to the next until you received your diploma. Teachers were seen as the experts and the holders of knowledge. “

The pace and style of learning was set by the institution, following a one-size-fits-all model. This model has basically remained unchanged for the past 100 years. To think about that is scary. What’s even scarier is that most people, teachers included, don’t even realise this. It’s because along the way, we have been busy modernising.

People are often fooled into thinking that modernisation means change. I see this each year when the schools I’ve worked at host open evenings. Parents come along with their children to look at the prospective school, they’re given a tour and way too much information, and I laugh because I often hear parents say, “Wow, school has come a long way since my day.” They say that because they see data projectors, and smart boards and YouTube presentations and fancy new buildings, new subjects and programmes and they say, “Oh wow, progress!”

The problem is that, while it looks new and modern on the outside, it’s only superficial. When you actually look a little bit closer, you’ll notice we haven’t really changed at all. Instead of sitting in rows and copying notes off the blackboard, students are now sitting in rows copying the PowerPoint off the whiteboard. The actual process that underpins learning is still the same.”

I see the same thing happening in the business world. We offer people flash offices, the latest phones, stand up desks, and pets in the office. But fundamentally, the way that we work has not changed. In fact, it’s become more intense and controlled. The same technology we see as making our lives easier is tying us to our work, making us more accessible and on demand. It’s also raising expectations of when, and how quickly, we get things done.

We’re now grappling with the consequences of this constant connectivity. As ever, technology has been driving much of this change, rather than humans. Things should instead be the other way round. In other words, we’ve modernised, but we’ve not transformed.

I think we have an opportunity, right now, to transform the way we work and learn. Social technology is handing us this on a plate. The question is whether we take it, or just go about things the same way we have since the industrial revolution (with just a few new whizz-bang features).

So what does transformation look like? It means putting people first –before technology, profit or process. It means flipping the power dynamics from top-down to bottom-up, to encourage greater innovation, creativity, ownership and flexibility. It means engaging with new technologies or processes in a way that brings out the best in people, not in a way that makes people the secondary concern.

We should do these things not just because they’re warm and fluffy,or even because they’re the right things to do. We should do them because the companies that do actually see results. I’m not just saying that to ease the money-driven types either – I’m saying it because it’s true. And I’m not the only one who’s saying it: check out Frederic Laloux’s book Re-Inventing Organisations1 for case studies of People First designed workplaces in industries that include nursing and energy. Also have a look at Worldblu’s Freedom Centered workplaces2. ‘People First’ is not just a pipe dream, but an economically validated reality.

These transformative approaches are already happening in the consumer landscape. In their book A World Gone Social, Ted Coine and Mark Babbitt3 explain that we are living in a world where it’s the customer that tells the story about the goods or services they have purchased, not the corporate marketing team. Consumers can readily Tweet, Facebook post, YouTube share, Snapchat story or Instagram image their positive or negative views of a products to their thousands, or millions, of followers.

As Eric Qualman, author of Socialnomics4, points out, people are more likely to buy something based on someone else’s recommendation. That’s true even if the recommendation comes from someone they don’t know. They’re much less likely to listen to marketing spin, which means marketing control is no longer held by the marketers. So marketers must get to grips with the greater power of consumers to create their own narrative about products.

Likewise, employees are creating their own stories about what it’s like to work for their organisations. Glassdoor, the website where employees, ex and current, can review their employer, is an overt example of this. But, more covertly, it’s the connections we’re creating and the conversations we’re having behind the scenes that are just as, if not more, powerful than what is immediately visible. These connections are made possible through digital technology: you can now connect through a friend of a friend, who knows someone, who works with that manager, to find out what it’s really like to work for them. This is the less visible undercurrent of communication and connectivity in our hyper-connected world.

And the shift goes beyond recruitment: we’re finding more information about everything ourselves – it’s all at our fingertips. What do you think this means for the way we design and deliver organisational learning? Should we be sitting in workshops or at conferences listening to what one person tells us? Relying on this approach just doesn’t make sense anymore. We don’t need to “know” stuff; instead, we just need to know where to find it. Terms like “personal learning networks” and “networked intelligence” are part of our new lingo. Our skills are now in how we search, sort and share information – not whether we have it in the first place.

In this environment, organisational learning is context-based; and it happens on the job, as we find what we need, when we need it. Learning is in the hands of the learner. The elegance of our design is in the environment we provide our learners. How do we make sure they are motivated and that they have the resources to seek out knowledge, and the opportunity to do so?

The landscape is shifting. We need to move with these shifts in power; and create greater levels of transparency both within, and from the outside of, our organisations. And we need to remove the pervasive layers of hierarchyand filtered communication. We need to change how our businesses operate.

Gary Hamel5, one of the foremost business thought leaders of our time, argues that our current business models are not sufficient for organisations to survive and thrive – they’re just not adaptable enough. What we need instead are organisations that let the strengths of individuals shine through; that offer employees decision-making power, and adapt more readily to the needs of their consumers.

This concept is not new: we’ve just got greater impetus now, more than ever before, to do something about it. I say it’s not new because standout companies like Morning Star, a tomato processing plant in California, use self-managing teams to manage and make decisions about work. Morning Star has been around since 1970. Another example is Mondragon Corporation in Spain, which is owned and run by the workers, and has been run successfully that way since 1956.

Even more recently, Zappos has very publicly been grappling with the transition to self-managing teams in the form of Holocracy– a type of self-management model with its own manifesto of structure and discipline. It’s a brave move to turn and transform any company, of course. But these days, such groundbreaking, agile business structures are not just a “nice to have”that is driven by a visionary chief executive or business owner. Instead, it’s a “need to have” driven by a shift in power and voice. The question is not whether you start to get to grips with this transformation, but when?

I see the shifts more intimately in the People and Culture space because that happens to be the community I’m connected to. A big part of this connection is through a community of HR, Recruitment, and Learning and Development people called NZLEAD; and through a collective of workers and learners called the I-practice. NZLEAD is a community that converges around conversations that relate to making our world of work better. The I-practice is a community of work and learning – a new consultancy, a people cloud – where business owners converge to work together and share ideas and resources.

I’ll admit that, yes, I’m biased when I talk about the power, and potential, of social technologies to change the way we work, learn and live. That’s because I’ve met some amazing people, from all around the world, through social media. For me, it’s opened up so many opportunities for connection and collaboration. Instead of operating in isolation,employees and people professionals alike can band together to change our workplaces for the better. Our problems become smaller as our breadth of knowledge and depth of resources becomes greater. Ask any “socially” active HR person, and I’m sure they’ll back me up on this.

Communities like NZLEAD and the I-practice, because that is what they are – not organisations – are special because they demonstrate an entirely different way of working and learning. They’re examples where people are connected through a common set of values and a shared purpose, rather than through more traditional organisational ties, structures and contracts.

Communities where power is held collectively by the many instead of by the few; and where technology connects members and allows them to collaborate and learn without requiring them to be in the same physical location to work together. They’re also communities where the genuine connections you have with people are more important than how fast you can manufacture or sell something. As Dan Pink says in his book A Whole New Mind6,relationships are the new source of competitive advantage.

So you’re probably wondering now about what you can do to adapt to this. How can you change your People practices so that your organisation is ready for, and on top of, these changes. How can you – and how can we all – put people first?

In my book The Humane Workplace7, I talk about three things that any People and Culture, HR, Recruitment, Learning and Development professional (i.e. anyone who has people at the heart and soul of their profession) can do.

The first thing is to cut the crap. That is, look at every process, policy, or exercise you have that centres around the people in your organisation; and ask yourself, “do I really need this?” Be tough on yourself with your answers because it is easy to come up with reasons to keep something. However, if something doesn’t actively help people thrive in your organisation, there’s a good chance that it’s hindering, rather than helping, your organisational success.

Policies are a really good example of an area where we can easily go overboard. Use them to set the tone and direction; and then give your managers the skill and freedom to apply policies in a way that suits individual circumstances. All too many organisations use policies as the rote instructions for how people are meant to behave.This approach is simply too prescriptive to support people to thrive.

Secondly, be brave. I say that because, quite frankly, some actions within organisations are inhumane. This can include anything from seating people in dark and dingy corners, to allowing psychopathic managers to bully employees. We need people to perform at their best. To enable this, we have to stand up to behaviours that keep them from performing. We need to weed out bad behaviour, and we need champions to do that. You can be one of those champions. It’s not an easy thing to do, though, so you need to be brave.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, get social. Because, let’s face it, no one person can solve these challenges completely on their own. And you don’t have to. You can connect to other professionals from all around the world – and you should.

Our problems and opportunities are not unique to our businesses, industries or countries. Together we can tackle the issues facing our organisations. We have this opportunity now, more so than ever. Getting actively involved in social media communities is not a “nice to have”, or “what the kids are doing these days”. Rather, it’s a necessary way of enhancing the People and Culture practices within your organisation.

What all of the thoughts I’ve expressed in this article have in common is an overriding focus on people; a focus on what individuals experience while working for you, how they perceive your recruitment, and how you support them to learn and grow. All of these things require an unequivocal and holistic focus on people. They require making people the first and foremost consideration; and designingyour systems, processes and technology around them.

This new age of working is based on relationships and not rules; people and not process. It’s time we put the industrial practices aside, looked past that distracting modernisation, and truly transformed our workplaces. W&P

Amanda Sterling

Amanda Sterling is a development practitioner with nearly 10 years experience in human resources practice. She has presented at University research forums on learning methodology, contributed to the Human Resources Institute of New Zealand (HRINZ) magazine and blog, published in one of the top international journals for human resources: the Journal of Human Resource Management as well as in Employment Today magazine. She has a background in learning and development, specifically leadership development; design of HR processes; and lean manufacturing.
She is a community leader and Director of #nzlead, connecting a community of passionate HR professionals from NZ and around theworld.
Website: www.nzlead.com
Email: [email protected]
Linkedin: https://nz.linkedin.com/in/sterlingamanda


1. Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness: Frederic Laloux

2. www.worldblu.com/

3. A World Gone Social: Ted Coine and Mark Bab

4. Socialnomics: How Social Media Transforms the Way We Live and Do: Erik Qualman

5. www.garyhamel.com

6. A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future: Daniel H. Pink

7. The Humane Workplace: People, Community, Technology: Amanda Sterling and Perry Timms/


…We offer people flash offices, the latest phones, stand up desks, and pets in the office, but fundamentally, the way that we work has not changed… in fact, it’s become more intense and controlled. …

…Communities where power is held collectively by the many instead of by the few; and where technology connects members and allows them to collaborate and learn without requiring them to be in the same physical location…

…Our problems and opportunities are not unique to our businesses, industries or countries. Together we can tackle the issues and we all have this opportunity now, more so than ever….



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