How to Build a 21st Century Organization [for Humans]?

Some people believe that with all the automation and mechanization going on, organizations of this century will be very impersonal. They are wrong. In truth progressive organizations are only becoming more human.

Even before 2020, when a virus changed the way people work for good, there were some undeniable organizational trends already in place. Telecommuting is one — telecommuting is not only about the option of working from home, it allows teams at multiple locations across the world to come together.

Another trend is towards digitization or digital transformation. Paper has all but disappeared from modern workflows. Armed with buzzwords like Artificial Intelligence (AI), Robotic Process Automation (RPA), or Intelligent Process Automation (IPA), companies are making sure that their team members don’t waste time on mundane, repetitive work; letting machines take care of that.

Yet another trend is towards committee decisions. Super-star employees are losing out to collaboration, consensus, and processes.

So, as small and large companies compete for talent today, how should they think about designing organizations fit for the rapid pace of 21st century? Here are some ideas from my experience after managing disruptive teams for almost a decade.

Creativity doesn’t follow the clock

As technology displaces people to do more and more, the real competitive advantage for businesses in 21st century is creativity. This is particularly true for technology business, and even more so for businesses that rely on artificial intelligence — the rapid growth and success of AI means that there are no real rules for making it work.

Organizations supporting creative workforce look different. Creativity is about humans, and although it’s easy to get distracted by the tech, 21st century companies are human-centric. They are collaborative, comfortable with uncertainty, and allow flexibility and personal time. Progressive HR organizations are spending more time on issues like work-life balance, inclusion, pay equity and the importance of bringing one’s whole identity to work, than on compliance or punching cards in/ out.

This becomes even more important in a work-from-home setup. For example, I have learnt to identify blocks of my day that are super productive, like early morning, and use those for individual work. I have also learnt to schedule my day around others in the family, for example, spending time with my daughter after school before going back to work late evening with a fresh set of eyes and an elated mood. I sacrifice the comfort of a structured day for being hyper-productive on many aspects of my life, not just my job. More and more people are thinking this way in the 21st century and the organizations are supporting them.

Pedigree has only that much value

With so much information available and opportunities for self-teaching everywhere, pedigree is falling behind talent. MOOCs, vocational courses, focused education systems — there are many alternatives to the traditional 12 + 4 education models. Leading organizations like Harvard and MIT recognize this trend and have already opened up their hallowed vaults with initiatives like HBX and MITx.

Pedigree still has some inertial value because it biases a worker’s identity in a certain way, and exposes them to different flow of ideas and different types of people. Still, stellar athletes with the right attitude have done far better on my teams. It is possible that this view is biased towards technology and artificial intelligence, where perseverance and the right mindset are key success factors.

Also, independent thought, mature judgment, trusting nature and being a self-starter are traits that are far more important to a virtual organization than a physical one. For example, one of the hardest things for many managers of remote teams is to let go of their fear that team members are not working while being remote. Typically, they compensate this by scheduling multiple routines check-ins. I have learnt that this only leads to mistrust in the team and reduced productivity overall. Instead, the right approach may be to sit back and let team members initiate contact when necessary. These traits have no correlation with pedigree.

In short, organizations of 21st century have creative, innovative workforce — location is no longer a large factor. Pedigree is still important to the 21st century organization organizations, but not as much. At Coseer, we have successfully created a disruptive team by using relevant measures, like certain aptitude and technical tests, over sheer pedigree.

Personal ideas are the true organizational DNA

In the nimble, virtual teams that are poised for successes in the 21st century, the organization must share values reflected by team members, and not vice-versa. In 20th century perhaps people went to their place of work and other institutions to form ideas about their society. In the 21st century individuals must drive social ideas.

We are already seeing it in the public protests at companies like Facebook and Google against decisions by their leadership, when these decisions are not consistent with the employees’ values. Similarly, one of the reasons a startup culture is valued is that everyone has a larger say in defining their collective values.

Equality and inclusion of the sexes, races, religions and sexual orientations are just a few examples. Forward-thinking companies are also very aware of holistic wellness and carbon footprints. It is easy to see how every small or large company is striving to ensure success of women and people of color on their boards and senior leadership.

All of this has happened in just a couple of decades. This century is still in early days and these ideas will undoubtedly change, but a 21st century organization will keep evolving with the evolving ideas. If it must get its team super creative, and get its team members personally invested, any organization in 21st century must reflect the shared values.

Distributed teams are the norm

Covid crisis has taught everyone that the work-for-home model works, and it is here to stay. As long as the person is not in the office, they can be anywhere — perhaps at a beach they love, or with their family, or simply nowhere: just traveling through the world.

Telecommuters are proven to be more productive. Telecommuting is good for carbon footprint. Telecommuting enables a company hire talent irrespective of location. Telecommuting helps with the real estate budget. There are many other advantages for a company to support telecommuting.

The real value of telecommuting to a 21st century organization is something else, though, and it dwarfs every other aspect. Enabling a distributed, telecommuting workforce is the clearest signal an organization can send that it values the individual identity of each worker. It doesn’t care about where they live, how do they dress-up, who do they associate with as long as they are creative, productive members of the team. This trust goes very deep.

In addition, in my experience, people who look like each other and talk like each other also tend to think like each other. Multiple times in my career I have introduced some new diverse element to a team and reaped benefits of the explosion in collective perspectives. In many places such an idea does need to be deliberate, but it is the norm for a 21st century organization. Distributed teams spread over wide-geographies can afford far-richer diversity.

As a startup its always a privilege to design things from scratch. For my company, Coseer, our culture and design of our organization are a core part of the disruptive technology we are building. And we are not alone. Organizations are joining the 21st century every day.

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AI, Product, Strategy, Digital Transformation

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