Many of my clients are commercial entities, so it’s no surprise that I spend plenty of time analysing trends which become apparent in the world of business. But businesses are important for other reasons than paying the bills.
As the difference between private and public sectors blur across the developed world, commerce is becoming a greater part of our lives. Businesses are also the source of good ideas: they have budgets to fund innovation.
They also have an incentive. Not only is innovation essential to competition, but many people believe we’re on the cusp of a new kind of commerce altogether. As our exposure to advertising becomes saturated, as people rebel against consumerism and as experiences like virtual reality step-change the media, products and services are on an accelerated path to a brave new world.
Here are just two ways in which the world of work is changing.
More To Better
For at least two decades, large organisations have been slaves to consumerism and the demands of their shareholders. As markets have rightly become more transparent, shareholder value has been perceived in ever more short-term demands for gain and profit – often quarter by quarter – at the expense of long-term planning and strategy. The only way to satisfy those demands has been to sell more stuff and make more money.
But as we approach the peak of consumerism at the same time as geopolitical unrest and financial inequality make themselves felt across the globe, smart businesses are coming to realise that a new approach is required to sustain business operations and keep customers happy. That’s why Mark Benioff, the Chairman and CEO of world-leading CRM and sales venture, Salesforce.com has joined seasoned business leaders like General Electric’s ex-Chairman Jack Welch and Alibaba’s Jack Ma in saying “The business of business isn’t just about creating profits for shareholders — it’s also about improving the state of the world and driving stakeholder value.”
More stuff is no longer making people happy – and that is not a recipe for good business. Instead of growing larger, enterprises will find they are better at pursuing both the goals of their business, their investors and their customers by becoming smaller, more agile and connected, and more network oriented. They will benefit from engaging with their customers, producing better products (which can often yield higher returns), and discovering their social conscience along with product delivery. In the US, a whole category of Benefit Corporations (or ‘B-Corps’) has emerged which leverage the power of business architecture to solve social and environmental problems as well as delivering goods.
In the world of better, success is measured not only against traditional quantitative metrics (sales, EBITDA etc.) but on qualitative goodwill: being a fulfilling place to work, developing innovation and originality, contributing to education and making an on-the-ground difference to the communities in which a business has a presence.
Travel on most airlines, and you’ll hear the hackneyed – but true – announcement: “Thank you for flying with us: we always remember that you have a choice”. The transparency delivered by online marketplaces means that consumers do have total choice; and the prevalence of review information means that products which are second-rate or represent bad value will soon be found out. To differentiate themselves, the businesses which remain will seek to engage in a much more socially responsible and relevant way in their customers’ lives. Better products, better for the world around us.
We are already comfortable with some of the changes we have witnessed in the workplace. We have seen the demise of the idea of “a job for life”, indeed in many sectors the average tenure is barely a year. We have also seen the emergence of the “gig economy”, in which labour is traded globally in open markets on platforms like Upwork and Peopleperhour. Beyond commoditised labour, many people choose the option of a “Portfolio career”, sustaining several roles often using different professional skills and bringing them to many organisations at any one time.
What unites all these work patterns is the idea that a typical career will no longer be linear. On the one hand, organisations can tap into talent as and when they need it in a highly liquid labour pool; on the other, smart people can leverage workplace flexibility to build a lifestyle which is intellectually challenging and in which work fits around other aspects of their lives.
But to achieve this, individuals must nurture their own employability and take responsibility for their own career development. In particular, beyond the sector-specific training which has always been part of the fabric of education (engineering, law, health and safety etc.), a range of softer and universal skills are becoming highly valued. Technical competence is now just a minimal requirement. Employers – in the now loose sense of “anyone with money to buy your services” want to see honesty, integrity, accountability, commitment and emotional intelligence. They want people who will fit, go the extra mile, get on with colleagues, learn new skills and engage across age and departmental boundaries. And of course, in a fluid workplace, businesses want the security of working with people who are “results-oriented”, i.e. will demonstrably do what they commit to doing.
None of these are technical skills; they are the hallmarks of professionalism which can be applied to any sector or workplace. And individuals must make it their own business to hone these skills as their careers progress. Smart people recognise both the power and the fragility of their personal offer, and are dedicated to improving their skills and maintaining their relevance. They realise that change is the norm, and will constantly find ways to add value in an increasingly complex and unpredictable world. They will achieve this partly the ‘official’ way by staying on-point with their skills through training, but also partly by honing an open attitude to working with other people who have other skills; thereby growing emotionally and also living a more fulfilling work-life.