The way we think about work is broken and marketing can solve that (but not in the way that you think)
I think that we can all agree that marketing is one of the most innovative sub-systems in our organizations. Ironically, it’s often even better at implementing innovation than most dedicated innovations teams inside companies, but that’s an entirely different story. What I want to write about today, though, is how marketing has gone through a huge evolution over the past 10 years. It’s safe to say that the way we treat our customers has made a complete U-turn because of an explosion of intelligent and connected technologies. I believe that the exact same leap will happen with how we are organizing and treating our workforce.
It has always fascinated me to see how most companies are still managed in the exact same way as a century ago. To understand why, let’s rewind for some decades - to about 1900 - and zoom in on the theories of Max Weber, who was one of the biggest champions of bureaucracy. Had there been “I heart bureaucracy”-t-shirts around back then, he would have worn them every day. According to Weber, bureaucracy was superior to any other organizational form as it was the most effective, stable and reliable of them all. This was of course in the wake of the industrials revolution, when we needed an operating system to help us manage large groups of unskilled workers. And bureaucracy proved to be amazingly efficient at the latter. Today, … not so much.
Companies obviously no longer consist of large groups of unskilled workers anymore. This is the age of knowledge work. Highly skilled workers do not want to be treated as a small insignificant cog in a big machinery. They want to be engaged as individuals. And yet, we still use a 100-year old operating system to run our companies. The way we think about work today is essentially broken. And on top of that, the tools that we use to help us run our workforce have become obsolete.
It’s high time that we take some cue from marketing. For the past ten years we have reimagined the way we deal with customers. Now let’s do the same to recreate how we interact with employees. Basically, I see 4 main areas where marketing can inspire and guide our overdue transformation.
Average Joe and Plain Jane have left the building
The average consumer never actually existed but we just had no other way to approach them in the early area of mass production. And then the internet happened, and social networks. We had all these data telling us who wanted what, and when. We were finally able to treat each and every customer as the unique individual (s)he was.
It should not come as a surprise that employees too are very frustrated when their company is treating them very differently than the market is treating them. They have just as many needs and aspirations as employees than they have as consumers, but somehow the former tends to be completely ignored. The twistedness of this dichotomy is quite perverted, when you think of it.
What if, instead of thinking in terms of averages and large groups, we could really focus on the individual employee? What if we use the data footprints they are leaving to really grasp their talents, training needs or characters? What if their data could tell us how we could create the best working environment for them so that they, in turn, can really help our companies grow, innovate and thrive?
Put the data to work to value employees
Data of course is just raw material. It’s completely worthless - and frankly even a nightmare in management and storage - if you don’t understand how to turn it into value. You need data science, machine learning and all types of intelligent analytics to turn data into information. Information that’s useful for individuals, not just for the company. Data and analytics have really turned the customer-company relationship upside-down. Marketing used to be all about broadcasting: we had a product or service and pushed that to the customer. We had no idea what they wanted, only the belief that our solution was so positively awesome that – if we could just reach enough people – a big percentage of them would buy what we had. Marketers of today know better of course, yet we still do something very similar when it comes to our employees and their data.
Companies of today are sitting on a treasure of raw data. And yet they only use the parts of these data that are beneficial for the company: revenue streams, costs, customer data, etc. Yet employee data is often OR completely neglected, OR merely used for the benefit of the organization and not that of the employee. It’s sadly not turned into true value. Let’s change that. Let’s mine all the data that’s available and turn that into value, not just for the company, but for the individual employee.
(Real) Time waits for no one
Turning data into value for the individual consumer is not enough, of course. There is no point in knowing everything about your customer 15, or even 5 minutes after he’s visited your website. You have to understand who (s)he is, and what (s)he will likely want in real time. Even better, based on their past behavior, and the behavior patterns of people with the same buying styles, you should be able to predict their needs. You ought to proactively understand what they want, before your competition does.
Just like that, it’s no use that data analytics would be able to tell you why an employee had that burn-out, or why (s)he left you for the competition. You would need your systems to flag their behavior before they get ill or leave. You need real time data, and even predictions if you want them to offer value.
Power to the networks
Last but not least, marketing was one of the first to really understand the power of networks. It recognized how information flows faster, intelligence filters faster and innovation flows faster through a network. The network has increased the speed of our customers, and the market, but it’s also the answer: through co-creation with customers or even competitors, for instance.
Just like that, we need to understand that companies are networks, connecting individual employees into a powerful whole that is bigger than the sum of its parts. What if technology could help us understand the very complex dynamics of these types of networks? What if the data could tell us that employee A and B – who work in two different departments and have never spoken until now - would be the perfect match to lead our innovation team. What if it could show us that an ambitious young developer in Paris and a 10-man IT team in Copenhagen are working on the exact same solution without knowing that from each other?
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that we have to abandon hierarchies or burn the org charts altogether but we do have to rediscover our inner networks. Companies run on networks and information. That’s why I think that we will see the same evolution in HR and organization management that we saw in marketing. And I can’t wait for that to happen.