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Technology and the intergenerational workforce

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Holly Ransom, Emergent CEO, is one of the keynote speakers at the upcoming Mobile-ising Women in Business event.

Ahead of the conference she spoke to us about how the rapid pace of change and the intergenerational workforce is shaping the future of business.

We live in a time of rapid change

This is without a doubt the most rapid pace of change in business and technology we’ve seen since the Industrial Revolution. Technology has fundamentally transformed the game, in part just because how quickly those changes can take place. Think about the speed of transactions now and information exchange and the extraordinary amount of information the global community uploads every day. It used to take a supercomputer to deal with that amount of data and now it’s what one person is transacting in terms of data over the course of just one day with their phone.

The other important thing to understand is that pace and change is in the hands of our consumers as well. We need to make sure we understand the value-drivers of our business, the way our consumer market is moving and where it is heading so we can position ourselves to take advantage of all that movement.

It’s not just that we as business owners can increase the rate at which we’re operating and transacting, but it’s also that consumer-led change can happen to us. People can vote with the speed of their thumbs now at an extraordinary pace and we see new ways of doing business; think about Uber and Airbnb and other extremely disruptive business models that became the new normal almost in the space of overnight. And it’s because people went, ‘wow – that’s efficient, that’s easy, that’s the way I want to be doing things’.

Trust is built on new platforms

Business owners have to be alive to just how dramatically the business landscape can change on us. One of the big transformations we’ve seen is around ‘trust’. People are gravitating towards a ‘social proof’ way of deciding who their service providers are.

Trust is a word that’s been thrown around fairly casually for a long time in business, but now with the rise of conscious consumerism and particularly the way millennials are interacting with brands, it’s not enough. There have been too many organisations that’ve made promises of this nature and broken them. For example, Enron, an organisation that had half their executive go to jail for corporate fraud when their number one value at the time was integrity. Consumers now won’t tolerate that mismatch between the public picture and what’s going on underneath. Consumers now want proof that they can trust your business and that your brand is reputable.

So what we’re seeing is a move away from trusting the company or the people within the company to tell us they’re trustworthy; people are turning to “real” people to tell them that story. It’s where we’ve seen a real shift from the old standards and stamps and accreditations that used to hold the weight of people’s trust. People now go to sites like TripAdvisor and check ratings, they look your business up online to find user reviews to get a sense of people’s genuine experience and they use that to decide whether this is a good product to buy or whether it’s a good place to work.

We’ve always known word-of-mouth is unbelievably powerful for business, but with digital tools and online communication it’s word-of-mouth on steroids with how interactive these digital communities can be and how much information of that sort of nature is available at our fingertips. Companies who are not watching the social reputation of their brand in the community and in the chat online do so at their own detriment.

Social media a major driver

Social media has played a massive role in this transformation; it’s the new way we are interacting. As just one example of how things have changed, if you want to track digital trends you just need to look at how teenagers are communicating; they’re not even using email now, increasingly it’s Snapchat and other short-form instant messaging.

These are powerful and significant platforms; social media is increasingly where people go to get their news and increasingly how they communicate with family and friends. Having a presence and making sure you are engaging in a way that serves your business is important. If you’re in business, it’s not a case of whether you do social media any more; it’s a matter of how well you do it.

We’re increasingly coming to that understanding, that social media is not just a mouthpiece for media releases. Companies who do it really well have that genuine exchange and interaction, they write back to people who tweet at them. A few of the airlines do it really well, and some of the telecommunications companies have a reputation for good social media management.

It’s a new frontier in customer-facing communications that you’ve now got to think about how you manage. I know for myself, if I’ve got a challenge for a particular product I’ve bought, I’m much more likely to send a tweet to the company Twitter handle than I am to pick up the phone and wait on the line for 30 minutes trying to get through to a customer service representative. I’m expecting Twitter to be a medium where I can get better support.

For some people, the scale and breadth of the transformation is a little alarming. In the Australian economy we’d been very fortunate with the mining boom and great terms of trade, we had a period where we didn’t undertake the kind of economic reform we probably needed to and then when things got a bit tough when the global financial crisis hit, we needed to have that focus on competitiveness and value delivery again. The challenge is that, for some organisations, we haven’t had that habit of continual innovation, continual critical evaluation and improvement of how we work and now we’re in this environment where we’re being told we need to change on multiple fronts with an enormous time impetus. This is a whole new culture that a lot of organisations have to establish within their businesses.

The importance of culture and engagement

Culture is paramount. People are at their best when they are working within a culture that allows them to be at their best and bring their best to work every day. But if you look at the engagement data that Gallup have put out around the engagement of the average person in the Australian workforce, only 13% of Australians are engaged at work. That’s consistent with numbers internationally when you look at the UK and the US workforce but it means a big difference in productivity between the top 1% of engaged organisations and the median placed organisations.

It also makes a big statement about the picture of Australian business that people are feeling disengaged or at least passive about their work environment. A lot of that falls to leaders and how it is we create great thriving cultures that people want to work in every day.

What we know of the evidence base right now is that we have major room for improvement in Australia.

The first step is to get an accurate picture of your baseline. It’s no use bemoaning low employee engagement surveys because that becomes like a scorecard, rather than a truly informed piece of work. You need to ask, “What does this feedback teach us?” and work out how to have a proper conversation with your people around why you’re getting this result. Focus on ‘how do we understand the key drivers of employee engagement’ and ‘how do we bring them more to the fore of the way we work’.

For some companies this involves looking at how they can structure their work and projects differently, for others it’s thinking about how to bring in more flexibility. Sometimes it’s literally a change to the physical space they are operating in. It’s different for every company and it’s difficult to make broad sweeping statements around what it is that a particularly engaged workplace looks like. It’s important that organisations know it’s critical not just to do that deep diving for themselves but to also seek out environments where they have highly engaged workforces and ask what they can learn from what those organisations are doing, and how they could apply that in their own companies.

Intergenerational Workforce

Depending on how you split the millennial/Gen Y group, we now have either four or five generations working together in the workforce.

Millennials became the biggest generation in the workforce in late 2015, but that is still in the 20% range. However, what we are going to see is that 50% of the workforce will be millennial generation by 2025. With the ageing population transitioning out, the lion’s share of the workforce will become this younger generation.

It’s really important that organisations think about how they can have a thriving intergenerational culture. There is an enormous transition coming in the makeup of our workforce and in our leadership and we need to strike the balance of welcoming these fresh ideas coming in with capturing all the experience and wisdom as it’s going out.

Over the next five to 10 years while we have this shared period of leadership, that’s going to be key in which organisations come out stronger at the 15 year horizon. The organisations who manage their people development and their leadership transition really well in the next few years will be in the strongest position going forward.

People matter more than technology

We have the digital technology and the phones and social media and cloud connectivity but it’s the people who matter in business. It’s easy for the tech to grab the spotlight and we’ve lost the conversation on the importance of people because we’ve been so focused on technology.

And that’s had to happen though, we’ve had to respond to that demand to understand and integrate the technology into every part of our businesses, but it’s people who make the decisions in business. It’s people who decide how to use that technology. We still need great people to make the decisions on which direction we head in and how we weigh off competing demands, to deliver value for our communities and customers and staff. We can’t lose sight of that, so it’s important that we turn attention back to our people.

Just like every year we have to ensure we’re making an appropriate investment in the technology, we have to make an equal investment in our people.

We have to offer a competitive value proposition to get the best people in through our door and we have to develop them to the best of their ability and then work on keeping them.

Hear more from Holly and other speakers at Mobile-ising Women in Business Canberra on 28 February. Details and bookings online

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