Saturday, December 17, 2011

Beyond Social: Talent Management as Strategy

If strategy is designed and executed at the fringes of the organization, talent management is strategy.

My friends at SuccessFactors just became part of SAP ... So, after Oracle, it's SAP. And, as Michael Fauscette says, it might soon be Microsoft: Leading enterprise software vendors seem to have started consolidating the cloud specialists. This, after all, is just capitalism ... I am more worried that, in so doing, it is also the process specialists consolidating the social specialists. If so, it is both a huge threat to innovation and transformation but also an opportunity for the best managed and led companies: for companies that understand that the future organization will succeed or fail at the individual level.

The moment of choice

Beyond established vendors consolidating cloud specialists, what I see in the SAP move is an incumbent buying a small player that was just beginning to understand how to complement process with social. The incumbent, by the way, has made its business by helping improve its clients' control over their processes (I did not say improve process performance nor overall performance, though).

The trends seem rather strong. It's the "social enabling" of processes or the "context-aware computing" that, Qontext or Forrester are talking about. It's the vision that, if we are to find any ROI in E2.0, social business or social technology, why not start where the ROI is best calculated ? If I say "social enabling" processes, the social business sale became easier, all of a sudden...

Is it the vision, if I push the logic to the end, that social technologies should integrate the corporation framework as it stands today ? Should being collaborative mean being collaborative within the existing organization, not touching at its deep structure ? Not touching accounting, finance, key processes, organization design nor the command and control mindset ?

Well, this is definitely an option, but it's not the most engaging one. I had been thinking, all these years, that social technologies had the potential to dramatically improve the corporate organization by bringing the individual person at the center of it ... It's what I understood by the much heralded "people-centered" corporation vision ... If "people-centered corporation" boils down to putting my social profile in my process work ...

And yet, the vision above is not the only option. There is another option, another path, which is a bit more frightening for it is less trodden ... In this alternative option, social technologies are adopted, but not to reinforce the existing organization, they are adopted as a means for the corporation to engage its clients, partners and other stakeholders in creative conversations, distributed design projects and social value oriented production ventures. In their book "The Support Economy", Soshana Zuboff and James Maxmin talk about moving the focus of collaboration from the organization space to the individual space.

This is a time of choice, because depending on how they are adopted, social technologies will reinforce the current structure of the organization, or they will allow a reinvention of this structure, which I think is needed to answer the unmet social and individual needs around us.

As many authors and bloggers have been writing about lately, there seem to be a need for corporations to change their focus from stuff to better (borrowing an idea from Umar Haque) or from things to individuation (as Zuboff and Maxmin argue). There is definitely a demand for "better", for "value", for "meaning", which for instance appears in the #ows movements, the Arab Spring or the Moscow riots ... It also appears in green consumption, anti-consumption or other alternative, sustainable consumption movements. These, by the way, can take some lessons from historical precedents, like the anti-consumption movement that brought about the American Revolution.

Time of talent

How do you get from building things intended for mass consumption to contributing to the improvement of the individual life of your clients ? And how do social technologies come into play ?

My experience today is that many individual employees are ready to drive the change that is needed here. Still, employees have little power in corporations, they belong within their BUs and processes and just contribute to the organization. Goals and strategies are built at executive level and driven by the market pressure. And existing processes are made to deliver on those goals and strategies. It is why I think, if "social enabling" of processes just means bringing social into processes without fundamentally challenging the business goal and vision, no real innovation will come of it. Individual employees will have no autonomy to develop new approaches to their client demand even though they might have been able to do it in another context.

Context. I think that is the promise of social technologies. If, instead of bringing social into processes, social technologies are adopted in such a way that every individual has access to all human and organizational assets of the corporation, he is in a position to make contextualized decisions that answer to the needs of his clients. Let's take an example : if I am an associate at a P&C insurer, managing a claim, I will certainly have the opportunity to engage in a conversation about insurance with this client, because this is precisely the context where he is the most open to listening about insurance covers and about risks. Such a conversation is relevant to my client and will drive its engagement. It all boils down to how I, as a claim associate, manage this contextual situation.

In this conversation, I might learn that my client is indeed an interesting client, that he belongs in a small community that has a very precise insurance need. And I might want to cover that insurance need by engaging my own product teams in the conversation.

As a claims professional, what do I need to be able to do this ? At least three things : I need the systems to give me all relevant information about the client; I need to have been developed so as to be able to lead an adapted conversation and make educated decisions; and then, I need to be recognized and rewarded for the activities I just performed, meaning claim management, client relation and product development. Waouh ! But that's not possible in an insurance company ! Or is it ?

From a systems point of view, it is possible to imagine that I have access to all relevant information given through both systems of records and systems of engagement. In fact, our problem about adopting social technologies is not a systems problem. It's a mindset problem.

From a Learning & Development point of view, I need to have been developed so as to be able to make decisions:
  • based on the vision, mission and social engagement of my company,
  • "augmented" by the company assets and people I have access to
  • depending on the context of my client
  • willing to respond to my client implicit demand, regardless of the product or services that I am used to selling
That is a huge development program that I need to have gone through. In fact, as far as I know, it is a program that most likely turns conventional training wisdom upside down.

Let's get to the most important point of view, the organizational one. The company needs to manage me (recognize, reward, connect) in such a way that I can move accross what today would be perceived as functional or hierarchical silos. How managers are developed and how their missions are set needs to take into account this new autonomy from the claims professional; in fact, managers should become organizational facilitators of this autonomy. At the same time, key organizational design basics and people processes must evolve (how positions are described, how power and information flows - look at how my friend Jon describes wirearchy - how people are recognized and rewarded).

From this organizational point of view, we are looking at deep structural change.

I think this is where talent management comes into play. The changes that corporations have to undergo are deep changes. Otherwise, they will not be able to take advantage of the huge business (and social) opportunity that is presented to them, this business opportunity that consists in answering individual aspirations for a better life.

The sheer complexity of the changes at hand makes it imposible to drive classic transformation projects   (executives design and decide and managers and associates execute). These projects need to be undertaken as if the final goal had been reached. They will rely on the individual wisdom, skill, sense of responsibility and effort of the people involved. It's deep experimentation taken place within the corporate walls.

Talent management professional should take the risk of launching these new organizational experiments. It will give them a new position in the strategy process of the organization. And no wonder: in an ever faster evolving economy strategy can only be conceived of at the fringes of the organization.

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