What We Really Need From Employees – and Leaders – in the Future

empowering knowledge workersIn the 16th century, when philosopher Francis Bacon proclaimed “knowledge is power,” his contemporaries likely believed he was onto something. Today we have little doubt.

What no one could have predicted was the enduring — and growing — wisdom of his remark. Knowledge is still highly sought-after for the many advantages it affords organizations that can tap new resources ahead of their competitors, but the sources and the means for doing so are changing.

Work is growing fundamentally more complex and that will continue into the foreseeable future. Leaders shouldn’t fight the trend by trying to simplify complex work or jobs, but rather by removing the complications arising in a less routine, more ambiguous, and collaborative work environment.

Help employees do complex jobs — don’t simplify the jobs.

What Leadership Should be Doing

According to the Corporate Executive Board (CEB), organizations effective at achieving higher performance and more enterprise contribution from their employees expect their leadership teams to do the following:

  • Focus on and communicate big picture objectives over process. A consistent understanding of organizational objectives is essential to employee focus and performance in a high change environment. Regularly restate and confirm organizational objectives to provide a strategic context for employees’ work and decision making.
  • Empower and embrace decisions deeper in the organization. Employees need greater autonomy to make decisions and manage their work activities. Embrace this shift in decision-making and enable it by setting clearer objectives, providing access to more information, and supporting more agile resourcing for key projects.
  • Connect employees to information sources rather than provide the information.
  • Leaders should provide direction to, and establish context for, critical information rather than mediate its flow to employees. (I’m a big believer in being as transparent and free with information to employees as possible so they can perform optimally. The CEB isn’t suggesting you withhold information, but that you help employees become more self-reliant in sourcing data on their own.) Resetting connections can be as simple as creating links between employees or as complex as changing reporting and permission rights.
  • Pursue managed collaboration over broad idea generation. Too often, collaboration is an unfettered exercise in idea exchange fueled by online crowdsourcing and social media platforms. While the easy flow of information and ideas is important, focus on limiting the number of approved projects and attaching them to enterprise-level goals with clear objectives, timelines, and expectations.

To excel in this environment, organizations will need a different kind of employee — one that is immune to the complexities of change, willing to collaborate with a broad range of individuals, and able to apply judgment in an increasingly knowledge-based role.

Roles Employees Must Play

The CEB suggests focusing employees on the importance of sub-roles that are key to driving network performance by setting expectations that each employee must act as a:

  • Connector — Effectively enfranchising essential co-workers, peers, and others in formal and informal collaboration projects, specifically including others who are jointly responsible and accountable for work outcomes and those who should be consulted and informed.
  • Contributor — Willingly providing input and support to the work of others, both formally and informally.
  • Consumer — Actively seeking out ideas and input from others in the organization and incorporating them into formal and informal collaboration projects to get work done.

Failing to take steps towards increasing collaboration and empowering knowledge workers may doom organizations to a challenging future. After all, Francis Bacon also prophesized, “He that will not apply new remedies must expect new evils.”

Michelle M. Smith

Michelle M. Smith

Michelle M. Smith is Vice President, Marketing, of O.C. Tanner. A highly accomplished international speaker, author, and consultant on performance improvement, Michelle is a respected authority on leadership, internal branding and employee engagement. She’s published and presented more than 1,000 articles and lectures and is a trusted advisor to many of the world’s most successful organizations and the governments of the UK and the US.

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