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Peter Grant



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The Age of Individualism – meeting the 21st century’s big HR challenge


The world of work is evolving rapidly and the companies that understand the changes that this brings will be the winners of the future. 

The way organisations think about how employees are engaged with the aims of the organisation has changed radically in the last 50 years after remaining essentially static for the industrial age and the agrarian age that preceded it.

Meat, Team and Mate

This shift is best summed up by the anagrams Meat, Team and Mate.

The prevailing post war management  philosophy, much influenced by the experience of marshalling large volumes of troops in two world wars, was that employees were essentially `meat` –  unthinking resources that had to be commanded to complete tasks that were set out for them. This approach reached its zenith with the US production-line economy of the 1950s.

Human battery farming

By the 1970s, and as the baby boomers entered the workforce, some companies and societies had become concerned both by the effect that this form of human battery farming was having on the workforce and its impact on innovation. Consequently they moved towards `team` – based structures.

Meanwhile, as what has been termed Generation X reached working age, political, economic and technological change was breaking the paternalistic `job for life` bargain that underpinned the attitudes of the `meat`  and early `team` generations.

As the new century dawned, levels of education and awareness continued to climb, connectivity became pervasive, new media emerged, newly powerful BRIC economies changed an increasingly volatile global economy with higher amounts of total value being delivered through service. 

The `mate` generation

This had a fundamental effect on the attitudes of what is known as Generation Y who were entering the workforce – and the age of individualism arrived.  As work became what you do rather than where you go, a new socially-connected breed of worker emerged motivated by relationships both with their colleagues and the organisations they worked for. They considered themselves subservient to no one but equal to everyone – in reality the `mate` generation had arrived. 

The fact is that despite widespread automation organisations remained built around the same, very powerful tools – human beings. But the way that leading organisations untap their latent potential has changed. The reality is people are largely motivated by working in a positive, sociable environment, but each person has their own `hot buttons` and want to be treated as individuals. This has created a whole new set of HR challenges.

The age of individualism

The age of individualism has highlighted the individual complexities of humans. Ensuring effective and efficient teamwork in this new age requires a more intuitive approach to HR management.

Businesses must devote attention to the intricacies of human behaviour and take advantage of them, incentivising reinforcing and rewarding positive behaviour as opposed to simply imposing processes and expecting employees to blindly conform. As each employee has become a 'market of one` constant, evolving dialogue is critical in ensuring that individuals are motivated in the workplace and driven to excel. 

Building on the 'Connected Enterprise'

In the journey from `meat to mate` information systems  and applications too have evolved, moving from mainframe-based automation of existing manufacturing processes, to PC-based business administration systems and ultimately to the opportunity to create people-focused socially-connected productivity applications delivered through the cloud.

We are seeing a number of trends drive the latter and enabling behavioural change, in particular, BYOD, Social Applications, Big Data and Analytics, and Gamification.

BYOD, and particularly mobile device support, is allowing employees to be engaged anywhere, anytime – constantly connected with familiar devices in the way that suits them. Social Applications enable individuals to connect and collaborate across all levels of the organisation, instantly and transparently.

Big Data and Analytics offers the ability to better understand current employee behaviour, spot broken processes, set a baseline from which progress can be measured and target finely-tuned coaching. Gamification enables organisations to nudge employees in a positive, engaging, rewarding and fun way to engage them and drive best practice behaviours.

Keeping it fresh

But any leader will tell you that changing behaviour is a constant process of re-enforcement until new habits become the norm. Stop the process of re-enforcement and behaviours will soon return to original type. So to bring continual improvement to life and give it longevity, organisations and their outsourced experts need to combine these technology assets with expertise – best practice game content and marketing collateral that keep games fresh – reviewing and refining both technology and content to keep employees 100% engaged.

Now is the right time to ensure that organisations capitalise on the opportunity of the upturn, but with the skills gap set to widen, even in times of recovery, it will be crucial for organisations to engage their employees as individuals and imbue the term `work mate` with true meaning.