Changing Management Practice For The 21st Century

8 May 2009 Dr Anne Marie McEwan

The growth of ‘smart working’ is well suited to meet the needs of global operating conditions. But as Dr Anne Marie McEwan of the The Smart Work Company tells CEO, the key to its success is drawing from existing knowledge.

The global business environment is evolving dramatically on many fronts: economically, technologically, demographically and organisationally. It is far from clear if Europe and the US have the luxury of affluence and economic growth. Innovation is a key element of staying ahead of the game and business leaders who are able to mobilise the energies and passions of their workforces will be the ones that succeed.

Smart working

The term ‘smart working’ has in recent years been associated with flexible and mobile working, that is ‘anytime, anywhere’ ways of working enabled by communication technologies. Another view, broader than location and time independence, is that smart working allows flexibility and autonomy in where, when and how people work.

It turns out that the sort of collaborative, challenging work with potential for learning and personal development that people find satisfying is exactly the sort of work needed to adapt to current turbulent global operating conditions. Smart working is an outcome of designing organisational systems that are good for business and good for people.

How equipped are businesses to deal with these potentially overwhelming changes, which require significant adaptation of management attitudes and methods to cope with increasingly uncertain and unpredictable business environments? In his agenda for management innovation, business thinker Gary Hamel proposed that three of the most pressing challenges facing businesses today are: ‘adapting to the pace of change, making innovation everyone’s job and creating highly engaging work environments that inspire people to give the best of themselves.’

There is a tendency in management literature to talk of 21st century management and new paradigms that risk overlooking fundamental insights of trail-blazing management thinkers and lessons learnt from manufacturing business process innovation techniques that took root in manufacturing from the 1980s onwards.

The first wave

"Smart working is an outcome of designing organisational systems that are good for business and good for people."

Two of Hamel’s pressing challenges are the need to make innovation everyone’s job and creating highly engaging work environments. We have been here before. Continuous improvement and problem solving in lean manufacturing and total quality management represented the first wave of smart working.

These have already been widely researched and evidenced by manufacturing enterprises making the transition from traditional to lean processes. Process innovation methods rely on the willing compliance of shop-floor operators in problem-solving and continuous improvement (CI) activities. In lean and total quality management, there was for the first time explicit recognition of the commercial value of operator knowledge and experience. Continuous improvement was everybody’s job. Manufacturers at that time put in place physical working environments and management systems to support problem-solving, CI and collaboration across team and organisational boundaries.

The second wave

The potential for a second wave of smart working is emerging. There is an obvious need to mobilise the collective knowledge and skills of workforces in the face of significant global turbulence. Current hoopla about organisations being networks of relationships is only a re-discovery of something we have always known. Organisations consist of groups of inter-connected relationships, despite repeatedly overstated pronouncements about the supposedly dominant paradigm of hierarchy. Informal social networks have always existed in organisations but remained largely hidden. The emergence of social networking technologies offers the possibility of making formal and informal networks visible.

Social computing and collaborative communication technologies are creating immense possibilities for stimulating and harnessing collective intelligence within and beyond organisational boundaries. They allow us to see who the high-performers are, where value is created, who creates it and understand the roles key people play in sourcing and acting on new, value-creating knowledge.

As the world changes, there are calls for ‘management re-invention’ and claims of ‘new paradigms’ emerging. If re-invention means doing all the good stuff that we already know about then yes, let’s re-invent. It does seem, however, that novelty can blind us to knowledge that offers guidance as to how we might go forward in these uncertain and turbulent global conditions. Building on knowledge from the first wave seems like a smart thing to do.

Workplace learning and new management thinking

Work is learning; it is not a separate activity. This is why earlier process innovation approaches are so crucial. They require people to think in terms of dynamic processes, collaboration, problem-solving and innovation as integral to everyone’s jobs. Until this mindset becomes second nature, there is the danger of learning and development being regarded as an add-on rather than as the DNA of adaptive organising. Fortunately, the effectiveness of practical work-based learning is increasingly recognised.

We know what to do. We know how to do it. The knowledge is there for the taking and now is the time to act.