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Ideas for Leaders #735

The World of Work in 2028: The Dilemma of Balancing Big vs. Small, Digital vs. Face-to-Face

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Key Concept

A recent study exploring the world of work in 2028 based on today’s trends reveals the growing power of small vs. big, the vital importance of truly allowing mistakes (and not just talking about it) and the tension in communication strategies between the connection of face-to-face vs. the convenience of digital meetings.

Idea Summary

New technologies and new attitudes about the role of business in society have rendered obsolete the business models, routines and processes rooted in the industrial world, according to a recent study entitled Work 2028: Trends, Dilemmas and Choices. The study was conducted by the Henley Centre for Leadership at the Henley Business School in collaboration with Deutsche Telekom and Detecon International. 

For organizations specifically, according to the study, issues of size, the freedom to fail (what the authors call “suitable failing”, and digital vs. human encounters will need to be addressed. 

Size. In the capital-intensive, high-barrier-to-entry industrial world of the past, size was a formidable competitive advantage. No longer. Large companies, with their expansive and rigid control structures and their legacy links to past routines and processes, are more and more at a disadvantage in a world in which agility and flexibility are the competitive differentiators. 

Small companies embrace ever-changing boundaries and structures in sharp contrast to the rigid boundaries and heavy structures that all but immobilize large companies. They look for ad-hoc supplier networks. They host freelancers, who are grateful for the security and predictability.

Technology is also a democratizing influence: small companies with no legacy constraints to the processes and attitudes of the past take full advantage of today’s technology to create fluid people-tech eco-systems in their organizations. Small companies are also less tied to the assembly line-inspired value chain framework of the past, and look for co-creation opportunities in cells and communities. 

Looking toward the future, however, small start-ups and companies have their own challenges. If the rigid accountability structures in large companies stifle their creativity, small companies may suffer from too much flexibility leading to unclear decision-making processes, and from too little accountability, especially with their gig workers. 

Suitable Failing. In addition to agility and flexibility, a key success factor in the work world of 2028 will be an authentic culture of experimentation and the freedom to fail. Most companies talk the talk about “learning from mistakes,” but these words rarely translate into a culture when people are not afraid to make mistakes. In most companies, success comes from avoiding mistakes — and the way to avoid mistakes is to avoid experimentation and to avoid trying to learn. In the long run, such companies lose because improvement, progress and ultimate success emerges from experimentation, learning (including learning from mistakes) and, often necessary, un-learning.

Digital vs. Face-to-Face Encounters. The world of work in 2028 will be dealing with a growing dilemma already on the minds of leaders today: the battle between face-to-face (f2f) communication vs. digital communication. The f2f proponents argue that the human connection is lost when we communicate only through our laptops or smart phones. Digital communication proponents argue that the flexibility and convenience of digital meetings far outweigh the over-emphasized, romanticized “human” connection of face-to-face interactions. 

The Work 2028 study was co-sponsored by Deutsche Telekom, Detecon International and Henley Centre for Leadership/Henley Business School, and was based on 50 in-depth interviews with a variety of influential leaders and thinkers, ranging from top managers to futurists and academics to young movers and shakers. The interviewees came from diverse industries, NGOs, political organizations and academic institutions.

Business Application

The business implications from the Work 2028 study include the following:

Size does not matter. Successful companies will be those that integrate the best of big and small organizations, including the clear decision-making and accountability of larger organizations, but the flexibility and freedom from obsolete routines and structures of smaller entities. 

The screwed-up failure culture must be fixed. Attitudes to learning, experimenting, and failure must extend beyond pithy platitudes and pleasing mission and values statements. Companies must make space for experimentation. It begins with trusting your employees’ intentions and capabilities.

Analogue as twin of digital. As with size, the debate over f2f and digital communication and interaction does not have to be a win-lose battle. Companies and organizations can draw from the best of both approaches. Evolving technology such as virtual reality and hyperloops increase the human connection in the digital world. At the same time, f2f enthusiasts should avoid the ritualistic and often time-wasting conference room meetings of the past: f2f is not always productive and should be applied selectively for building trust and teamwork.

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Authors

Institutions

Source

Idea conceived

  • August 2018

Idea posted

  • March 2019

DOI number

10.13007/735

Subject

Real Time Analytics