In an age of advancement of technology, which has been periodically unboxing the layers of change — either transformational or disruptive— the scope of employment generation has increased.
The transitional period has seen humans adjusting by shedding, adapting and realigning to the new forms and ways to stay afloat in the race.
At present, we are in the process of dealing with mobile phones as the ubiquitous medium for personal and professional interactions. Within that, we are adapting to the changes in the devices, software and apps, which get updated frequently. Such adjustment journeys have been challenging at times when we and technology lacked understanding of each other.
And on a few other occasions, they have been amazing significantly when technology has helped without us expecting it to. We are engrossed in the digital world of analytics, AI, and Augmented Reality on one hand and deep fake, the dark web and privacy intrusion on the other.
Our digital devices can eavesdrop on our conversations, track our movements, know about our preferences and even advise us on our financial and healthcare matters! We are in a world where holding back information or keeping a secret is becoming very challenging!
The regulator cracks the whip and then cracks up!
Let’s step back for a moment to look at the Internet boom era which happened at the turn of this century. Information explosion happened during this time and the administrator and regulators of business were yet not ready to deal with the changes that happened alongside. Telecom was a much-regulated industry then. Working as a monopoly and making international telephone calls was a luxury. Technology changed with the advent of the Internet, from landlines (called PSTN) to computer-enabled calls over the Internet (called VoIP). VoIP didn’t recognise state and international boundaries and hence became the cheapest option to make ISD (International) calls.
The government realised that it would kill the domestic telecom market, which was a monopoly then, and thwarted this initiative through rules and laws that made VoIP illegal to use. The government even raised awareness levels amongst people about the ethics of using VoIP.
What happened eventually is now known as the telecom revolution in this country - through privatisation (democratisation) and making a larger spectrum available to telecom players, India discovered the power of connectivity in verbal and visual communication. Today, as a nation, we are quite advanced in this sector and therefore we are one of the most attractive countries for international ventures to be set up here. Incidentally, we launched our 5G, which opens up new vistas for communication and commerce.
Democratisation of Information – Creation of Knowledge Worker
While Internet boomed and the telecom networks enhanced the power of communication, information got democratised. In fact, citadels of power, enshrined in corporate offices, which safe-guarded several kinds of information as ‘business secrets’, came crumbling down when large scale automation forced information to be shared.
Information relating to employees, customers, suppliers, and in some cases about competition, regulation, policy, etc. that were hitherto known only to a handful of people, now became part of a common pool of information, accessible to all. Pricing methods, sourcing partners, new product launches, distribution channels deployed, quality norms implemented, and many such initiatives became transparent in a process-oriented organisation.
Alongside this transformation, organisations desperately needed ‘knowledge-workers’. Roles that opened up required skills that were deep in a particular area or in a given domain. An internal general skill that could be trained over time got overlooked in favour of someone that could be hired from outside with the requisite skill set.
At the global level, ‘Collaboration’ became the new mantra. The concepts of the value chain, understanding the shifts in bargaining power (supplier, customer), and openness to collaborate with erstwhile competitors became part of successful business practices. Nobody ever imagined that three major auto rivals would collaborate for common information - General Motors, Ford and Chrysler co-founded Covisint in 2000 to share various kinds of information about global suppliers to the auto sector! Although each company was a giant brand, highly resourceful, financially profitable and fiercely independent in decision-making, the speed of change in information necessitated them to collaborate. Soon, Nissan, Peugeot, Renault also joined, making Covisint a pan-American IT firm. Covisint currently exists as part of Open Text, a Canadian software company.
In today’s context, even a start-up looks at outsourcing and globalisation as integral elements to their business models.
The Unbundling Experience
As we progressed with technologies like social media, mobile phones, big data analytics, the unraveling of information made people despise the ‘black-box’ approach. Whatever was under the hood or kept covered, surfaced into the open. A laptop ceased to be a holistic computer and became a sum of its branded parts - Intel or AMD for the central processor, Microsoft or Linux for the operating system, Sony or Hitachi for hard disks, B&O or Harman for sound systems, etc. – customers were making the choices! The customer’s bargaining power improved on account of the unbundling.
Today, there’s a lot of information shared on social media and other interest groups for products and services in the B2B and B2C sectors. Be it a pair of jeans or shoes, refrigerators, televisions or mobile phones, grains and groceries, pharma and medical help, jewellery or personal jets… every detail is available or can be made available instantly. There’s no secrecy of any kind.
On the contrary, keeping information under the hood or holding back something as ‘trade-secret’ is not only a business deterrent but also a humongous challenge to do so.
The speed and scale of information being shared has made several existing laws irrelevant or draconian – unviable for implementing them in the context of the society or business. There are frameworks for ethics and morals, which again are getting transformed in the context of rapid changes. One such striking example is from the sports industry – the IPL!
Ethics, Morals & IP … IPL!
When the IPL (Indian Premier League) happened in 2008 in India, ardent Cricket fans were in a denial mode. There were many deep-rooted questions about morals, ethics and team spirit.
- How can rival team members play together? It is unethical!
- How can team morale and spirit of the game be upheld where personal rivalry, difference in ethnicity, culture, habits and behaviour exist?
- What happens to the game-strategies and ploys to outsmart the opposition’s key player who is now your team-mate? It is immoral to discuss the weakness of your national team’s mate with your traditional rival, now in your team, to win an IPL game!
- What happens to the closely guarded secrets of the national team members? Will there not be a breach in code of conduct?
- What happens to the national spirit when players’ focus shifts to IPL, which is less sport and more entertainment?
IPL is therefore doomed for disaster, was the forecast. Fifteen years hence…every IPL season is a much-awaited event in that year’s calendar. So much so that ICC, which is the regulator and governing body for global cricket, adjusts its own calendar of events to accommodate international players’ schedules to participate in IPL. IPL is not an official game under ICC. In its own way, IPL portrays an official status especially when it comes to selection of players.
With the use of technology, there’s transparency not just about the players but also about the umpire’s decision and third umpire’s explanation to a referral case. The public sees everything – nothing that’s happening on-the-ground is hidden. With innovation, IPL has transformed cricket and also made itself into a formidable industry that guzzles data with the use of latest technologies and provides employment opportunities to those adept with technological skills. IPL coexists with the traditional form of Cricket – Test Match, ODI and T20!
Unboxing the Employee
In the disruption that Covid-19 caused, the unboxing of employees happened.
Hitherto, employees were under-the-hood called ‘the company’. The company provided its employees a safety net, called career. It also offered the employees’ comforts called perquisites, normally of the soft type – accommodation, transportation, healthcare insurance, education loans, etc. It also invested in the employee’s relationship in terms of providing training, emotional support when unexpected events occurred, and so on and so forth. These instilled a sense of loyalty and ownership in the employee who became faithful to her employers. There was an era when employees aspired to retire from the company they joined!
With changing times and changing perspectives, the employer-employee relationship has been reduced to a contract – commercial terms and cold clauses. Organisations have also become highly process led in their operations and result-oriented in their expectations. These make employees work in an objective manner. To that extent, the employee of today is a self-aware achiever, who is ambitious and understands opportunities, risks and challenges of charting a career. Therefore, she expects the best from her organisation for her to give her best.
During pandemic times, the disruption meant different things to different people. Some saw advantages in the work-from-home (now anywhere), while others experienced challenges in not being part of the traditional ‘office set-up’. Either way, technology unraveled to the world the power of work-from-anywhere and provided the opportunity to connect the customer directly with the employee (doer) during their online meetings.
Two factors worked in tandem during the period, insofar as the employee is concerned. One, the employee had to find solutions to her specific problems of managing WFH despite her organisation supporting her financially. But a home cannot become an office-like place ever, which meant additional workload had to be managed on a day-to-day basis by the employee. In the process, she discovered her problem-solving capabilities, determination, resilience, etc.
The other factor was, she got directly connected to the client during their online meetings. Until now, she interacted with her manager and business leader. But during the online meetings, there was no hierarchy, and the ‘doer’ became visible to the client (market). She now became aware of her professional capabilities and self-confidence, and understood the value such exposure unlocked within her. The employee got unboxed from the organisation – she became the organisation in the onlookers’ eyes. The online world presented her with immense opportunities to seek her specific capabilities, which wasn’t the case until now. She multi-tasked, but also for herself this time.
At workplaces, employees are encouraged/expected to think-out-of-the-box, show creativity and work like an entrepreneur. They are also evaluated on such parameters. When Covid-19 disrupted work schedules and companies also decided to defer annual increments & promotions, the employee enforced the same parameters she was being evaluated in the organisation in the online world. The capable ones discovered opportunities that not only provided additional income but also tasks and technologies of their liking to work on. It was a matter of ‘choice’ in the online world!
Everyone acknowledges the fact that the lucrative desire drives people to work for an organisation. Neither party – the employer or employee - is over invested in the relationship. When new opportunities appear, existing contracts get re-negotiated, which also determines which party has the better bargaining power.
The disruption that the pandemic brought is it unboxed the employee and gave the employee the right to negotiate. The capable employees are in demand in the global market because the pandemic also made work go to the individual rather than the individual finding work. In the current scenario, the best resource in the world will get the job – either on contract basis or they will get poached. Either way, the existing company is likely to feel the impact.
Traditional wisdom is to apply ‘force’ – referring to contractual terms, bringing up confidentiality or conflict-of-interest clauses, upping ethical or moral values – aren’t going to stop the employee from doing what she wishes to do. This is the market force. If such employees are terminated as a mark of example, the fresh lot of knowledge workers will hesitate to join. Further, if this is practiced for long, the good ones will part ways either as terminated or resigned, neither making a difference to the next company they are going to get associated with. There’s no stigma associated with being ‘laid-off’ since even in the past employees were laid off for the benefit of the company.
Hence, new wisdom is required. Besides, the organisation needs to demonstrate sensitivity to its employee’s desires.
Earlier examples are good cases to learn from. Applying force like rules, laws, regulations etc. will act as deterrents but only in the short run. Eventually, the dam will burst, and the water will overflow - the VoIP case. The opportunity lies in the examples of Covisint (for collaboration) and IPL (for innovation).
We are moving into times where the employee (knowledge worker) will be the king. Retaining the talent force will draw the same efforts as holding onto your customers in a free market! Implementing terms from the contract will be detrimental – it will appear draconian to the market. In any case, new recruits will bargain and will have the negotiating power on their side.
One way around is to ‘lend’ employees to a multi-company project team, which is formed through a collaboration of companies - a consortium. The consortium takes on complex projects and puts in the best talents to deliver outstanding results. The commercials are worked out in such a way that the company and the employee are both rewarded. In the case of IPL, the player shares his earnings with his country’s cricket board! The employee also returns to the original company at end of the project.
The other form is to accept the gig model and become a platform for services!