Article (April-2018)


Liquid workforce for digital economy?

Dr. Indranil Bose

Designation : -   Dean of School of Business

Organization : -  University of Bolton, Academic Centre-Ras Al Khaimah, United Arab Emirates


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Companies are constantly investing in the tools and technologies; they need to keep pace with the constant changes happening in the present digital era. But to achieve their ambitious goals, businesses are refocusing on an often overlooked factor : the workforce. They are looking at technology as not just a disrupter, but also an enabler to transform their people, process and finally the entire organizations into a highly adaptable and change oriented organization. In short, business leaders are realizing their new liquid workforce can become their new competitive advantage. Pierre Nanterme of Accenture, Ginni Rometty of IBM, Punit Renjen of Deloitte, John L. Flannery of GE; all of them have emphasized on this aspect of strategic superiority differentiator in future industry. The technology vision document of Accenture (2016) has forecasted some key paradigm shifts in this front. According to the report, the traditional practices such as silo work generally aligned by business function (engineering, sales, marketing, design etc.), focus on ad-hoc training as needed for a particular tool or technology, fragmented workforce management tools, practice of innovation by 'non-official groups' and low level of collaboration are being growingly replaced with some developments such as data based organizational management using predictive analysis and end to end HR suites, development of project oriented working groups emphasizing on collaboration, agility and skill sharing; increased expansion of workforce to external talent including both formal contractors and crowd platforms, continuous training as a core organizational competency and growing empowerment of the workforce to innovate. Once we look at GE, another company renowned for its landmark innovative culture, agility and passion for reinvention; has committed itself to change the culture from a conventional Global 2000 mindset to behave like a start-up. Through the new approach called Fastworks, GE is embedding lean startup practices into the workforce. This approach has emphasized on pushing the workforce to change faster and make smarter decisions, while staying close to customers. It's doing away with rigid approval processes to instead allow employees to make rapid changes to their projects or quickly switch direction. GE is just one example of a wider change in how companies should work today.

However, before digging deeper into how companies are shifting to a liquid workforce, it is important to understand the reasons of change in their workforce practices. Right now, core characteristics of the labour market are changing - driven in large part by technology. Digital technology has fundamentally changed every aspect of the business : strategies, processes, job functions and even business models as we can see in the observations of the global business leaders. The workforce needs not only to adapt to meet evolving demands, but also to develop the skill sets to achieve their new goals. For example, sales people now must understand the data and analytics tools that businesses use to drive growth. As a result, many enterprises are experiencing a skills gap. A recent survey (e.g., Talent Shortage Survey, 2015) by Manpower Group has reported that 38% of the businesses globally are struggling to find the right talent. Another article titled 'HR Moves toward Wider Use of Predictive Analytics', published by Society for Human Resource Management on October 6, 2014 has highlighted this emerging phenomenon in a much comprehensive way. The article has shown four major developments impacting the workforce phenomenon in general and the rise of liquid workforce in specific. These are automation (which is taking over more routine and manual tasks), rising of freelancing (growing tendency to work independently), pace of innovation (new technology is constantly emerging and face of adoption has become faster than before) and emergence of a new generation (millennials becoming largest share of population). The article further attempted to relate this phenomenon to different emerging opportunities and those in turn have been playing significant roles for promoting liquid workforce for effective response of digital demands. According to them, automation has created the opportunity of worker redistribution, whereas skill economy has fast become a reality due to rise of freelancing. The article has further identified continuous training and development of digital natives as the significant opportunities caused by the pace of innovation and emergence of millennials as the largest part of workforce, respectively. There are several examples found in automation, hospitality, software, project management and other major industries found. To conclude it can be commented that the liquid workforce is rapidly becoming the new normal for how business organize themselves. Traditional methods will no longer be able to meet the challenges of the pace of the digital age. Forward thinking businesses are already beginning to learn to develop new age workforce strategy as a competitive advantage. The term 'liquid workforce' which is coined by IBM long back, has already emerged as a strategic response to digital economy. Future will make us learn many more dynamics in these ever evolving strategic emergences.