Sarah Green: Welcome to the Harvard Business Review IdeaCast. I'm Sarah Green. I'm here today with David Smith Accenture. He is the co-author Workforce of One: Revolutionizing Talent Management Through Customization. David, thanks so much for joining us today.
David Smith: Great to be here today. Thank you.
Sarah Green: So in the book you talk about four paths to workforce of one. And we'll get to those in a minute. But first I wanted to ask you what is a workforce of one? And why do you think it's something that companies need?
David Smith: Well when we think of workforce of one, we're looking to the future. And we're looking to the future of where talent and workforces are going. And when we peer into the future and see what's going on with workforces today, we see organizations beginning to customize their practices down to the individual level. It really begins to parallel what goes on as a consumer, right? Employees are consumers today and they have a lot of choices. Well those same choices are transcending into the workplace. So how do employers really come into the workplace and begin to offer customized experiences to their employees? Much like the experienced back on the consumer side.
Sarah Green: So let's talk a little bit maybe about some of these four different paths to this end result. What is the first one? And maybe what are some of the benefits associated with this particular path?
David Smith: Well in the book we do explore four approaches to workforce of one. The first is segmentation. And doing employees' segmentation. When we think about segmentation, a lot of organizations have started on this path really trying to put their employees into workgroups. Like workgroups. Very traditional techniques go after employees the work in certain business units. Very traditional techniques today begin to look at issues like diversity and putting them into diverse workgroups.
As we look to the future we see new approaches to segmentation taking hold. Can I segment on wellness and employee wellness factors of our employees? And then offer to that segment unique experiences that are relevant to them only. So segmentation is really beginning to take hold. And I think more importantly, the advances in how you look at segmenting their workforce is the first approach.
Sarah Green: Ok, so that's option one. Option two, you talk about offering modular choices. What kind of companies succeed with that approach?
David Smith: Well we think it's a universal adoption of a modular choice. And we're going to see more and more of this begin to take hold. Big companies, small companies, those that work in the retail space. At the end of the day, offering choices to the employees has broad effects back on engagement, on productivity, on the overall experience for the employee. So offering choices – pre- defined choices—within some rules that the organization can put in place so that they can manage their cost profile, but also create more choice back into their experiences for their employees.
Sarah Green: So modular, you sort of mean a mix and match approach?
David Smith: A mix and match. So that certain segments, as you begin to think about can I combine these two. As I think about segments that want different choices. You know a great example of different generations in the workplace. How do I offer different choices to different generations in the workplace? Because people have different learning styles, as an example. So we see a lot of this beginning to adopt in organizations is a broad way.
Sarah Green: Ok, well let's move on to option number three. Which is broad and simple rules. That sounds pretty appealing to me actually, broad and simple. What do you mean by that?
David Smith: Well in the book we use the analogy of guardrails. And what we think's happened in many organizations, and particularly large organizations, is they've created so many rules, they've constrain their workforce, they've constrained innovation, they've consteained productivity. And the real question is, can we change the lens on that? As we look at new growth opportunities or new market segments that organizations are going after. How can I begin to unleash the power of innovation? And not put so many pre-defined rules, but create broad and simple rules, so that organizations and people can think about outcomes, as opposed to strictly following the rules of how to get a job done. So broad and simple rules is becoming both in large organizations, a transformation, as well as in small organizations, as a way not to constrain the workforce in too many ways.
Sarah Green: So finally you talk about fourth approach. Which you call fostering employee defined personalization. On the one hand, it sounds like that's sort of the most customized approach. But potentially also the one that might give the HR folks the most headaches.
David Smith: Well it is a shift in the way organizations need to think. Because what you're doing, again using the same analogy back in the consumer space, you're putting power into the hands of the employee. You're letting them make choices. You're letting them create the best experience for themselves, within some pre-defined options, and rules, et cetera. But you're putting the power into the user, into the employee. That same parallel goes on and how they choose products and services today. Can that same analogy be used inside the enterprise? But it does cause some organizations to be a little bit concerned. And it's a mindset shift that organizations need to have as they think about employee defined personalization.
Sarah Green: So how should organization go about sort of prioritizing which of these approaches they might want to use?
David Smith: Well we look at a number of factors. There's a lot of factors that organizations need to think about. We know that all organizations probably won't adopt all approaches that we defined. And it comes down to a maturity standpoint. Where are you on the maturity of your culture? Where are you on the maturity of your thinking about putting in broad and simple rules, or employee defined personalization, versus having a lot of control? How disparate is your organization? Do I have to have more control because it's very disparate? Or are they co-located and I need to have less control because I can deal with it?
So there's a lot of factors that we explore in the book. We talk about fairness factors as well, is another one that organizations try to think about. And again, it comes back to the mindset shift that HR organizations need to have in fairness, right? Fairness actually, as you begin to provide choices and customize choices to employees, actually could be more fair than one set of rules and one set of approaches for your employees.
Sarah Green: Well let's talk a little bit more about fairness. Because that sounds like something that has some subtle nuances. When you talk about fairness, do you mean being fair to all the employees? Or do you mean the employees being fair to the organization, as part of the commercial exchange between work and benefits?
David Smith: Yeah, well the whole concept in workforce of One is about creating the win-win relationship between the employee and employer. So when it comes to fairness, it's actually fairness on both standpoints. It's the employee feels that the options presented to them are fair to them, relevant to their generation, role in the organization, et cetera. And it's fair back to the enterprise. Because I put some controls in place, but I've also created some options so that you can personalize the experience that's relevant for you. So the fairness factor actually is for both sides. And again, what we're trying to do, and why we think this concept is so powerful, is we're seeing this win-win for the employer, as well as the employee.
Sarah Green: So what do you think is, in your experience, the biggest challenges to implementing any of these sort of reforms?
David Smith: Well one of the biggest challenges is where the organization is on the maturity curve. The maturity curve of their human capital organization. Do they really have a good experience base? Do they really have a good experience base? Do they have a good infrastructure to manage personalized talent management? And that becomes a very big factor. It becomes part of the journey that organizations need to take. They really need to have a good HR infrastructure employee database, so that they then can begin to do some segmentation. And begin to get inside on their employee base. So it really is where you are on the journey, sets the stage for your starting point of adopting these approaches.
Sarah Green: Ok, I'd like to ask if there is an organization that's actually had a particularly successful journey? That you could maybe share that story with us.
David Smith: Well in the book we look at a number of pioneers. One that comes to mind is Best Buy. And Best Buy's story is a great story. Because as they've really grown from being a retailer -- an electronics retailer -- to being a full service technology organization, right? With the advent of a Geek Squad. Geek Squad is a whole different workforce, rather than their retail associates. So how do they create something different for Geek Squad that's relevant in attracting high technology skills to service your computer, or your home installation, versus the retail experience that that they had in their stores? And then how do I segregate what I'm doing at central office in Minneapolis, different from those two workforces? So they've been a pioneer in how they're thinking about it, and how they're applying different approaches to different workforces.
Sarah Green: Well, Dave, thanks so much for talking with us today.
David Smith: Great, thank you.
Sarah Green: That was David Smith. And the book is Workforce of One. For more, go to hbr.org.