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Q: Who loses when we choose industrial age over business agility?

Q: Who loses when we choose industrial age over business agility?
Women offer greater business agility

A: Women, older workers, everyone else…and your business.

The industrial age was not about business agility, but about production. It followed a linear model from raw materials, through manufacture or service creation to the customer. For the worker, their daily routine is departmental, tightly controlled, repetitive, timed and location specific. Each part of the process is prepared to move it to the next part. Other than time- and cost-saving, there is little need for innovation or cross-organisational engagement.

In the digital economy, we have an opportunity to move away from this linear model. The increase in knowledge work (although these changes can still apply to some aspects of manufacturing), the advancement of technology and developing attitudes to work, give us the chance to change the way we work and to create business agility.

Departments and job roles blur and adapt with different tasks. Innovation and cross function engagement is the norm and everyone is engaged with the customer. The results are measured on outcomes not input and the work can often be done remotely.

However, many businesses are still mired in the industrial age model. This is bad news for us all and the way we would like to work, but it affects some more than others.

Women at work

Women started working in large numbers during the two world wars. Since then we have grown into a consumer-led society, constantly driving up the cost of living, where women often need to work more because fewer families can survive on one income. Even when there is no need though, many women want to work and develop and challenge themselves.

Whatever the reason, the obstacles are still the same because the world of work is still stacked against them. Unequal pay, glass ceilings, childcare issues, are just some of the problems, as this Observer article discusses.

In the digital age, many companies are realising that women offer huge opportunities for business agility. Agile working practices take advantage of many different work patterns and style. So, workers are part time, on zero hours contracts (which give flexibility to both parties and can work, although they are open to abuse), self-employed, office- or home-based or mobile. Work is distributed to particular skill sets rather than pre-determined departments, with teams created specifically for that project and changed for the next.

This should be a huge boon for women (though patently it also helps fathers), allowing them to work round family life and other commitments while still using and honing their skills. Businesses need to take advantage of the knowledge and skills offered by women to enhance their organisational intelligence, agility, competitiveness and benefit the economy as a whole. But, it is not going to happen unless we move away from a long-expired working model.

Additionally, when work results are measured by output not input, the value of that work is far more obvious; the value is intrinsic and not altered by gender or, indeed, any other form of discrimination. This should lead to much fairer rewards.

Older workers

The story is very similar with the ageing workforce, and this is particularly pertinent to me because I am in the bracket described by the DWP as older workers, i.e. 50-69. A sobering thought.

Again, the industrial age model is not helpful, as it was often about physical work, for which there is a limited life-span. In our current economy, however, reliance on knowledge work and less need for physical labour, extends the value and useful life of an individual. Combine this with the demographics of an older population, longevity and a projected future shortfall in employees compared to the number of jobs needed and we would be fools to ignore the older worker. That’s me, by the way, in case you forgot!

Older workers bring many advantages, like confidence, maturity, knowledge and experience. They (we) need less training and supervision and are still capable of creativity you know. And they can help bring the young guns up to scratch.

Everyone else

It stands to reason that much of what is being described above is true for all employees. We all want more engagement, choice and control over how we work. It may just be about flexible hours, to help with family commitments, but it could be about working where you are most productive or changing environments depending on the task. Technology can help with this, of course, but so can the attitude of employers. Once we are measuring success on the work done rather than the time spent doing it or the place in which it was done, we create a whole new model of working which benefits from the freedom offered.

Business Agility

I have talked much about the benefits of this approach, but it is worth reiterating. Business agility, according to the Agile Future Forum, offers adaptability so that businesses can better match resources to demand, greater productivity and quality of output as well as attracting and retaining better quality staff.

Add to this potential savings in real estate costs, commuting costs and stress, and a positive impact on congestion and the environment. Combined, this represents a strong business case for adopting agile working practices. As is evident, it is not just women and the older workers that lose out from our attachment to outdated working practices.