The 21st Century Organisation

The 21st century is already being epitomised for how differently the world is operating compared to any previous era. The new normal is the so-called VUCA: a business environment that is Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous.

VUCA Origins

This acronym has its origins in the American military as they desperately tried to come to terms with the increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous ways of ‘doing war’ that they encountered in Iraq and Afghanistan. It has since taken on heightened meaning in the business world as a result of the many commercial fiascos that have blown up in the last 5 or 6 years. And it is clear that there is no going back. This new environment where the only constancy is change is here to stay – at least as far as we can tell!

Human capital: the most flexible and agile resource

For any organisation in any sector in the 21st century there is only one true source of competitive advantage or excellence of service: its people. Regardless of sector, organisations are employing more and more highly qualified professionals – people who have far more to offer than the current form of job description or person spec can require. What is more, people offer the greatest form of flexibility and agility needed by organisations who have to seek success in this unknown territory. Even researchers are recognising that there is little to be gained by trying to learn from history. It may even be that the old forms of analysis, forecasting and extrapolation will no longer work. It is only the human capital of an organisation that has the capacity to change both individually and collectively. Everything else requires human intervention to create the change.

Simplification – A metaphor

Imagine that the VUCA environment is the sea – and the organisation is a boat that has not only to survive but also to travel within that sea in order to trade and be successful. It has to be fit for purpose and in this ever-changing environment its crew need to be highly multi-skilled and experienced and yet flexible, willing and able to work selflessly and collegiately in the unknown. It is one huge machine – animate and inanimate – that comes together and operates with a dynamism that masters the waters in whatever state they appear at that particular moment in order to stay on course or, perhaps, determine that a change of course is needed. This requires a shift in developmental emphasis and a very different form of leadership. Captains of industry must be able to charter these waters and know that they cannot determine it alone.

A different perspective on development

Developing, supporting and nurturing the capability and capacity of this human capital has to be paramount. Not only must people be able to use higher levels of knowledge and skills, they, equally importantly, must have higher levels of independence, self-reliance, self-trust, and the capacity to exercise initiative. People have to be seen as of paramount importance and both aspects of their development handled as any other business strategy – with rigour and robustness, timeliness and consistency.

Addressing the 8th waste – from top to bottom, side to side

A person employed in an organisation must have a value to the organisation – otherwise it’s a waste of money. In these stringent times, this is probably true… or is it? Are the right people, in the right place to bring the right results? Let us assume that this is the case. Even so, there are changes to be created.

In order to bring about building agile, responsive organisations that can adapt and reskill “on the fly”, there has to be a change in attitude towards people, and about people and their development. They have to be dealt with differently, attitudinally, and across the board. We are not talking here about people in specific roles, with specific technical skills or in positions of customer interface. It means everyone from top to bottom, and from side to side.

A culture of support and engagement must become the norm; one that engenders independence and resilience – the true essence of a real learning organisation. Executives and managers must learn new skills and ways of being that change attitudes, ways of working, and, in LEAN terminology, reduce the 8th waste – inefficiency in people.

Thinking holistically about change – an example

To see the potential magnitude of the changes, let’s take just one example – the notion of building independence. What does this mean? People who do not constantly look for approbation or permission in what they do; people who have faith in their ability to make good decisions, who are strong enough to fail and pick themselves up and recover, who have self-reliance and yet sufficient humility to ask for help when it is needed.

This is an attitudinal change in itself requiring an investment to create the change as such human changes do not happen by osmosis. And, at the same time, it requires for its success a whole new attitudinal infrastructure. For example it requires:

  • managers who are not risk-averse and can take a light touch at operational level, who know how to keep people with ‘independence’ motivated when the going gets tough, who can draw out even more potential, who are happy for the limelight to go elsewhere in their team.
  • strategists who genuinely believe in the untapped horsepower of their people, who are willing to listen to the innovation that is spawned of independence, who are willing to change and learn a new language of leadership, who are willing to relinquish control, who are willing to walk the talk.

Creating a capability and capacity culture

Regardless of product or service, people really have to be at the heart of any organisation and how it operates. Fundamental to success is the need to recognise that change is an inevitability and the responsibility of everyone, all of the time. The challenge is to create a culture of capability and capacity that empowers the raw and natural horsepower of each and every member of staff from top to bottom, from side to side.

Change of this nature is essential to survival and it cannot be done piecemeal. Nor can it be seen as an ‘extra’, a ‘desirable’, a ‘something we’ll bring up from time to time’. It has to be a vision, a strategy, an operating practice, an integrated part of day-to-day work, a part of truly continuous professional development for every single member of staff.

Stillpoint’s Fit for Change Initiative is designed to deal with the four upholding pillars of creating a capability and capacity culture in a 21st century organisation:

Further reading sources

  1. Immunity to Change, Kegan & Lahey, 2009
  2. People Management – CIPD Journal April 2013 – Live and Learn
  3. Public Sector HR & Training Journals 2012:
    1. Leadership and Authenticity
    2. A New Language of Leadership
    3. Changes of Heart in Leadership
  4. What does a 21st-century organization look like? by Walter McKenzie. View on need for “knowledge ecology” and impact on education.
  5. Understanding the need for a new language of leadership
  6. Need for new designs rather than building on legacy
  7. The 21st Century Organization: What it will look like, and How to make it happen, by Mary Anne Moorman and Kevin B. Kreitman. A 1997 view that still holds good.