What Does The Future Of Work And A Whirling Dervish Have In Common?

Fred Isbell

Winston Churchill once described the former Soviet Union as “an enigma wrapped in a mystery wrapped in a riddle.” And often, I say the same about the high-tech, software, services, and solutions business. I do see our business as having multiple layers – a cross between an onion and a seven-layer Mexican bean dip at a Super Bowl party. We deal with unprecedented change, wide-scale transformation across geographical regions, and unprecedented complexity that seems to grow daily. So in the spirit of Churchill, maybe “complexity is wrapped in change wrapped in transformation.” (Okay, it’s not as clever as Churchill’s initial statement, but it’s a start.)

One of these changes is the overall market dialogue. With the rise of the line of business as a peer of IT and lead buyer of new technology and solutions, the industry needs to market by the audience. Most importantly, our conversations should be business-based and timely and based on key trends and the challenges our existing and potential customers are voicing.  Truly “outside in” while leaving our own agenda to the wayside.

The future of work meets the whirling dervish

A couple of years ago, SAP came up with a program to do just this: The Future of Work.  I’ve been privileged to work alongside an awesome group of intelligent colleagues on this effort. It turns out we have a lot to add to the future of work dialogue, such as learning in the cloud, e-learning, and end-user training as catalysts for change management,  to name just a few examples. I was thrilled to host an SAP Service & Support Thought Leadership Webcast last month on “Simplifying the Future of Learning” with some pretty great subject-matter experts. Enter the whirling dervish: My long-time SAP colleague and friend Kerry Brown, vice president of User Adoption for SAP Education.

Wikipedia has multiple definitions for “whirling dervish.” I prefer the description, “a term of endearment for an energetic, bouncy person.” I appreciate really smart people who are constantly thinking and always in motion from a kinetic sense. Kerry is just that: She’s always on the move and has what seems like limitless energy. So when long-time SAP partner Wellesley Information Services (WIS) put together a Future of Work seminar with her as a speaker, I was there!

After its first stop in Las Vegas, this seminar rolled into Boston last week. After attending the opening night reception sponsored by SAP and an awesome spirited speaker’s dinner, I settled in my seat in the front row. I took notes and provided real-time social media ambassador coverage for this event and Kerry’s session. I pride myself on being somewhat able to multitask. I’m better than most men, but still behind what most of my female colleagues do almost effortlessly. Read my Storify virtual trip report and tell me how I did covering Kerry’s session in real time.

Funny, I was struck by a feeling of deja vu — the event at the Boston World Trade Center was in nearly the same location as DECworld 1992 a customer event lasting 2 weeks I staffed as a young marketing manager.

Kerry, the whirling dervish, didn’t disappoint. As I again looked for key “aha” moments,  I took away four key points:

1. The future of work is not just an HR problem.

Every line of business needs to understand its role in the future of work conversation. According to Kerry, an increasingly frequent discussion between CEOs to their CHRO is whether to extend the conversation beyond the CFO, CIO, CMO, and other leaders.

2. User adoption is key.

Kerry highlighted issues around user adoption and a new variation of the “people business and technology” model. Her version shows people collaborating, business models extending their reach with enterprise mobility, and business being done at the speed of digital as in-memory technology provides “now” and real-time capabilities.

I was struck again by deja vu. Digital unveiled Alpha-based 64-bit in-memory computing at DECworld 1992 – literally down the hall from where I was sitting and long before its time. Here, at last, was a compelling business case wrapped in digital transformation wrapped in mobility. Maybe I am getting closer to my Churchill-inspired description after all!

3. The world has become an Internet of Everything

Kerry reviewed some really great research the SAP conducted with the Oxford Economics group that I found quite insightful.  As head of our team’s thought leadership program, we look at statistics and trends to build a case for our topics and focus.  I was again astounded by the sheer massiveness in the use of technology, including:

  • 19 billion texts per day, and probably more by now
  • 500 million tweets per day
  • 5 billion people on Facebook
  • 1 in 5 page views on the Internet driven by Facebook
  • 92% of kids have an online presence on YouTube by age 2 (of course, parents help them to do this, although I imagine a few prodigies out there do this on their tablet while at daycare)

Despite all this, the biggest challenge is not technology – it’s people. Our expectations for the same computing experiences at work as the one when we are buying our Christmas gifts on Amazon is a fundamental force and business driver for simplification. This is what we call at SAP Run Simple.

4. Preparing for the future of work is not just an option – it’s a mandate

Just as I was settling into a rhythm of taking notes and tweeting, Kerry changed it up by covering some great points from a recent study from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.

Companies and organizations with a better-prepared workforce have better overall performance, including:

  • Merit-driven high performers
  • Investments in high performers with clear payoff
  • Competitive compensation, flexible schedules, and benefits at a higher rate than weaker performers
  • High performers who are more concerned that they do not have the right talent and take proactive steps to address the situation
  • An HR function that is a strategic player, with the CHRO actively participating in the boardroom to bring a voice to accountability
  • The ability to plan for shift in talent demographics of the future and take proactive steps to prepare for the “silver tsunami” of baby boomers and the massive demographic bubble they and the “digerati” represent

Achieving the future of work

Companies and organizations must address any and all major gaps in leadership. They will not just go away and automatically fix themselves. To address this, leaders need to build simplification into the business model and develop leaders at all levels of their organization.

The future of work is, in fact, simple when you consider five aspects:

  1. Talent. It’s all about brand engagement at the personal and corporate levels. More engagement equates to more success.
  1. Simplification. When it comes to employee engagement and leadership, business simplification with technology as an enabler is key.
  1. Form over functionality. Let form follow functionality and define how your business really functions. Let that mandate define your organizational view, not the other way around.
  1. Catalyst for change. Ask yourself: How do you need to change your organization? Managing change is all about managing expectations and accountability. It all starts with you, no matter your role and level in the business.
  1. Accountability and growth. Be accountable and focus on growth-focused actions.

And above all, know that change is coming. As I have said for years as a hockey coach, there are three types of people (and hockey players): those who make it happen, those who watch it happen, and those who wonder what just happened. Which one will you be? The future of work is now – the whirling dervish inconclusively proved that for me!

Fred Isbell is the senior marketing director and head of thought leadership Service & Support Marketing at SAP.

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About Fred Isbell

Fred Isbell worked at SAP for nearly 19 years in senior roles in SAP Marketing. He is an experienced, results- and goal-oriented senior marketing executive with broad and extensive experience & expertise in high technology and marketing spanning nearly 30 years. He has a BA from Yale and an MBA from the Duke Fuqua School of Business.