Workplace Mobility Transformation

by Jimmy Smith
S-Squared Enterprises USA

The corporate model for how most organizations have managed their workforce is becoming an artifact of the past.

A few months ago, I watched a TV special on organizations that were transforming their management practices and structures. It was interesting to watch and hear the comments from managers and employees. The special focused on certain industries like finance, sales and services, but the topic is much broader.

Our mental models for how we comprehend the world of business matter. They shape how we think and what is possible. However, what many have come to believe as a fundamental core to building successful organizations has been evaporating over the last decade or so. The corporate model for how most organizations have managed their workforce—the vertical corporate ladder—is becoming an artifact as the world and how we work continues to evolve.

A relatively recent book, The Corporate Lattice: Achieving High Performance in the Changing World of Work, was published last year by Deloitte’s Cathy Benko and Molly Anderson. In their book, Benko and Anderson outlined the changing world of work and introduced what they call the corporate lattice, which is becoming the corporate ladder’s successor. While there was no direct tie to the TV special, there are many corollaries.

Unlike the linear corporate ladder of yesterday, the multi-dimensional lattice is more adaptive, and as such, seems to be a better fit with the changing norms, needs and expectations of the modern workplace. The lattice replaces the vertical, one-directional model with one that can be described as a 3-D cube that provides for a “zigzag” or multi-directional career path. The lattice engenders the flow of ideas, development and recognition along horizontal, vertical and diagonal paths, which enable more collaborative and customized ways to structure work, build careers and foster participation.

The workplace certainly isn’t what it used to be, as organizations are flatter, with knowledge and service work becoming more dominant. The current workforce is more diverse—in gender, generation, culture, background and experience—than ever before. In addition, technological advances and economic trends mean that work is increasingly virtual, globally dispersed and team-based.

While technology is a critical enabler, management practices, diversity and culture are equally important. The enlightened (lattice) organizations support rewarding professional experiences, providing a better career-life fit for employees and resulting in greater agility and higher performance. During my career, I had the advantage of working for a company that provided such opportunities, so I’ve had the chance to see this process work effectively.

The concept applies in what Benko and Anderson refer to as the three lattice ways:

  1. To build careers. Keeping pace with the rapid rate of change and the skills needed to succeed requires agility and continual focus on growth and development. Today’s flatter organizations provide fewer options for developing people “up” the ladder to ensure they are capable and ready to replace outgoing staff. Lattice organizations broaden career paths multi-directionally, enhancing employee development opportunities, versatility and strategic flexibility. This helps employees keep their skills relevant in a fast-changing marketplace—a key to job security—and provides expanded career options for a better career-life fit.
  2. To perform work. Work is transforming from a place we go to something we do in a dynamic, increasingly virtual workplace. Although many organizations have yet to figure out how to manage it, technology is enabling new possibilities. Modular job and process designs, globalization, virtualization and team-based project work, among other workplace changes, leverage technologies in multiple innovative ways. The significant benefits of virtual work include greater workforce productivity and retention, shorter cycle times, improved business continuity, and a “greener” environment, which becomes a societal benefit. Individual workers will experience gains with greater flexibility and more choices for how they do their work.
  3. To participate. Unfettered from top-down hierarchy, lattice organizations tend to function as networks. They share information transparently, create communities and provide more collaborative and meaningful options for employees to contribute, regardless of their organizational level. These new ways of fostering participation enable organizations to effectively address the rise of non-routine and project-based work, which requires greater collaboration. Lattice organizations find ways of working across the invisible borders of geography, hierarchy and function.

The shift from the vertical ladder to the lattice is already happening. With the flattening of organizations, opportunities are not as plentiful for people to keep moving upward, so companies are utilizing opportunities for people to move across the organization in expanding roles. While not necessarily being immediately rewarded financially, employees—and not just those viewed as high-potential—are gaining experience, feeling more ownership, becoming more motivated and positioning themselves to move up when the opportunity presents itself.

There are many examples of companies that have transformed or are in the process of transforming their organizations. While not in exactly the same manner and scope, I’ve certainly had firsthand experience at seeing this concept work effectively. Many companies report financial benefits, greater efficiency, improved employee engagement and communications that are more transparent, interactive and productive.

While examples of transformations are prevalent, many are ad hoc and uncoordinated. External technology and demographic trends have prompted changes that have gotten ahead of corporate policies, many of which remain constrained by the outmoded, “corporate ladder” norms and practices. Taking action on the three ways defined above and connecting them to each other will help transform the multitude of incremental, disconnected company activities and investments into a comprehensive and strategic response to the technological, demographic and economic trends changing the workplace. A coordinated response will benefit the organization and its employees by providing greater flexibility, increased communication, a sense of community and opportunities for financial benefits.

There seems to be a clear upside in embracing this transformation and moving beyond the older linear approaches. It’s happening in many industries, in spite of what might be considered resistance. The lattice is certainly one solution to how many careers and people can be developed.

We need to start thinking “zigzag,” not straight up, and organizations need to understand the many benefits to this transformation. It can improve productivity and efficiency and lead to greater innovation. It has the ability to build careers and to develop, retain and engage the appropriate talent.

For employees, it provides the opportunity to build their resumes and broaden their base. Taking side-ways (“zigzag”) positions provides opportunities to learn other parts of the business and opens up doors that may not have been available otherwise. It only makes sense that everyone wins from the transformation. The path to success isn’t always on a straight line. iBi