Talk to Brett Smyth – Agile Working

Brett Smyth is the Founder and ‘Big Chief’ at Engage Me, one of the leading employee communication and engagement experts in the MENA region.

Brett, when you founded Engage Me, the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) had not yet been fully articulated. Have you found that businesses today are more in tune with the future of work, or is talk of transformation something that has always – and will always – be at the front of the corporate mind?
“Adapt or die” has always been a well-entrenched principle of successful organizations. Whilst the need to transform hasn’t altered, the 4IR has brought with it an unprecedented pace of change, and only the most agile of organizations will survive. We’ve had so many clients approach us this year asking us to run internal workshops focused on the 4IR and its implications. Whilst these workshops are a step in the right direction, truthfully, established organizations are inhibited by their size and are at a disadvantage when compared to new, flexible competitors entering the market.

The pace and fluidity of change is forcing business to shed rigid, longer-term systems and strategies in favour of self-adaptive systems. Do you think the organization as a concept may need to become more disposable, more singular in its strategy? Is the desire to stay relevant over long periods misguided?
Whilst companies need to have a long-term vision of what they want to become (this helps to align both the organization and its employees), strategic planning cannot be a once off activity undertaken every few years. It needs to be built into daily operations to ensure companies are responding to market dynamics and new technologies. I don’t think it’s misguided for companies to want to stay relevant over long periods – as long as they are focused on customer needs and not irrelevant or outdated offerings.

Do you see young professionals responding to this new landscape with less commitment – not only to their current employers – but to their career paths?
Absolutely! Careers for life and single career paths are a thing of the past and it is essential for professionals – young and old – to constantly upskill and reskill in order to stay relevant. This might be less true for professions like medicine, law, and engineering but it is still largely applicable, as these specialists need to keep abreast of rapid technology changes in their own fields.

Who will decide the future of a business’s strategy, employees or management?
Strategies should always be customer- or citizen-centric, i.e. dictated by the end user. However, the shaping of strategy is no longer the exclusive domain of leadership. Effective strategies need to be co-created and employee input – especially from those at the customer interface level – is essential. Business models also need to consider meeting more employee demands like flexi-working and remote-working.

Do flatter, more fluid hierarchies naturally promote a more collaborative, less political process?
Yes, agility is the name of the game. Organizations need to focus on removing bureaucracy and internal inefficiencies. This includes shaping smaller, responsive teams and empowering them with the authority to make decisions and get the job done. The 4IR doesn’t allow for empire building. Teams need to be more fluid, and organizations more comfortable working with a network of specialist freelancers who are brought in on a per job and project basis.

Will employees of the future need to master multiple skillsets, or is it ultimately about dressing existing skills in higher levels of techno-literacy?
This is very dependent on the industry. Some jobs will disappear completely in the near term whilst other jobs, especially professional services roles – in medicine, law, or engineering – will remain more consistent. Regardless, techno-literacy will be essential. Even more important is for people to develop their softer skills like collaboration, critical thinking and creativity. These skills are still a long way off from being replaced by machines.

What makes the human touch more valuable to customers than the more precise, less variable outcomes of machines? Is this just a feature of nostalgia, finding comfort in the familiar, or is there something more substantial behind it?
It is an undeniable trend that people are becoming more comfortable using technology to interface with an organization. We’ve all seen this in our own relationships with our banks and the shift of services to online platforms. But when something goes wrong, we all want to speak to someone directly to get the issue resolved. So organizations must offer multi-channel solutions, allowing customers to choose how they wish to interact, although this always needs to be balanced with efficiencies and cost.

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