Lynda Gratton: Companies must interact with communities to build resilience

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In order to be resilient to change, companies must innovate and interact with their employees. They cannot ignore the social wealth and knowledge that staff bring to the workplace.

The challenges faced by organisations are complex. They are faced with the implications of climate change, of inequality, and of the gap between their needs and the available pool of talent. These challenges are on a greater and more global scale than ever before, and emerging at an ever faster trajectory. Previously stable companies find themselves on shaky ground and the negative consequences of the problems that surround them are proving difficult to reverse. 

Over the past five years, I have directed the Future of Work Research Consortium, which brings together executives to consider how best to address these challenges. What is clear is that resilience is the key, and companies will be called upon to develop a whole new set of tools and ways of innovating. 

Resilience starts with what happens inside the corporation, with an intellectually challenging, emotionally vibrant and socially connected community of employees. Firms such as Tata Consultancy Services and Unilever are using newly emerging technology
to amplify the ideas and knowledge of employees. They are ensuring that they gather the social wealth that crisscrosses the company and stretches beyond its boundaries. 

Executives also need to think hard about how to design jobs in a way that enhances, rather than denudes, the emotional vitality of their employees. For some, like BT, the wide-scale adoption of flexible working is allowing people to manage their own time in a positive and enhancing way. Others, like Deloitte, are thinking hard about how to break the career hierarchies and introduce a matrix process that allows people to increase or decrease their contribution at different stages of their working life. 

Some corporations are also focusing on building resilience in their supply chains and beyond. This is crucial. Companies do not exist independent of the rest of the world, and their future is reliant on their interaction with the communities in which they are embedded. I saw this at Danone, where people across the company are actively working with farmers in their supply chain to build strong communities. The John Lewis Partnership is doing the same in the UK. 

These are corporations that are facing the challenges of our increasingly fragile world head-on, by recognising their connection with the outside world. They understand that their businesses are profoundly related to the communities in which they work and are able to think differently and comprehensively about the larger environment in which
they operate.

Some, such as Royal Dutch Shell, are using scenario planning to help executives become aware of the forces shaping their lives and businesses. It is this awareness that will enable them to face these forces in a positive way, seeing them as opportunities rather than threats. 

The final piece of the puzzle is leadership: building resilience needs leaders who are prepared to balance long-term needs with short-term financial results. It’s clear that being resilient requires businesses to make choices that are positive for employees, investors and those in the communities they touch. 

Lynda Gratton is professor of management practice at London Business School. This year, she received a lifetime achievement award in the HR Most Influential rankings.

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