This week I have the privilege of attending day one of the Creative Innovation Global conference here in Melbourne. 

The highlight of day one was a conversation about Creating Exponential Organisations with Dr Martin Ford (the author of Rise of the Robots), Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro, Ramez Naam of Singularity University, Dr Daniel Kraft, Dr Abigail Allwood, Professor Tany Monro, and Scott Anthony.  The conversation focused primarily on automation – robotics and Artificial Intelligence – but had some key, and at times counter-intuitive, lessons for those of us facing automation in our industries.

Allow your workforce to cross functional silos

Tanya Monro is the Deputy Vice Chancellor of Research and Innovation at the University of South Australia. Professor Monro talked about the need to allow individuals in organisations to cross functional silos to unlock innovative capacity.  What’s interesting about Professor Monro’s observation is the wording – not about eliminating functional silos, but simply giving members of the workforce the ability to cross them.  In 1992, evolutionary anthropologist Robin Dunbar published research on what has subsequently come to be known as Dunbar’s Number – a cognitive limit on the size any social group can reach before it becomes fragmented.  Dunbar’s number suggests that once your organisation approaches 150 people, it’s inevitable that some silos will emerge.

It’s fascinating how many times we introduce Strategic Workforce Planning to organisations and people say that they would like to see no silos in their organisations.  What we’ve found over years is that attempts to remove silos are often futile.  However, you can silo the organisation consciously - establishing more silos, but cross-functional ones – the functional ones emerge organically.  Although siloing has some negative consequences for organisations – distrust, duplication of effort, and a lack of a holistic view of the organisation amongst them, we can’t stop silos from emerging.  In fact, strong functional silos can be important to efficient operations.  What we can do, however, is to introduce workforce initiatives that limit siloing’s negative impacts on the organisation and its clients.  It tends to be the case that silos emerge for operational requirements, but to stay relevant and leverage opportunities in organisations, a cross-functional approach is required.

Uber yourself before you get Kodaked

Another key observation made from the panel was that “you need to Uber yourself before you get Kodaked” – the key insight here was that although Uber did not invent geomapping, mobile devices, location services, an arms-length workforce, or the taxi business model, they combined and converged these concepts in a unique way and built the network of both customers and drivers to support their operations.  Sustainable organisations today are not only efficient and effective.  Kodak was both, but this didn’t stop them filing for Chapter 11.  However, sustainable organisations are also able to take advantage of the opportunities constantly emerging outside their organisations, often identified through effective Environment Scanning and Scenario Planning.

Financial Motivation isn’t the only Motivation

One final observation from the panel today that’s worth calling out here comes from Abigail Allwood, Australian Scientist and the first female principal investigator on a Mars mission.  Dr Allwood said that the motivation to pursue a career in STEM is not primarily financial, but instead about the challenge and reward of doing work that matters.  One could argue that this observation is relevant to all work, not only that within the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths) areas.

Key Questions to Consider

Three key questions to consider from the session are:

1.     How can you introduce cross-functional collaboration in your workforce to augment operational effectiveness with identifying and leveraging strategic opportunities?;

2.     What opportunities lie outside your organisation that can be converged to better execute your vision and mission?; and

3.     Given pay is only one motivation to work in any career, how good is your organisation at challenging your workforce with rewarding work?

I'd like to thank the team at DLPA for introducing me to this great event, which they are sponsors