by Sean McCoy (@TheRealMcCoyTRM) A central theme to the discourse at Davos this year was the notion of robotics and their future in the world of work and economics. No surprise, therefore, that at Mining Indaba 2016 in Cape Town, robotics also featured prominently on the agenda. Surprisingly, however, this was not confined to productivity, safety and large-scale automation in pursuit of improved business results, but also to robotic managerial development.

At the risk of taking on sci-fi proportions, there is speculation that North Korea is only a few years away from robot-held board meetings where agendas are shaped and decisions made.

Back to earth

As this discussion takes place and is potentially alarming, in a world that repeatedly cries out for job creation against exponential population expansion, it is interesting that organisations continue to grapple with the concept of talent, culture and purpose as a means of attracting and retaining the best and brightest. In a late 2015 Deloitte Review, Josh Bersin suggests that the balance of power has shifted to the employee, who has substantial bargaining power in an increasingly transparent job market where attracting top-skilled people is a highly competitive activity.

He goes on to argue that organisations need to transcend the thinking around improving employee engagement and make a shift toward building an irresistible organisation. This puts organisational culture at the heart of business strategy in order to create an organisation that is magnetic and attractive, creates a high level of performance and passion, and continuously monitors and addresses problems that need fixing. In a 20-point framework, five central themes emerge in the development of an irresistible organisation — meaningful work, hands-on management, a positive work environment, growth opportunities and trust in leadership. Not brand new concepts, it might be argued, but it is in the implementation of these constructs that success lies, and organisations such as Zappos, Google and have gotten this right.

In essence, employee engagement and the irresistible organisation is no longer human resources strategy — it has become business strategy and is instrumental in building competitive advantage and business performance.

Freedom and responsibility

Netflix, once a retail business that was disrupting Blockbuster and today the world’s largest subscription streaming-video service keeping TV networks on their toes, went in the opposite direction to a robotic stance on people and deployed a revered work culture as part of a strategy that rapidly transformed the business. According to Fast Company, its chief talent officer at the time, Patty McCord, documented its human resource and culture strategy in a 124-page PowerPoint deck that is argued to be “one of the most important documents ever to come out of the Valley”.

What makes its culture particularly interesting is that it places the emphasis upon the employment of ‘fully-formed adults’ — people who have the sensibility and maturity to make the right decisions and implement them in line with an overarching business strategy. The result is a document that demands self-sufficient employees who feel a commitment to the company, embodied simply as a culture of freedom and responsibility. Freedom has gone as far as not having any defined annual leave policy and people being allowed to take off time that they feel appropriate — a fascinating concept but one that has worked. It openly took risks on people to do what they believe was right and to focus on how best to do productive work. And it has paid off.

McCord rejected the notion of highly documented HR models and policies deployed in most large organisations and she simply allowed the PowerPoint deck to dynamically guide purpose, values and behaviours, with the acceptance that, if they tried something and it didn’t work, or turned out to be a stupid idea, they would simply edit the document and move on, learning from it and making changes as they went. I would argue that this highlights the emphasis upon implementation and living out the values, rather than being preoccupied with what most organisations in South Africa lean toward — highly documented and rule-bound policies and procedures, rather than acting upon what is important to the business and its people.

Pondering the future

While we contemplate the future of talent attraction, development and retention, and consider the pros and cons of human talent vs the temptation to totally automate and programme toward fully-fledged robotic solutions, an interesting and light-hearted question arises in the workplace: What will become of diversity and gender dynamics in the robot community? Will they all be the same? An intriguing set of questions to ponder and one that no doubt has the white-coated scientific community hard at work.


Sean McCoyDr Sean McCoy, MD and founding member of HKLM, is a prominent figure in the branding arena, with his expertise centered on client service, brand strategy and business development. He contributes the regular “The Real McCoy” column focusing on internal branding to MarkLives.

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