Future of Work — Brynne Kennedy, CEO Topia

Systems Leadership — May 15, 2018

Our discussion with Brynne Kennedy was unexpectedly rich and veered in unanticipated directions. Kennedy’s company, Topia, provides software and services that allow companies and individuals to more seamlessly manage relocation assignments by ensuring that many of the headaches associated with a location change are handled easily and efficiently. Kennedy came up with the idea after having lived through an international move and her observations regarding the changing nature of work.

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges confronting Systems Leaders is preparing one’s organization for how work will take shape over the next several decades. With an increasingly mobile global workforce, and new technologies that will shape what functions expand and which ones will disappear, managing the human capital aspect of an organization is going to grow in both importance and complexity for Systems Leaders.

The Changing Global Workforce

Much has been written about the changing nature of work due to recent advancements in technology such as robotics, artificial intelligence and increased computing capabilities. Whereas careers were once defined by workers staying with companies for extended periods of time, and individuals thus developed deep domain knowledge in an industry, the current and future of work has been described as being more flexible — at one extreme exemplified by the “gig economy,” where employees can be seen as disposable and used as contract labor to be jettisoned when a company desires to do so.

At the same time, others have argued that the fluid nature of employment will be a boon to workers — individuals will be able to design “portfolio careers” that enable flexibility and the ability to focus on those areas where they excel and enjoy the nature of their work.[1]

More realistically, the future of work will be unevenly distributed, where the increased flexibility of a global workforce, using tools of ubiquitous connectivity and communication, will allow some job functions to grow in value while others will be completely wiped out.

In the context of the digital industrial transformation, the future of work is shaped by technologies that impact different functions in the organization. A Systems Leader must be prepared to understand a variety of considerations:

Differing technologies will impact separate functions unequally. It is critical that workers are aware of how technology will change the value of their position based upon functional expertise and how roles will deliver increased or decreased value for a company’s customers.

One aspect that Kennedy stressed was the need to develop empathy with people at all levels of an organization — to understand how they work and how they are impacted by the changing nature of work. While Topia is often selling into the human resources part of a company, even if their software and services are making things better for employees, Kennedy highlighted that resistance to their offering is sometimes natural, as most people do not like change.

More broadly, Systems Leaders need to navigate through these challenges while considering the broader implications across an organization. Many leaders will be running functions that will need both to sell into the leadership levels of their customers, but also at the same time they will need to interact with individuals who will be negatively impacted by changes in technology.

Systems Leaders need to make sure that employees at different levels of a customer’s organization (or even their own) do not see these inevitable technological changes as a bad thing. Both the Systems Leaders and those impacted need realistically to understand that with increases in productivity which come with new technologies, there will also be challenges and resistance from those who will be negatively impacted by a rise in automation, connectivity and increased digitization.

When Elephants Dance

One thing Kennedy stressed was that many of her most innovative customers are the largest organizations into whom Topia sells. These companies, due to their many years of operating experience, understand the importance of their human capital and want to use the latest tools that can allow them to create better experiences for their employees. In addition, these large companies often have the most complex workforce situations as they are global in nature and need to be able to function in different geographies while being aware of divergent labor laws, tax laws and other challenges of managing a global workforce.

Kennedy discussed how Topia’s initial point solution also has the potential to evolve into a platform over time — as the company sees best practices on how personnel move across markets and geographies, the data they gather could eventually lead to predictive behaviors of companies or even individuals. In essence, Topia may have the opportunity to help their customers solve tasks such as moving and taxation today to workforce planning in the future.

Given these changes in the working world, Systems Leaders must have a point of view and perspective on the future of work — they need to understand that enabling flexible hours and workspaces will not, in and of themselves, address the challenges that many in the workforce will face. In order to be successful over the long-term, Systems Leaders will need to ensure the following for the long-term success of their companies and their customers:

1) Study How People Work — As work behaviors evolve due to the introduction of new technologies, movements in the market, and socioeconomic transformations, it is necessary for Systems Leaders to have a first-hand understanding of the operating rhythms of both companies and individuals so that these leaders can deliver products and services that fit into evolving workflows. Too often assumptions are made about how others conduct their everyday activities, which leads to the delivery of goods and services that cannot fit seamlessly into a customer’s organization. Systems Leaders must make the time to go directly into customer’s companies to understand the ways in which the daily heartbeat of the company drives the actions of those who purchase a company’s products and services.

This knowledge of customer work behaviors should lead to two valuable tools for the systems leader: 1) Empathy and understanding for those to whom one sells, and 2) The ability to think about the “art of the possible” on how to improve a customer’s tools and tasks.

2) Deliver the Positive While Being Aware of the Impact — Systems Leaders have the goal of selling increased growth and productivity at the most senior levels of an organization. Yet, they must also have high levels of empathy for those who might be negatively impacted by these changes. Some of the resistance to globalization in recent years has come from the lack of planning upfront by those who have been responsible for delivering increased digitization via new technologies and the transfer of work to more cost-effective locations on a global basis. Without enrolling those impacted by these changes into understanding what changes are coming and by not laying out new opportunities that come via this change (i.e. training for new roles), the pace and quality of these improvements will increasingly be hampered by those who will logically resist these changes — by behaving rationally in order to protect their interests.

3) Build a Bridge for Others — Systems Leaders need to think about the ongoing retraining of personnel both at their customers’ organizations and also in their own. While new technologies often eliminate one level of labor activities, historically they have also brought about new sources of work which created opportunities for long-term employment and additional sources of economic growth. Systems Leaders need to be at the forefront of ensuring that new opportunities are available to those who are negatively impacted by the tide of technological advancement.

4) Become an Expert in the Change — Systems Leaders need to be fully versed in new digital technologies to truly understand the implications and possibilities enabled by the newest digital and physical solutions. In particular, Systems Leaders from industrial firms need to become fluent in the capabilities and implementations of new products in order to understand how these new tools will be used by their customers. Being reliant on others (e.g. subordinates) in an organization to be an expert on the latest technologies and by only having a superficial understanding of new digital tools and ways of doing business will make it impossible for Systems Leaders to internalize the implications that digitization will bring to a global workforce.

In short, Systems Leaders need to be at the forefront of understanding the changing nature of work as brought about by the role of digitization. This requires those leaders with industrial histories to become competent in the nature of emerging technologies that now combine digital and physical attributes. At the same time those who come from digital backgrounds must deeply understand how new products and services affect various business functions across industries.

And both of these types of Systems Leaders need to be able to discuss openly the challenges and opportunities that arise from these changes. The managerial skills required to navigate through the human implications of these changes might be the most complicated and challenging part of the digital industrial transformation for a Systems Leader.

[1] Greenspan, Michael. https://hbr.org/2017/05/how-to-launch-a-successful-portfolio-career (March 4, 2017).

Systems Leadership

A course at the Stanford Graduate School of Business taught by former Chairman and CEO of GE Jeff Immelt (@JeffImmelt) and Stanford Lecturer and XSeed Partner Robert Siegel (@robsiegel)

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Robert Siegel

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Lecturer @StanfordGSB, Seed-stage VC @XSeedCapital, @Cal undergrad, hockey/soccer fan, husband and father

Systems Leadership

A course at the Stanford Graduate School of Business taught by former Chairman and CEO of GE Jeff Immelt (@JeffImmelt) and Stanford Lecturer and XSeed Partner Robert Siegel (@robsiegel)