How Workforce Innovation Makes a Successful Utility

Utilities need an agile workforce — and that has nothing to do with offering yoga classes.

Agility is defined as the ability to move quickly and easily. In today’s  business world, where change is as constant as water flow in a main-      line, that’s a valuable commodity. In fact, it’s a hallmark of successful and resilient utilities.

All of which raises a thought-provoking question: Is your organization agile? If you’re not sure, Steven Hunt has a fairly bulletproof litmus test: Take a good, objective look at your workforce. If employees in your organization are basically doing the same jobs the same way they were doing them five or more years ago, you’re failing the test big-time — and running the risk of losing ground in your marketplace.

“Agility is about constantly learning new things, not just working on autopilot,” says Hunt, an industrial organizational psychologist and the senior vice present of human capital management research at SAP SuccessFactors. “That doesn’t mean always giving people new jobs. It just means that there are always new things to learn … and that companies need to structure jobs so people can learn.”

As an example, Hunt cited Google, which requires employees to spend 20 percent of their time each week on innovation — thinking about new products and ideas. Moreover, that kind of mindset isn’t applicable just for California’s Silicon Valley companies, it’s also a valid approach for water and sewer utilities. “That mindset can apply to any organization,” he explains. “You can’t think of people as static pegs in round holes that stay that way forever. They change over time, and you need to figure out what’s the next best thing this person could be doing.”

The ever-accelerating pace of change in the business world — particularly in regard to digital technology — is making agility an increasingly valuable commodity. While some organizations may feel it’s best to shield employees from change, or at least minimize it, Hunt contends that under the right conditions, employees don’t fear change the way management imagines they do. What they really fear is poorly managed change.

“People are wired for change,” he notes. “Evolutionarily, we’re actually really good at adapting to change. Take vacations, for example. We go on vacations to inject change into our lives; this is change under the right conditions. Change is all about learning and growth. We need to approach it as an opportunity, not a threat. You want a workforce where people get excited about the possibilities brought on by change.”

Adaptability matters

Water and sewer industries need agile employees as much as any other business sectors because they’re just as vulnerable to change. For example, Hunt says it’s easy to imagine that in the future, local municipal water districts could morph into state-run or even regionally run districts because they may not be constrained by the same technologies or market conditions that were in place when those local districts were first formed.

“Like many industries, once you remove those original constraints, things become possible that weren’t possible before,” he says. “And people should welcome this. It’s unhealthy for people to do the same things over and over and over.”

It’s not uncommon for managers in some industries to underestimate their employees’ agility. Too often, management thinks about workforces in the same way that houses are built to certain specifications. But Hunt says it’s better to think of workforces as gardens to be cultivated, not houses to be constructed.

“Too often we think about people and jobs as fixed things,” he points out. “Employees are trained to think they’re supposed to do A, B and C. But it shouldn’t be about the tasks of a job; it should be all about achieving outcomes and thinking about how to get even better outcomes.”

Changing that stultifying mindset can be extremely liberating for employees who are imprisoned by it. Hunt recalls talking to an employee of a manufacturing company that had been working with SAP SuccessFactors, a leader in cloud-based human capital management software, to increase its agility. “He told me how nice it was for employees to be able to use their brains again because for 20 years, they hadn’t been able to do so,” Hunt recalls. “It was so sad and so positive at the same time.”

Get agile

So how does one go about ensuring that their workforce is agile? One important ingredient is transparency, especially when it comes to making employees aware of possible changes in market conditions before they might occur. If they’re aware of potential changes, rather than shielded from them, then they have time to think about innovative solutions, he says.

It also helps if managers get to know their employees at what he calls a “meaningful level,” well beyond knowing just their names and job titles. Instead, managers should be fully attuned to their skills, capabilities and interests — what they might be good at and interested in doing down the road. That way, managers will develop a great feel for which employees are best suited to handle new challenges when changes occur.

Hunt also suggests that managers hold periodic talent-review meetings, where they talk about which employees on their teams are making a positive impact. That, in turn, can lead to more discussions about what other projects or assignments might be best suited for their talents.

“This goes beyond just categorizing people as good performers or high performers,” he explains. “It’s more a discussion of how and why these employees are different and knowing their potential. A lot of companies look at employees merely as fixed things, so they’re afraid of those conversations. But in an agile workforce, managers are comfortable talking about employees this way. It’s just like the way a good coach talks about players in a very candid way.”

Agile companies also promote ongoing engagement with employees — the very people entrusted with executing the company’s strategies. Historically, executives define goals and disseminate them, but mostly ignore them after that. But agile organizations practice what’s known as continuous performance management, where managers check in often with employees to see if they’re on track to achieve the things that really matter — and find out what managers can do to help them get there.

“It’s more about at overall look at how things are going, not a focus on what employees are doing,” Hunt says. “Managers should ask if there are areas where the strategy that was set out isn’t working in the field and what can be done about it. It’s a two-way conversation that promotes ongoing awareness of the company, as opposed to the old command-and-control mindset: Here is what you’re supposed to do and how you are doing it.” These discussions are more fruitful when managers have established the kind of rapport where employees feel comfortable giving constructive feedback to their managers, and vice versa, he adds.

Sharing solutions

Another aspect of agile companies is social learning. And technology — in the form of YouTube and other social-media platforms — can play a large role. In social learning, employees are encouraged to post videos and documents that describe how they solved a particular problem. This can be done on a social-media platform — call it a corporate version of Facebook, Hunt says.

“This approach allows people to learn from peers, which is a really natural way to learn,” he points out. “It’s almost like an apprenticeship. But companies have to be willing to trust their employees and empower them to share their knowledge. Sometimes employees may share the wrong thing, but that’s OK because it can always be corrected. You’d rather have them talking to each other than not talking to each other, so management has to learn how to give up control over employees and trust their expertise.”

These are not new concepts, Hunt emphasizes. But over time and for a variety of reasons, organizations have adopted more of a rigid, control mentality. “It became all about telling employees what to do and how to do it, and keep doing it that way until management tells you to do it differently,” he says. “But that doesn’t work very well in a world that’s changing so fast. You need to help people to start learning before change occurs, not after.”


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