4 ways to prepare a workforce for disruption

ONE MINUTE BRIEFING: Leading through change requires a constant focus on learning, says IBM consulting SVP Mark Foster.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 29 Jan 2019

Joseph Schumpeter famously argued that creative destruction – the violent replacement of outmoded businesses, models and practices by superior alternatives – was both necessary and desirable as the foundation of economic growth. He was right, of course, but that’s sparse comfort to the people being creatively destroyed.

Most leaders get transformation wrong precisely because they focus on the disruptive technology, not the people, says Mark Foster, who’s seen and worked in countless change programmes as SVP for IBM’s Global Business Services and before that group CEO of Accenture’s Global Markets and Consulting division.

Here he shares how the best in class prepare their organisations for the future.


1. Hire lifelong learners

"The half-life of skills is getting shorter, so we have a huge imperative to make sure we’re hiring people with a real propensity to learn. It’s about being flexible enough to deal with a fast-moving world.

"I’ve got 125,000 people in my business at IBM, and I hire 5,000 a year, so this is pretty important.  Obviously there are certain skills you want, but more important is the ability and willingness to upskill and reskill as they need to."

2. Don’t write people off

"I know what you’re thinking  - what about the people I’ve already got? It’s unrealistic to imagine that suddenly everyone will become a lifelong learner. We have to accept there will be a multispeed workforce. There will always be people who will find the new world moves too fast, and they’ll need to find new ways to develop their career.

"But there is a lot you can do. I have clients who you’d think would be at the end of their careers, but by engaging with this new work they suddenly get a new lease of life. You’d be surprised - it’s not only millennials who can be flexible."

3. Encourage learning by doing

"There’s a lot to be said about learning by doing. We encourage people to engage with a technology and think about how it could improve the things they’re actually working on. That way they come to see tech as something that they look forward to leveraging, rather than something they fear.

"Training has its part too and there are lots of ways to make this interesting. I’ve been using gamification to train leaders around the world, using a simulated environment that allows them to imagine they’re running their business in a different way and see the implications, all as part of a competition."

4. Lead with purpose

"One of the biggest challenges in this new world is the new leadership style it requires. It means letting go of a lot of things, which for a leader is one of the hardest things.

"It’s not a world of chaotic innovation running wild, it’s actually about purposeful innovation, where the leader sets a very clear north star for people. BP has actually done a lot of work on this recently, allowing a lot of nimbleness within a controlled environment of capital allocation and business case discipline."


For more information

Here are some pointers on how to modernise a company that doesn’t want to change. Panasonic’s European boss describes what the Japanese giant is doing to fight off disruption here, or you can read this quick guide to changing a negative culture.

Image credit: Pixabay/Pexels

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