Excelling in a Liberalized World of Work

Genesis

Before the dawn of civilization (the Industrial Revolution), our ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers. They roamed vast expanses of the wilderness, their days consumed by the pursuit of sustenance. From the crack of dawn until dusk, they hunted, fished, and gathered, relying on their daily efforts to survive. Work was communal, and each member of the tribe played a crucial role in the group’s survival.

But, as time marched on and humanity started to understand agriculture, the landscape of work changed. The advent of the Agricultural Revolution meant that people traded their nomadic lifestyles for the stability of settled communities and the cultivation of land. Farming became the cornerstone of society, and the ownership of farmland brought with it a new form of wealth and power.

Fast forward to the Industrial Revolution. The discovery of coal and its mass extraction, as well as the development of the steam engine and metal forging, completely changed the way goods were produced and exchanged. Other inventions, such as spinning machines and looms (to make fabrics), were also making their appearances. Canal transportation began replacing wagon and mules for moving around these goods. Factories sprang up as the mechanization of production processes revolutionized industry. However, all these developments also brought with them new challenges.

In the early days of the Industrial Revolution, employment opportunities were scarce. So, those fortunate enough to find work often toiled away in factories, under gruelling conditions (and expectedly so!). Lifelong employment was the norm, with workers dedicating their entire careers to a single employer. Pensions and gratuities provided a semblance of security in old age, even though they also shackled workers to their jobs, afraid to stray from the safety of the familiar.The notion of entrepreneurship seemed like a distant dream, reserved only for the privileged. 

In addition, within the confines of the factory walls, rigid roles, rules and expectations reigned supreme. Workers were expected to adhere to strict rules and regulations, their every move regulated, monitored and scrutinized by watchful eyes. Also, violations are met with consequences, which sometimes are grievous. 

New Reality

As the wheels of progress continued to turn, the world of work has also been evolving. Moving from the first, to the second, to the third and now, we are well over a decade into the fourth industrial revolution. And with the advancements in Information Technology and the rise of the internet, a new era dawned—one defined by flexibility, autonomy, and the democratization of opportunities. Gone were the days when owning land was a prerequisite for entrepreneurship or the promotion of business ideas. Technology has become the great leveller.

Thus, this widespread adoption and application of digital technologies, particularly the internet and mobile devices, became the springboard for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The increasing number and variety of platforms, connections and access to information facilitated the rapid dissemination of knowledge and the development of new technologies and business models.

Therefore, in today’s digital age, the traditional definition, boundaries and rule of engagement of world-of- work have been shattered. In its place now exists a new workplace, where nothing seems to be certain or generally acceptable or even accepted. A world where work is no longer about ‘where’, but about ‘what’. Where work is not necessarily about ‘how’ but about ‘outcomes’ (results). Where skills, competencies and impact have overtaken compliance with rules and regulations.

In this new, emerging world of work, an individual can be living in one corner of the world and working for a company on the other end of the globe, with colleagues scattered across all the continents of the world. And this worker, while at work, can be found in divers ‘office locations’ such as the beachfront, airport terminals, even right in the sky!. And all this while, ‘work’ still gets done – meetings are held, tasks are engaged, deliverables are turned in and no one misses a beat. Amazing!

It is therefore apparent that, the once rigid structures and instructions of the old world-of-work can no longer fly, in this very dynamic and fluid labour market. Talent and impact now rule supreme. Anyone with anything of value has a good chance of reaching target audiences at almost zero cost. Hence, individuals are free to take a bet on themselves and their passions, with very minimal risk of catastrophe.

World of Work : Then Vs Now
 Pre-Liberalized WorldLiberalized World
1Hierarchical Structures:Organizations were characterized by hierarchical structures, with clear lines of authority and rigid job roles.Flatter Organizational Structures: Organizational Structures are now flatter and more agile, with decentralized decision-making and greater flexibility.
2Lifelong Employment: Employees typically stayed with the same employer for their entire careers, with job security being prioritized over individual career growth.Job Mobility: Employees are more likely to change jobs and careers multiple times throughout their lives, prioritizing personal growth and fulfilment over long-term stability.
3Limited Innovation: Innovation was often stifled by rigid processes and bureaucratic red tape, with little room for experimentation or risk-taking.Boundaryless Innovation: Innovation is encouraged and rewarded, with organizations embracing experimentation, creativity, and adaptability, as key drivers of success.
4Top-Down Decision-Making: Decision-making was centralized at the top of the hierarchy, with little input from lower-level employees.Bottom-Up Collaboration: Decision-making is increasingly decentralized, with greater emphasis placed on collaboration and input from all levels of the organization.
5Emphasis on Conformity: There was a strong emphasis on conformity and adherence to established norms and practices, with little tolerance for deviation.Celebration of Diversity: There is a growing recognition of the value of diversity and inclusion, with organizations actively seeking out diverse perspectives and experiences.
6Localized – Globalization was limited, with organizations primarily operating within national or regional boundariesGlobalized– It is now a global village, facilitated by digital connectivity and global supply chains
7Controlled Learning – Learning and development opportunities were often limited to formal training programs or educational qualifications, usually based on hierarchy, with little emphasis on continuous learning or skill development.Learning Proliferation – Learning opportunities are now available at finger-tips: literally. Learning opportunities are just a button away. Online learning platforms, micro-credentialing, and on-the-job training programs are now the order of the day. And with everything powered by technology, staying in step is no longer optional. The walls are down on learning. 
8Work-life separation– Work was work, life was life (for the most part). In fact, work means a place and time. Hence the struggle for balance was largely irrelevant (for the most part)Work-Life Battle – With the meaning of work now very different from what it used to be, finding life in the middle of work has become a big battle. Work is wherever we do it – on the plane, on the beach, on the road, on the sofa – wherever. 
9Static Regulatory Environment– Changes were few and far between, largely due to the relatively slow pace of development and growth. Regulatory catch up was not a common featureFluid Regulatory Environment– With changes and improvement happening at the speed of light, Regulators are almost always having to play catch up. So, it’s a struggle between fostering innovation and protecting the market players. 
10Employee Adaptation – Organizations set the rules, demand compliance and eliminate deviants.Organizational Adaptation – Organizations now need adapt to the market, in order to accommodate talents and respond effectively to market forces. 

So, in such a liberalized and ‘free-for-all’ world, should anyone still care about the much touted ‘acceptable behaviours and practices’ or are they now relics of the past, fit only for the museum? If the new world-of-work is all about talent and impact, why should anyone care about things like discipline, diligence, integrity, respect, moderation, respect for time and the rest? Are they still of any relevance in this age and time? 

Talent may get you started, but only these age-long, time-proven, life-skills can guarantee yoursuccess – I mean sustainable success, that mirrors your potential. So, while it may seem like anything goes in this free-for-all society, the reality is actually far more nuanced than that. Yes, there is a market for everything – warts and all. Still, only those who imbibe, apply and adhere to these positive values and ethics truly stand out from the crowd, sustainably.

Let’s do a quick scenario play

Imagine two similarly gifted individuals trying to acquire customers from the same space (think of your typical freelancers – Tailor, Cook, Photographer, Data Analyst, Programmer, etc). But then,

1. Promoter A is courteous, respectful and engages with you like you matter. Promoter B does not 

2. Promoter A is very diligent with time – committed to appointments, will follow up to confirm appointments, show up 5-10 minutes before every appointment and proactively notifies you when plan changes. But Promoter B does not 

3. Promoter A takes promises seriously. He is keen to confirm agreements during meetings and takes great pains to ensure that meanings are common between both of you…..and subsequently spares no effort in delivering on his/her promises. And where s/he is unable to fulfil those commitments, proactively notifies you and is always willing to find a work around. But for promoter B, everything is in the air and you have to chase around before anything can be done as agreed

Let’s stop at these 3 scenarios. 

IF you were to choose who to work with, please, who would you choose? 

For Gen-Zs and Gen-As looking for a good compass for navigating this seemingly boundless, no-rule, liberalized world-of-work, please, slow down and check this out. My message to you is this – IF you add timeless life-hacks like collaboration, discipline, integrity, professionalism, accountability, respect for law and order etc, to your game, they will stand you out, deliver success and make you last.

While it may seem like everyone else has thrown these principles and standards to the bin….and are seemingly doing OK, my advice is that you, please, stop and take a second look. Are they really doing OK? Even for you, when you compare you results with your capacity….are you really OK? Is this the best you can be? Are you actualizing your full potential? Do you, really, just want to be like others or you want to get maximum value possible? On the flip side, what do you lose by adding these hacks to your stack? Because, results around us suggests that those who choose to live by these principles, not only safeguard their results today, they build solid reputations for themselves, which ultimately deliver long-term success and fulfilment.

Conclusion

So, although it is now a world of shortcuts and quick fixes, a world of ‘I can do my own thingmy own way’, let us all remember that collaboration, diligence, professionalism, integrity, excellence, discipline – and other life-skills – are the currency of success. Though these standards and practices may seem outdated and old-fashioned in this age of ‘I am free to go my own way’, they remain even more relevant, because they not only make you standout, they deliver sustained greatness.

And if you doubt it, just look around and check out the great and enduring institutions around us, including institutions established over the last ten to twenty years. You will, at their core, find these time-worn values. Do not get me wrong, there may be a few outliers, who seem to flout these rules and achieve some form of success, yet they are very few and far between, and we wait to see how long they will last. In the long run, only institutions and individuals that live by and uphold these timeless principles truly leave their mark on the world. Today is a good day to start!

tmak| April 2024

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