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Managing the modern workforce requires ambidexterity (and your marketing department can help)

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This week I attended a Strategic Capability Network event entitled “HR of the Future in a Global World”, presented by Luca Solari, a visiting professor of human resource management at California Polytechnic State University.

In his presentation, Professor Solari compared a human resource professional seeking attention from senior management to a teenager seeking attention from his or her parent. According to Professor Solari, the solution in both situations is simple: grow up!

The point that Professor Solari seemed to be making from that comparison is that the human resources profession, generally, is currently experiencing and will continue to undergo many changes in the years ahead. As he explained, some of the most significant changes are being triggered by the new generation of employees entering the workforce (also known as “The ‘I’ Society”), who have a “fast and furious” approach to career development, and who are focused on “individual return-on-investment” and “work-life equilibrium”.

In order to prepare for “The ‘I’ Society”, and in order to continue to add value to their organizations, Professor Solari suggested that human resources professionals should look to their marketing departments for advice. Like a human resources department, a marketing department has a target audience that it must identify, understand, and appeal to in order to be successful. However, in the age of technology (and with the use of big data), marketing departments have been able to master their target audience far more effectively and efficiently than ever before. According to Professor Solari, human resources departments should be capable of such mastery, as well.

Later in the day, I read an article on Business Insider, entitled “Why Some Companies Seem to Last Forever” that seems to put Professor Solari’s conclusions into context within the bigger picture. In the article, Professor Charles O’Reilly of the Stanford Graduate School of Business attributes this organizational longevity to “organizational ambidexterity”: the ability of a company to manage its current business while simultaneously preparing for changing conditions.

The article continues, “Staying competitive, then, means changing what you’re doing. But the change can’t be an abrupt switch from old to new – from print to digital distribution, say, or from selling products to selling services – if that means abandoning a business that’s still profitable. Hence the call for ambidexterity. You can’t just choose between exploiting your current opportunities and exploring new ones; you have to do both. And the companies that last for decades are able to do so time and time again.”

Combining the theories of Professors Solari and O’Reilly, it seems like the best (and perhaps only) way for human resources professionals to prepare for the “The ‘I’ Society” and to the larger changes in the human resources profession is to become ambidextrous; while the profession must adapt to the needs of “The ‘I’ Society”, it cannot abandon the needs of the rest of the workforce. And while the HR profession may have something to learn from its marketing colleagues, it cannot abandon its traditional role altogether.

Adopting a two-pronged strategy and demonstrating an ability to learn to change are two key indicators of a proactive and forward-thinking approach to human resources management that will certainly position HR professionals favourably to prepare their organizations for the myriad changes and challenges that lie ahead.

Ryan Campbell