What defines a liquid workforce? What are the differences between the workforce then and the workforce now? And where do you even start? Martijn Smit and Geert Batterink dive into the ins and outs of a liquid workforce.

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This article by Geert Batterink and Martijn Smit is part of a series on the trends identified in Accenture's Technology Vision 2016 around a People First approach:

Many organizations claim to have adopted a liquid workforce and agile approach in their processes and structures. Yes, compiling a scrum team with a designer, tester, developer and product manager and telling them to ‘give it their best shot’ is fairly easy to set up, but to truly implement a liquid workforce across the board is a whole different ball game. And, to be honest, it’s a game that many organizations in the Netherlands have not yet fully incorporated. Accepted? Yes. Embraced? Yes. Incorporated? Not so much.

What Defines a Liquid Workforce?

From the organization’s point of view, a liquid workforce means to organize and shape teams in such a way that they are able to rapidly adapt and change depending on the environment they find themselves in. For those in a liquid workforce, it means working in a far more dynamic, attractive and co-creating ecosystem. For example, a database administrator is no longer solely bound to the tasks of his or her own job. He or she now works closely together with other team members in executing and delivering the final result.

A true agile organization is able to deliver new functionalities across channels and technologies in a short time frame, in line with strategic business objectives. We see many organizations that are at the beginning of this journey. In fact, they are actually still at the beginning stages of the transformation journey. They haven’t yet adjusted their governance model and budgets, nor involved IT architects from the earliest stages of strategic operations and decision-making. These are all essential elements of a liquid workforce. While several companies are taking great steps, other organizations’ transition phases are still at the beginning stages.

Workforce Then vs. Workforce Now

The biggest difference between the liquid workforce and ‘traditional’ workforce is that the former is multifaceted. Some key elements are: a great level of autonomy, a keen sense of co-creation and a focus on ‘skill cocktails’ instead of deep expertise or hard technical abilities. The days where a manager tells you what to do are long gone; teams have moved to the business in a way that the business has become part of the team. The work pace has become faster, and teams often reflect on a weekly or bi-weekly basis – looking at what has been done and established, and giving instant feedback. If necessary, implementing strategic changes straight away. The same flexibility applies to the team; if need be, they can shift throughout the process. That’s what makes the workforce truly liquid.

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"The days where a manager tells you what to do are long gone."

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Employees Need to Transform to ‘The New’

The idea is to always have the right team at the right moment. The continuous, rapid feedback loop enables teams to work towards effective results much quicker, supplying the team and client with positive energy. Employees need to be able to (accept) change quickly and transform to the new – i.e. the new approach that was decided on and technology that has been made available. Combining deep technological skills with an agile approach leads to innovation and real change.

Managers still form an indispensable part of the workforce. However, their roles have changed. Considering the autonomy teams have, managers’ responsibilities have been narrowed down to two essential tasks:

  1. to continuously convey vision and direction;

  2. facilitate an environment that brings out the best in the teams.

The End of Hierarchy?

This begs the question: ‘does this mean the end of hierarchy as we know it?’ To a certain extent, hierarchy will always be present, but the way it’s structured has changed dramatically.   

Bear in mind, decision-making is increasingly more embedded in technology in this day and age. When organizations use the right technology, the data needed to make the right decision can be digitized and brought directly to an employer. That way, he or she can say yay or nay without having to consult the manager, who needs to ask for permission from his supervisor, etc. Intelligence brought to the edge, so to speak. This, of course, leaves out strategic business choices that will always need to be carried out by people.

The New Role of a Liquid Manager

Managers need to guide their teams in the right direction and be open to new ideas, instead of being preoccupied with planning, deadlines and budgets. To fully embrace innovation and new technology is vital. When managers fail to do so, they hinder their team’s creativity and performance. Even though managers are not specialists, nor should they be, they need to understand technology to a certain degree in order to guide their team to optimal results.

Digestible Training via Learning Boards

Training obviously plays an important role in developing people’s skills and changing their mindsets. It’s an effective way to guide employees into their roles in a liquid workforce. At Accenture, we use our digital learning environment, The Learning Board, where employees are offered training in a tailor-made manner. Where training traditionally meant spending a week in ‘school’ for a number of sessions, this method via learning boards sees employees learning online in a case-based manner. With a focus on storytelling and a preference for easily digestible “chunks”, learning boards are innovative and effective methods of training.

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"It is all about essential information made easy to consume in a relatively short time frame."

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For example, an employee would watch a TedTalk on agility in the workplace or on an interesting business case study whenever and wherever he/she wanted to. Learners have become consumers who are able to pick their favorite items from a diverse learning menu. It is all about essential information made easy to consume in a relatively short time frame. This flexibility and efficiency suits the current spirit of the age, and it fits Accenture’s style perfectly.

First Liquid Studio in Utrecht

We are taking it one level further by launching the first Liquid Studio, which will open its doors in Utrecht early 2017. We believe it’s very important to create a place where the liquid workforce can blossom into its full potential. The studio will focus on three core elements. The first is for it to be an attractive, inspiring and technology-savvy environment.

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"Teams no longer develop a product for a client, but to develop it with the client."

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Next, we look at the abilities of the people working in the liquid studio, ensuring we in fact have the right team tackling the right project at the right moment. Thirdly, it’s about ensuring that the studio represents a true ecosystem where co-creation dominates. Furthermore, aside from the employees, it also includes the clients and partners of alliances. Teams no longer develop a product for a client, but develop it with the client.

Big Things Can Start Small

Accenture can supervise transformations in different ways. For us, innovation is key, regardless of how big or small they are. Small-scale innovations should never be underestimated. We don’t. People sometimes tend to forget that innovation by no means always entails ‘something new’, but often it’s a combination of already existing technology being used differently, and thus, forming a new concept.

Alongside big-scale projects, we also nurture projects where seeds are sown one by one, watered regularly and cautiously. Usually, if you cultivate these growing plants carefully for a few years, big, innovative things can happen. We love being at the forefront of investing in small innovations, because big things can start small, too. 

Have you fully adopted a liquid workforce in your organization yet? We're very keen to hear about your experiences. Share them in a comment below. If you would like to know more about adopting a liquid workforce, contact Martijn Smit or Geert BatterinkInterested in the field and job opportunities? Check out our career platform

Also have a look at the other articles published in the series on Accenture's Technology Vision 2016.

  • Michael Teichmann sheds light on how companies and consumers deal with digital trust: a complex relationship between transparency, security, collaboration and ethics in Ensuring Digital Trust in the Digital World

Martijn Smit

Managing Director – Technology

Accenture the Netherlands

Accenture the Netherlands

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