Rise of Super Apps

Most of us could not live without our smartphones.  It helps us stay connected, find directions, remember the lengthy lists of duties and responsibilities, and entertain ourselves throughout our day. About half of the world has made the transition and more will surely follow.  According to the Mary Meeker internet trends report, 51 percent of the world or 3.8 billion people are using the internet in 2018.

For most of us, we use single apps when on our smartphone.  We select one at a time to address whatever need we might have or amusement we desire.  Over the last 20 years, the prevailing model has been to develop single purpose apps that focus on one issue and make it is easy and intuitive as possible.  This design characteristic not only made the apps small and easy to use, but also made them scalable to larger markets over time.

A counter-trend arising in China and other developing regions is the super app.  Mike Lazaridis, the founder of Blackberry, described a super app as “…representing a new class of mobile applications that make you wonder how you ever lived without them.” More specifically, it is a closed ecosystem of “many apps” that people would use everyday “…because they offer such a seamless, integrated, contextualized and efficient experience.”  So, the super app combines the major functionality that one might use on a regular basis, such as logistics, local delivery, commerce, payments, and social interaction and concentrates those functions into a single application. For advertisers, it keeps users within the same app longer and for users it brings their major needs together in a streamlined, integrated, and easy-to-use package.

As human resource professionals, what can we learn from super apps?

One of the most important lessons pertains to the need for multiple skills within the same package.  While there are still some occupations that the most important worker parallels the single app by having one key strength the organization relies upon regardless of the presence or absence other capabilities, most workplaces demand employees align more with super apps by meeting a number of workplace needs.  For example, a recent ARG survey of 250 talent executives inquired to which skills are needed at your organization regardless of the level and role of employee (see Figure 1).  Willing to learn new knowledge, skills, and abilities received the most support with almost 80 percent of executives indicating that this was the number one area of need. Communication scored a close second place with 72 percent of talent executives expressing concerns over internal communication skills. It is interesting to note that technical or job-specific knowledge fell in the middle at around 55 percent and leadership potential appeared in the bottom third.   

Figure 1: Skills in Demand by Talent Executives
Figure 1: Skills in Demand

Another strong similarity pertains to importance of hard and soft skills.  Just as most jobs have multiple skill-based needs, a strong contributor will possess both, hard and soft skills. While hard skills were thought to be more important than soft skills in the past, thinking has transformed.  In most workplaces, hard and soft skills are equally important.  However, both are not in equal supply.  A 2016 LinkedIn survey of 291 hiring managers in the U.S. revealed that 59 percent believe that soft skills are difficult to find.

Finally, with the complexity of the modern workplace and challenges in the labor market, job expectations are only going to be more diverse and complex in the future.  As more automation and robotics can be used to address workplace needs, employees will have to offer broader capabilities. In some ways, possessing the skills necessary to be able to address complex and changing needs will give human employees an advantage over their machine competitors.

Pros and Cons of Contingent Workers

A little over ten years ago, I participated on a human resource round table to discuss the future of the workforce. Most of the participants focused on demographic changes in the workforce and only at the end did the conversation turn to how traditional employment will transition to a more temporary workforce in the future. The majority of the participants acknowledged that some information technology positions align with the trend, but they felt that the move to a more temporary workforce overall would not be an issue for employers until well into the future.

Today, the contingent workforce is a reality. Contingent workers include freelancers, independent contractors, consultants, or other outsourced and non-permanent workers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported in 2017 that approximately ten percent of the workforce functioned in a contingent capacity. Some of the other findings included:

• contingent workers were more than twice as likely as non-contingent workers to be under 25;
• contingent workers were more likely to work in professional, construction, and extraction occupations;
• compared to traditional workers, independent contractors were more likely to be older, temporary help agency workers were more likely to be Black or Hispanic or Latino, and workers provided by contract companies were more likely to be men; and
• almost 80 percent of independent contractors preferred their status over traditional jobs.

Many analysts and researchers feel that the BLS underestimated the total and that the actual, contingent workforce is much larger (https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/talent-acquisition/pages/experts-puzzled-new-bls-contingent-workforce-data.aspx). In keeping with that idea, according to Deloitte, more than four in ten workers or 40 percent in the current workforce may be functioning in a contingent capacity.

Employers have embraced the contingency approach due some relatively sizable benefits. The major benefits include:

cost savings – while the hourly rate might be higher in some cases, the absence of benefits and paying for unproductive time reduces overall labor costs;
workload management – allows organizations to staff up and down based on business needs;
broader labor pool – by including more talent in the selection process, an organization has more selection options;
workforce stability – contingent workers allow traditional workers to remain with the organizations during periods of economic downturns or other financial adjustments; and
administrative reduction – by employing contingent workers, an organization reduces it administrative burden associated with traditional employees.

While the advantages are compelling, what is not discussed as much are the disadvantages of growing the contingent workforce. Some of the major disadvantages include:

commitment – contingent workers typically lack commitment to the organization when compared to traditional workers;
high turnover – contingent workers have a higher turnover rate;
security issues – access to confidential or propriety information creates more of a risk for an organization than working with traditional workers;
cultural misalignment – when joining an organization as a contingent worker, there can be issues with integration, cultural alignment, and even morale;
knowledge retention – organizations have found that more temporary workers create dilemmas for documenting and retaining job-specific knowledge;
skills issues – while contingent workers can bring hard to find skills, organizational experience can vary on the quality of the skills.

Contingent workers provide a central and key element of the modern workforce. As an organization weighs its options, it is critical to use some form of cost-benefit analysis to ensure that its staffing decisions are the right ones.  Consequently, a successful implemention process should include examining what processes need to change or adjust to best address the differences in needs and behaviors.

Managing Expectation Gaps

Most of us deal with managing expectations or our belief of what will occur in the future on a regular, if not daily basis.  While expectations come in different sizes or orders of magnitude, they all possess the capability of impacting our feelings, attitude, and interaction with others.  For example, think about how our expectations regarding regular things, such as traffic on our commute, friendliness of a cashier, interaction with our spouse, behavior of our children, or even flavor of a meal can impact our moods, if our expectations are not met.  The heart of the issue with even these simple examples is the gap between the expected and actual outcome.   In essence, the expectation gap encompasses those situations when reality does not meet our desires.

In the workplace, a wide expectation gap not only impacts morale, but also leads to lower levels of productivity and staff turnover. How does this happen? In the simplest sense, as the gap widens employees feel more disappoint and anger. As the anger increases, an employee may stop performing his or her work and begin interfering with others.  While some employee expectations may be unrealistic or addressing their desires may be impossible, a successful manager will ensure that he or she has a good understanding each employee’s expectations and assists in managing those expectations.  

So, how strong are we as managers at assessing expectations? In order to gain a basic snapshot of the alignment between employee expectations and manager perceptions, the result of a recent survey of 500 employees at three levels (support, professional, and manager) in ten customer-focused organizations will be utilized to further our discussion.  The data was collected through an ARG study that inquired regarding employee expectations for the following categories: nature of work duties, workplace environment, supervisor’s leadership capability, fairness of advancement, and rewards.

Figure 1 summarizes the indexed results of employee expectations for all categories, manager perceptions of employee expectations, actual level of realized expectations, and gap between employee expectations and actual level realized.   Overall, the survey indicates that:

  • support staff possess the highest expectations compared to professionals and managers;
  • managers perceptions of expectations align the closest with employee expectations at higher levels in the organization (professionals and managers);
  • managers of managers perceive higher expectations than those expectations actually present among their direct reports;
  • support employees have the largest expectation gap; and
  • professionals and managers realize outcomes closer to their expectation than support staff.
Figure 1: Comparison of Employee Expectations and Manager Perceptions

While by no means are these findings definitive, they provide a basic outline of where expectation gaps may arise in organizations.  If support staff tend to have higher expectations related to work environment, leadership, and advancement as well as have less of their expectations met, managers need to make sure that frequent, honest, and transparent communication establishes a realistic level of employee expectations.   Similarly, if managers of managers have a better idea of the expectations of their direct reports, there may be a training or mentoring opportunity for less experienced managers.   Finally, expectations can change very quickly with the level of connections present within social media.  Getting to know your workforce and their expectations at all levels is not a “once and done” process, but an on-going journey.

Passion

Most of us hope that we will find a job that makes us passionate.  A lucky few succeed at this quest and spend their workdays doing something that fulfills them on a professional as well as personal level.  Think about Steve Jobs and the aura of excitement he projected (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/08/business/how-steve-jobs-infused-passion-into-a-commodity.html?pagewanted=all). In most cases, passion manifests itself in two related forms: job and organization. Passion for a job determines how emotionally connected an employee is to his or her work and producing the best possible results, while passion for the organization pertains to emotional connection of the employee to the purpose, values, and vision of his or her organization.  The key to both relates to a strong emotional bond or link.

For those of us that fail to find employment in an area that we are passionate about; work affords little more than a mundane chore while we sit in a holding pattern on the way to something that makes us passionate.  The image that comes to mind is the stereotypical worker leaving an office or factory looking depleted as he or she goes home with another day of the same soul crushing work waiting tomorrow.

As leaders, we have all worked with employees that had the skills and abilities to be a star performer, but never developed the passion necessary to excel.  Early in my career, I assumed that the primary responsibility for passion resides with the workplace.  Basically,  if a person is not passionate, the failure to create that spark should be addressed by the employer.  However, what most of us discover through experience rearranges our view of how passion works.  Passion comes from inside the person.  We bring our passion with us and if the alignment between employee and job feeds the employee’s passion, then it grows.  When it comes to passion, selection overshadows training.

What can we do to increase the passion in our organizations?

  • Ensure that your organization has a clear mission and set of values;
  • Link your values to your business processes and desired outcomes;
  • Communicate about the organization’s passion;
  • Reward employees that show passion and results;
  • Find other opportunities for those that are unhappy;
  • Allow people to grow how they want to while meeting the organization’s needs;
  • Hire for passion and commitment to your mission and similarities in values; and
  • Take a chance on a candidate that excels at passion even if they fail to possess the ideal level of experience or education.

Delegation by Process

The modern workplace moves a little bit faster every year as we create faster and better ways of doing things.  A key part of being successful in this ever expanding environment is by delegating.  Although delegating has a rather bad rap with most employees, it is a key component of management effectiveness.  The negative connotations arise from the extremes: over and under delegation.  Most of us have witnessed a manager that delegated everything and left employees wondering what exactly is done with all of the free time.  This type of manager creates an unbearable environment where the employee does the work of a superior for what amounts to inferior compensation.  A more lucky few have probably seen the manager that tries to do it all because he or she has control issues, does not trust employees or just does not understand how to lead.  Both behaviors are damaging to the manager, employees, and work performed.

Although most discussion of delegation focuses on making the assignment, there is more involved in successful delegation.  Delegation has three key components: assign, monitor, and report.

Assign

After identifying and defining the task, the person to assume responsibility should be identified and the assignment made.  It is important that manager clearly articulate the task, resources available, level of responsibility, and expected time for completion.  As part of the assignment process, the manager should entertain any concerns that the employee has that impact successful completion of the task.  A common concern of employees is the current workload and the potential conflict with other assignments.  It is critical that these concerns be considered before and during assignment of the task.

Monitor

It is in everyone’s interest that the task be completed successfully.  The manager as well as the employee wins.  Too often, the manager views the assignment of the task as the end of his or her involvement until happily collecting the fruits of the employee’s labor.  A successful manager monitors progress on the task and provides any needed support.  Established reporting or meeting times provides structure for task management and ensures that resources, expectations, and outcomes remain aligned between the employee and the manager.

Feedback

Delivery of the required outcome is a key part of the delegation process, but should not be the terminal point.  The manager and the employee should evaluate the delegation experience, identify areas for improvement, and celebrate success.  An employee that handles the delegated tasks well is a true asset and should be developed and rewarded.