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Unleashing the potential

The message is that companies should offer customised work experiences.

Vineet Nayar | Print Edition: July 25, 2010

Mass customisation has become a rallying cry for marketers. By tailoring a mass-market product to meet the specific preferences of individual users, you can generate tremendous new value for both the customer and company.

In Workforce of One: Revolutionizing Talent Management Through Customization, Susan M. Cantrell and David Smith take this "market of one" idea and apply it to employees rather than to customers. Why, they ask, can't companies create value — in this case for both employee and company — by tailoring a job to the interests and unique talents of the different individuals holding that position?

The authors acknowledge that conventional human resources programmes, with their emphasis on standardised practices, do have some positive attributes. But if you want to hire, keep, and leverage the best talent in today's workforce — which encompasses four generations with widely diverse backgrounds, values, and skill sets — you need to treat each employee as a "workforce of one". That means replacing generic practices with ones that are customised to each worker's strengths, motivations, interests, career desires and the like.

The book describes a number of ways in which companies — from Best Buy to Royal Bank of Scotland, from Procter & Gamble to Google — offer employees customised work experiences without sacrificing managerial control or organisational scalability. The aim is to tap into the workers' passion and "discretionary energy" — so that they in turn will help further the company's goal of creating a tailored shopping experience for each individual customer.

The book's message — that you get the best from your employees by demonstrating how much you value them — echoes the "Employees First" philosophy that I believe in. In fact, I see my primary task as CEO as empowering, encouraging, enabling, and "enthusing" employees to create value for customers. I would argue, though, that the ‘Workforce of One' approach, while a step in the right direction, may not be enough. To get extraordinary business results, you need to do more than change your "talent management" practices; you have to rethink your entire organisational structure.

There's another, more subtle, discomfort I have with the book's approach — one that perhaps reflects a slightly different view of human nature. A central theme of Workforce of One is that when companies cater to the unique and work-related needs of their employees, they respond with impassioned performance. But my question is this: are employees primarily motivated by what they can get from their employer — or by what they are allowed to do by their employer? Will their potential be unleashed when a company gives them a job tailored to their needs? Or will they do their best work when granted the freedom and responsibility to make a real difference? These alternatives aren't mutually exclusive, of course.

But I believe that most people value freedom and responsibility over a job tailored to their needs. So, while I do subscribe to the aims set out in Workforce of One, I believe that you'll want to think about the best way to achieve these aims in your organisation.

Vineet Nayar is the CEO of HCL Tech. and the author of Employees First, Customers Second

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