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Architecting for the Liquid Workforce

July 30,2020 Digital Workplace
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By Kalyan Kumar

The liquid workforce is a powerful reimagining of how organizations get work done. The concept breaks with decades of tradition where organizations came to rely on skilled people with tightly defined roles and skillsets. As the COVID-19 pandemic forces virtually every industry around the world to rethink how to maintain productivity, the liquid workforce concept provides a roadmap.

What Is a Liquid Workforce?

What exactly is a liquid workforce? Simply put, in a liquid workforce, organizations source needed skills from multiple places, both within and outside the organization, and constantly train and upskill to fill any gaps. Organizations are starting to embrace the concept.

On the surface, the liquid workforce is a vision for flexibility and adaptability that helps a business get the right minds working on a given challenge. Looking deeper, the liquid workforce requires a more conscious approach to employees, one that expects companies to take a closer look at issues of change management, employee sensitivity, security and how to reskill employees to increase their capability and agility within the organization.

The approach is not new — Accenture coined the "liquid workforce" term in 2016. The mix of skills today in most companies is already a fascinating mashup of the old and the new. But it is something many more companies need to explore.

Related Article: Why Digital Workplaces and Agility Go Hand in Hand

Teams in a Liquid Workforce

To perform at the highest level, work is not rigidly siloed, but performed by teams where everyone helps out as they can. In tech companies, product managers, user experience experts, and developers are joined by site reliability engineers, data scientists and data engineers. In this way, developers learn about UX and data science, data engineers learn about product management, and product managers learn about everything.

For example, a site reliability engineer usually faces an ocean of data. She may get help from a data engineer and learn how to create a pipeline that delivers a crucial subset to a data platform that can be used to find and resolve operational problems.

A sales development representative may be served by a data engineer and a data scientist at first before learning how to do as much as possible on his own.

Making a workforce liquid is an incremental process and it has limits. A site reliability engineer and a sales development representative may learn more about data engineering and data science, but they will not likely make it their core expertise. There will always be a need to embed specialized individuals within the liquid milieu, depending on the business, such as a quantum scientist, biochemist or a nuclear engineer whose skills require years to develop.

Related Article: It's Time to Get Down and Dirty With Culture and Change

Challenges in Composing a Liquid Workforce

A key challenge in developing a liquid workforce is finding the right balance: creating a culture that supports the principles of cross-skilling and upskilling in more accessible areas of specialization while making advanced specialists available as needed. Given the scarcity of emerging skill sets such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), it’s important to balance incorporating talent from outside the organization while upskilling your team.

Additionally, consider your needs from the standpoint of two major categories of workloads. Classic workloads — legacy systems such as ERP software, mainframes, Visual Basic and Visual C++ — continue to play a role, but are unlikely to see further investment and expansion. Modern workloads, those born in today’s digitally transformed world, include SaaS products and cloud-native solutions. Such workloads have a growing footprint.

IT decision-makers should make classic workloads more liquid to expand their knowledge of supporting skills that may be in danger of disappearing. Training new staff on ERP systems may result in unexpected innovation as established practices are challenged.

Modern workloads may be easier to make liquid because these systems are highly automated and designed for self-service. The realm of business intelligence offers a great example. An organization with a valuable, on-premises data warehouse that took years to create and supports key analysis and reporting workloads can’t just ignore that precious resource. Skills can be expanded to protect continuity, but new workloads could be created on a cloud data warehouse like Snowflake or Redshift that automates a lot of the work done by DBAs. In such a scenario, a business intelligence analyst may be able to create an entire data warehouse with minimal aid from traditional support staff.

Technical skills aren't the only consideration when creating a liquid workforce. For example, making a customer support manager a product manager can lead to innovation because they are closer to the user base. Instead of sourcing scarce external security professionals, guide people toward a security career, offering a career path for people across the organization. Every area of the business needs security, so a liquid workforce can flow people from across the business into this important area.

Related Article: DevOps and the Culture of Inclusion

Evolving the IT Environment

As decision-makers and HR executives consider the potential of moving toward a liquid workforce, it is equally important to recognize how the IT environment must evolve to support new, nimble teams. In order to be productive, systems for a liquid workforce must be designed with hyper-vigilance to the uniquely personalized interface and collaboration needs of individuals, enabling people to smoothly move between engagements. Platforms to support a liquid workforce need to offer high degrees of composability and consumability.

In parallel with this reexamination of the workforce, business is also challenged to look more closely at what it means to create a truly effective digital workplace. As companies find themselves limited in their capacity to function at peak efficiency in these challenging times, it is also an opportunity to ask ourselves what tools and techniques exist to support the future of work.

A fluid workplace brings advantages to a mobile, potentially decentralized workforce. Smart IT dynamically measures and evaluates user experience to drive change. Smart machines can adapt on the fly to user requirements. Smart “marketplaces” of skills enable managers to gather the best people for the job at hand. And smart spaces — physical environments — support workers so they can focus on productivity.

Related Article: The Elements of a Robust Digital Workplace

A Liquid Workforce for Rapid Response

In its grandest vision, a company with a liquid workforce can respond rapidly and increase workers in areas of needed skills. Other benefits include:

  • Enhanced utilization of resources.
  • Multidimensional view of any problem with varied solutions.
  • Creation and maintenance of a vibrant, knowledgeable ecosystem.

But the road to the promised land is paved by making everyone a bit smarter about what everyone else is doing. Many hands with many skills create a liquid workforce.

About the Author

Kalyan “KK” Kumar is the corporate vice president & CTO, IT services of HCL Technologies and the company’s business line leader for Global Cloud Native Services and DRYiCE products and platforms. He also leads the Service Line for Global Infrastructure Services.

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