Workforce of One: A book review by Bob Morris

Workforce of One: Revolutionizing Talent Management Through Customization
Susan M. Cantrell and David Smith
Harvard Business Press (2010)

According to Susan M. Cantrell and David Smith, the single most important factor contributing to superior business results is how supported employees feel and that is determined by their organization’s people practices. “Our guiding question then became, what would help employees feel more supported by their organization’s people practices and enable a consequent improvement in business results?” After extensive research, “we surmised that the single biggest improvement organizations could make would be to become directly relevant to employees’ unique needs and circumstances…hence the ‘workforce of one’ was born.”

The exemplary companies that Cantrell and Smith discuss include Best Buy, Microsoft, Accenture, Procter & Gamble, Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, The Container Store, Harrah’s, Sprint Nextel, Google, W.L. Gore, Taleo, Royal Bank of Scotland, and Men’s Wearhouse. All of these companies have recognized and then responded effectively to several trends “that are driving the workforce of one” initiatives: technology as an enabler of customization, employees viewed as customers, knowledge management’s impact of HR, C-suite focus on workforce performance, increasingly stronger competition for talent, and a highly diverse and independent (“free agent”) workforce that becomes moreso each day.

In different ways and to a varying degree, each of these companies took one or more of four basic approaches to customize its people practices while maintaining control and alignment with business strategy. Here are the approaches:

1. Segment the Workforce (e.g. Accenture and Capital One): “Just as organizations group customers based on shared preferences and needs and [then] create tailored experiences for each group, organizations can likewise group employees based on shared preferences and needs and [then] tailor people practices for each group.”

2. Offer Modular Choices (e.g. Deloitte Touche Tohmatzu and Tesco): This approach “lets employees or their managers select from a list of predefined, limited choices [perhaps requested by employees or their managers] based on what suits their needs and preferences best. Cafeteria benefit plans or allowing employees to select their own rewards from a set established by the organization are common examples of modular choice.”

3. Define Broad and Simple Rules (W.L. Gore and Best Buy). “Applied to human resources practices, a classic example of a broad and simple rule would be a broadband compensation scheme that collapses the organization’s job worth hierarchy into fewer, wider, yet more flexible salary ranges.”

4. Foster Employee-Defined Personalization (e.g. PepsiCo and Google) “The three customization approaches we have discussed thus far involve HR or some other central organizational group clearly defining people practices. With an employee-defined personalization approach, however, the employee or her manager largely defines the practice.”

Although the exemplary organizations are large and complicated, the Workforce of One concept is relevant to almost any organization, whatever its size and nature may be. How could your organization benefit from the approach? Cantrell and Smith provide a self-audit diagnostic on Page 51, followed by a Scoring Guide. Based on what the results of the self-audit suggests, now what? The material in Part Three offers some tools and ideas to help you build and manage your own workforce of one organization.

The material shared by Susan M. Cantrell and David Smith is best viewed as an anthology of insights, observations, lessons to be learned from real companies in real-world situations, and suggestions. What they provide enables their reader to possess a framework for innovation and improvisation, not an architectural blueprint or an operations manual. Obviously, those who read this book about customization must customize what they have learned.



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