I believe that our society is at the start of a fundamental shift in the way that we see ownership and the world in general. It is a shift that has already begun to influence people at work and will likely do so for many years to come. However, it’s not just a shift in the way that we see our workplaces, but also our physical possessions, our environment and our relationships. I call it “Divestism” and it goes to the heart of how our world is beginning to change its views on ownership.
Nineteen years ago I bought a Lenny Kravitz album. It was only about the tenth CD that I had ever owned and I LOVED it. So did a couple of my friends and one day one of them borrowed the album, left it on his dashboard in the sun and overnight the CD was ruined. Although I loved the album, I had also listened to it hundreds of times and I simply could not afford to replace it (CD’s were more expensive back then) and to this day I have never bought a replacement copy of that specific album. Sometimes owning stuff isn’t all that it cracked up to be.
I have just purchased an Apple TV. It’s an amazing device. For those who have not seen one, it’s a very small box that you plug into your television. It also connects to your wireless internet basically enables you to download and watch any movie, TV show or music that’s ever been made and stream it to your television. You have to pay for the privilege of course but this little box effectively makes your local video shop redundant. Perhaps the thing that makes me most excited about my new toy is the fact that if I buy something on my Apple TV it is immediately available on my iPhone, iPad and computer via iTunes. I still own all the videos and music that I’ve bought but I don’t own anything that I can physically hold in my hands. In the past, this might have been seen as a limitation, but as I look at the big pile of DVDs under my TV taking up space I can’t help but challenge that assumption.
The fact is that the vast majority of kids these days will never experience the sadness of losing a CD like the one I did (and not just because they don’t listen to Lenny Kravitz anymore). Every CD they buy will be stored in the “cloud” and be instantly accessible for the rest of their lives. They’ll be immune from the impact of changes in technology, scratched records and even hot car dashboards. Although they won’t own a physical asset like we did, they will also be free from the burden of those assets. CDs and DVDs are just the beginning of this trend. People are doing way more than just storing their movies in the “cloud”. As the internet gets faster, it is becoming possible to access software and do some seriously powerful computing remotely. There will come a time (in the not so distant future) where we will no longer need to configure all our software on our local computers or even download those pesky updates. In fact some futurists suggest that the concept of a Personal Computer will become redundant relatively soon due to this technology. You remember… that thing that transformed the last couple of decades… it’ll become ancient history soon!
Now before you think that this trend is confined to the technology and entertainment sector, lets consider two of the holy grails of ownership… the family home and car. If you’re like me, you owe a small fortune on your home. Most of us were raised to aspire to home ownership and worked hard to achieve that goal. However, we were also raised to assume perpetual double-digit growth in the value of that home and our expectations just haven’t been realised. Yet the mortgage still has to be paid. I still love owning my own home and have no regrets about buying it. However, the fact is, more people nowadays are starting to take a different perspective. A recent survey in Mortgage Magazine recently published a survey that showed 52% of first home buyers saying that they would consider being a life-long renter. Similarly, although owning a car was never seen as an investment, it was seen as core to a western way of life. It enabled our independence, it meant we could go anywhere at any time. For most of us it still does. However, have you noticed recently the number of share car spaces located throughout our cities and most populated suburbs. People are even beginning to change their attitudes towards owning a car. Most people aren’t abandoning their cars altogether but there are certainly a number of people that are choosing a share car scheme for their second car and when husband and wife are needing to travel in different directions, they just borrow a share car for a few hours.
The trend towards “Divestism” isn’t just confined to the physical world. Lets get a bit more personal and talk about relationships. Not only will kids nowadays NEVER lose touch with their schoolmates thanks to Facebook and similar websites, but they can keep in touch without physically going to a school reunion or coffee with a friend. The basis of many of their relationships will be fundamentally intangible. Yet in many ways their relationships will be more productive and connected than the generations that have gone before them. The way relationships are changing is at the essence of “Divestism”. Not convinced that relationships have changed in the last decade? Lets consider for a second that the whole meaning of the term “friend” has evolved from being a noun to both a verb and a noun. To “friend” someone on Facebook has a very real meaning to anyone who is active on social networking and not only can you friend someone easily nowadays but you can also defriend them with the click of your mouse. This might seem fickle to some but social networking has fundamentally changed the way people see relationships. This is best illustrated by the social trend that to “make a relationship official” almost universally refers to updating your relationship status on Facebook nowadays. The immaterial or insubstantive is becoming increasingly important to people as the trend towards”Divestism”continues.
So how could “Divestism” have permeated so many parts of our lives without impacting on our workplaces? The fact is it has already had a major impact on the way people see employment, their workplace and their manager. Nowadays employees are looking for more than money and job security. They are looking for challenge, for a sense of purpose and for autonomy. If employees don’t find what they are looking for from their employer they are more confident to leave their workplaces and find another job. Better still, they are willing to work casually, to work for themselves, to have multiple jobs or even invent their own jobs via the internet (or something else that hasn’t been invented yet).
None of these workplace changes are new. The vast majority of business leaders have all acknowledged all of the trends that I’ve referenced above. However, I would argue that most have fundamentally misdiagnosed the problem. “Divestism” is a game-changer. It’s a trend that cannot be stopped and businesses that do not fundamentally change the way they do business as a result will be putting themselves in a precarious position. To assume that skills shortages will lessen with the ebbs and flows of the economic cycle, that you can retain employees by ensuring that you give out salary increases greater than inflation, or that you can negotiate outcomes with unions that will universally be accepted might all be good precautions to take. However, these measures are necessary without being sufficient. In order to retain employees, workplaces need to engage with their people on a deeper level. They need to get beyond the material and understand what truly drives their people. They also need to listen to what they learn.
When you think about it, the very terms “Human Resources” or “Human Capital” imply a sense of false ownership. They imply that people are assets that are owned just like the rest of the company’s physical assets. I understand that this has been an incredibly useful metaphor over the past 40 years. It’s helped HR folk justify investment in valuable programs or initiatives. However, although these are both relatively modern terms, they still hark back to the days when people would follow instructions unquestioningly, when lifelong employment was a goal for most people and when people would cope with significant hardships in order to achieve that goal.
If “Divestism” continues at the rate I believe it is travelling, then companies that cling to the notion of people as assets or resources will be left behind. In the future, companies must accept that people will weave in and out of employment with them; that they never truly own their employees and realign their people-related investments accordingly. The companies that truly realign their people systems with the concept of “Divestism” will not necessarily adopt a “retain at all costs” mentality to their people. When their employees part ways with their employer, progressive companies will see this as the first step in attracting them back. They might even support past employees in pursuing their goals outside of employment under some circumstances. The lines between employee, customer, spokesperson, advocate, sponsor and supplier are also likely to blur further with people-related investments justified beyond traditional departmental boundaries. Future editions of our newsletter will explore the specific implications of “Divestism” for business. However, needless to say its implications are broad.
The core of “Divestism”, as I define it, is that at this time in the world’s history, the less obvious, the subjective and intangible aspects of the world, are becoming more highly valued than they ever have been before. Ownership is clearly less valued and perceived as a burden to some. It’s an exciting time to be alive, but it’s also a risky time to hold onto old paradigms whilst running a business.
This edition of our newsletter is dedicated to our Helping Hands Program. This program is truly paradigm shifting in blending Corporate Social Responsibility with Human Resources. It enables employees, customers and other stakeholders to experience what it is to be engaged a truly purposeful activity and in doing so, enables them to reconnect with their company’s purpose. This activity might challenge your current paradigms on a number of levels, but as I’ve already stated, we’re living in an exciting time where big changes are not only possible, they are imperative. Enjoy this special edition of our newsletter and as you do so I encourage you to consider this new concept of “Divestism” and how it is likely to impact on your personal and work life.
Matt Henricks is the Director of HC. He is an Organisational Psychologist with 12 years experience working in HR or related fields. Matt has consulted with many of Australia