Slack’s Stuart Templeton: ‘Knowledge work is the new norm’

24 May 2019

Stuart Templeton on stage at Inspirefest 2019. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

Empathy, agility and team alignment are the key steps to success in the future of work, Slack’s Stuart Templeton told Inspirefest 2019.

Did you know that most organisations have more than 1,000 apps? And, added to this cacophony of technology, most millennial workers want to also bring the tools or apps they believe will make them successful into the workplace.

At the heart of bringing organisation to this workplace revolution is Slack, the productivity and communications platform beloved of millennials and corporations across the world.

‘Not only is the nature of work changing but it is becoming more complex’

At Inspirefest 2019, the head of Slack UK, Stuart Templeton, said that the key to navigating this maelstrom of digitalisation is a resolve by companies to just take the complexity out of work. He emphasised the importance of agility in the age of the knowledge worker.

“According to IDC, 40pc of the Fortune 500 companies will be extinct in the next 10 years because they will have failed to build the innovation into their organisation. They will have failed to build the resilience and agility to move at the pace of changing market conditions.”

The importance of organisational agility

Templeton pointed to an essay by San Francisco-based investor Benedict Evans, who drew on an analogy from a movie called The Apartment, a film about a worker at an insurance firm in the 1960s surrounded by rows and rows of workers at desks all contributing to a giant adding-up machine.

“Those roles have already fundamentally changed and this entire function has been replaced by an Excel spreadsheet, and business applications are doing more and more. However, insurance companies still employs tens of thousands of people and the individuals employed at these companies are doing fundamentally different work.

“We are in the age of the knowledge worker. It is that non-routine, that repetitive nature of our work that is becoming more automated. It requires more human skills, such as empathy and cross-functional collaboration, to an extent that we haven’t seen before. In addition, not only is the nature of work changing but it is becoming more complex.”

He pointed to investor Ben Horowitz who he said coined the phrase ‘software is eating the world’, adding that the world is being fundamentally changed by university graduates who can destroy entire industries by just coming up with a cool idea. This age is being defined by the proliferation of consumer and business software.

“Some organisations have over thousands of apps in the estate. In order to get work done today, we need to connect knowledge workers together in new ways but we need to connect them to data and apps to enable us as humans to get our work done.”

He noted how it took 25 years for the refrigerator to get to mass market adoption but only eight years for the smartphone. But, because of the distribution platform that the smartphone represents, “to compete we need to bring services and products to market faster than in the past”.

He warned that the idea of marketing and R&D in silos is outdated – they need to be cross-functional to succeed.

The Amazon effect

Templeton cited the ‘Amazon effect’ of applying business-to-consumer expectations to business-to-business relationships and the need for organisations to move faster and faster.

“Not only does this require connecting people, data and apps together, but more people are involved in decision-making.” For example, he said that in a team of 10 people there are 45 lines of possible communications.

As a result, he said, decision-making is becoming more complex. McKinsey has pointed to an organisational model that is less about top-down command and control, and more about cross-functional, agile, self-organising teams. “They are designed to look and behave more like organisms; they can sense change, they can react at speed and, not only can they execute really well, but they can reinvent themselves to take advantage of market conditions and pressures.”

He added: “Knowledge work is the new norm.”

To achieve organisational agility, Templeton said that it is vital to establish team identity, real-time communications, vision and strategy – and for it all to be aligned.

He cited the example of German enterprise software giant SAP, which is in the process of its own digital transformation and campus remodelling. It made everything in the office movable and applied a modest budget to each team to accessorise space and bring the team identity closer.

“But it’s not just about physical space – teams are increasingly looking to have identity and have some control over the virtual space. We see massive consumerisation of IT and software over recent years to the extent, as I mentioned, most large organisations have more than 1,000 apps, and teams want to bring the tools they believe will make them successful to the way they work.”

Templeton pointed to research by MuleSoft, which showed that only 29pc of applications have integration to each other. The answer is to bring all of these applications into a communication hub to break down silos, drive speed and alignment, and take complexity out of work.

To provide examples of agility in practice, Templeton cited shared-office space provider WeWork, which has more than 7,500 Slack users. “They are opening 12 new properties every month – five in Dublin and 47 in London. If they are going to move at this pace, they need to ensure there are no silos and everyone is in lockstep.

“To bring the team into that, they create a Trello board with all the tasks that are cross-functional, integrate it into Slack and move at the pace WeWork requires.”

He concluded: “We are in the age of the knowledge worker. It requires human skills like empathy, problem-solving, and cross-functional collaboration and agility.”

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event celebrating the point where science, technology and the arts collide. Ultra Early Bird tickets for Inspirefest 2020 are available now.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years