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Ladder or Lattice: Does “One Size Fits All” Fit Anyone?

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Can you edge into the changing world of work by bolting flexible practices onto traditional corporate ladder workplace norms, or does the shift require a new corporate latticeTM paradigm?

The corporate ladder has been the prevailing model for managing work and people since the beginning of the industrial revolution. But we no longer live in an industrial age – nor is the workforce a uniform one. Can you address the issues of the changing world of work as they arise, or do you need a new playbook that moves beyond longstanding assumptions about how careers are built, work gets done and participation is fostered?

Take on challenges within a conventional ‘ladder’ framework Embrace a more adaptive ‘lattice’ framework
The corporate ladder has been serving the business world well for more than a century. Specific issues can be addressed with new programs, but standardization is time-tested – as are workarounds to accommodate the occasional one-offs. Globalization, technology and today’s heterogeneous workforce have forever altered one-size-fits-all workplace rules. Just as standardization was a key attribute of the industrial past, customization is a key enabler of the path forward. Companies need a model tailor-made for the information age not a retread of the industrial one.
We’re facing workforce changes just as our competitors are. But change doesn’t come easy. Why make it more difficult by having deal with a shift in mindset at the same time? We can focus on that later. What you’re doing is reacting to a changed reality, not proactively creating a contemporary workplace. Lattice makes sense of the changing world of work so you can organize and advance the set of disconnected activities and investments already underway into a strategic response.
Email, SMS, IM, video conferencing, private networks – we’re investing in them all. And we didn’t need a new workplace vision to do so. Without a vision and framework for how technology meshes with the organizational change it enables, you’ll wind up with a patchwork quilt of technology tools – not a 21st century culture of collaboration.
High performance and career-life fit are inherently opposing forces. Our flexibility programs help mitigate the conflict, but there’s no way to resolve it. Ultimately, you have to choose one or the other. The ladder belief – that high performance and career-life are irreconcilable – is based on a workforce and home infrastructure that hardly exists anymore. The new reality: They are inextricably linked and mutually reinforcing. Get used to it.

My Take

Cathy Benko

Cathy Benko
Vice Chairman and Chief Talent Officer, Deloitte LLP

We walk to the future backward – using the past to direct us. We approach new problems from the perspective of old experiences, mental models and ways of doing business. The first cars were touted as "horseless carriages." The first TV shows were formatted as radio shows with pictures. And so on.

Once, 60 percent of corporate value creation depended on hard assets. Now, more than 85 percent relies on the intangible assets of people, brand and intellectual property.i Organizational structures are 25 percent flatter.ii Employees are less tethered to traditional offices and set hours. Nonroutine and project-based work is far more prevalent. Fewer than 20 percent of households have traditional family structures.iii Women now constitute half of the U.S. workforce and are the primary breadwinners 40 percent of the time.iv Men cite career-life conflict increasingly more often than womenv and younger generations are bringing different attitudes to work at the same time that older workers are looking for ways to stay in the labor marketvi. Careers zig and zag. Work is done whenever and wherever. And information flows in every which way. The point? It’s futile to keep investing in the future based on yesterday’s hard-coded corporate ladder blueprint.

It’s time to take a forward-facing stance. The corporate lattice signals a mindset that measures productivity through delivery against results and it affects more than working hours. Engagement is also a spur to the way we participate and the ways we define our careers. In a lattice culture, work flows where it needs to – along horizontal and diagonal paths in addition to ladder-like vertical ones. So do ideas, expectations and credit. Project teams accomplish more when they’re assembled along knowledge lines. Companies produce more when technology enables 24/7 collaboration. And when people can move up, over, or even down in the organization, they’ll find the choicest rewards for the things they do best.

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i Douglas Elmendorf, Gregory Mankiw and Lawrence H. Summers, eds., Brookings Papers on Economic Activity (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, Spring 2008).
ii Raghuram Rajan and Julie Wulf, “The Flattening Firm: Evidence from Panel Data on the Changing Nature of Corporate Hierarchies,” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper Series, Working Paper #9633, April 2003, (accessed March 2, 2009).
iii U.S. Census Bureau, Housing and Household Economic Statistics Division, Fertility and Family Statistics Branch, “America’s Families and Living Arrangements: 2007,” (accessed December 16, 2008).
ivHeather Boushey and Ann O’Leary, eds., The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Changes Everything (Washington, DC: Center for American Progress, 2009), 32.
v Ellen Galinsky, Kersten Auman and James T. Bond, “Times Are Changing: Gender and Generation at Work and at Home,” National Study of the Changing Workforce, Families and Work Institute, 2009, /Times_Are_Changing.pdf, 19.
vi Sid Groeneman and Elizabeth Pope,“Staying Ahead of the Curve 2007: The AARP Work and Career Study,” AARP,, 13, 44.

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