Team GB lessons from Rio 2016 - a tech and HR perspective

Profile picture for user gonzodaddy By Den Howlett August 22, 2016
TeamGB scored an impressive set of medals at Rio 2016. What lessons can be drawn and applied to the field of talent and the place of technology? It strikes me there is quite a lot we can learn, but only if we abandon short term thinking.

team gb funding performance
Team GB's performance at the Rio 2016 Olympics this year has been little short of astonishing. Coming second in the medals table and in front of China is an achievement that begs many questions given the UK's population size and financial resources. During the games, there were questions about how the British cycling team managed to scoop up so many podium places, with indirect implied accusations of doping.

Yet at the end, the explanation on offer for Team GB's overall performance was straightforward. It came down to a focus on funding elite achievement in the context of playing a long game coupled to considerable scientific input. This article from the BBC captures the essence of how TeamGB went about its work.

Several aspects of Team GB's result raise questions in my mind about industry attitudes towards nurturing achievement, talent, the strategic place of success and employment frameworks.

For example, in Silicon Collar, which I reviewed last week, and the subsequent discussion in comments, I was dispirited by the apparent acceptance of a short term view of what the workplace of the future is going to look like in the wake of automation. If we accept that people will cycle through jobs at 3-5 year intervals, then it is difficult for me to understand how excellence is achievable except at an incremental pace. It begs the question as to why any company would think seriously about training, life learning or apprenticeship. Why would any company go to the expense of training in the knowledge that many of those more valuable workers are likely going to move on in short order?

Playing the long game

Now contrast that with what Vijay Vijayasankar said about his long tenure at a client during his first stint at IBM:

I quickly learned that nurturing a relation I already had for two years is infinitely better than building a new one from scratch every few months. To cut the story short – I bought a house next to the client offices to be close to them , doubled down on finding and solving problems for them and at one point – I realized I know their business better than most of their own employees.

(My emphasis added.)

In a follow up, I asked Vijay what happened to the institutional knowledge he acquired over those many years. He said it was a sad story, something that concerns me in the context of many aspects of automation. Vijay added:

You are right to be worried. Loss of value was very high and could not be recouped . Just that the lesson learned was invaluable for everyone involved.

As Vijay and IBM discovered, investing for the long haul is not just about the transaction(s) but about the place of relationship, a critical part of the workplace experience. When critical knowledge is lost, the next person in line has to start over. This is something Team GB recognized a long time ago. They were not simply planning for Rio but have a plan that extends out to the next olympics to be held in Tokyo 2020. Liz Nicholl, chief executive of the elite funding body UK Sport, is quoted saying:

We could win more medals in Tokyo. We are well advanced with Tokyo planning, every sport has already developed strategic plans for Tokyo, they were submitted in the spring. We asked them what is the medal potential for your sport in Tokyo, what it is it going to take to win and what will it cost. We can see from the medal target ranges that are in draft at this point in time that there is an opportunity to build on the success here in Rio, but they will need to reflect on their performances here.

On the flipside, Team GB is concerned about the impact of the possible poaching of top scientists and coaches to other nations. In short, we may be talking sport, but money talks loud and clear in every aspect of life. We will see how that long term view is articulated in Team GB's ability to hold onto its back room talent.

A different thinking

In business, I have seen pockets of a different kind of thinking that reflect a need for the long term. Last year for example, I was impressed with the way Boeing collects and maintains the history of its aircraft and the 747 in  particular. The 747 has a long term expected life of 100 years as an aircraft type. The person responsible for that task has been with Boeing for more than three decades. As might be expected, this fits in with Vishal Sikka, CEO Infosys thoughts on timelessness, a concept that seems foreign in a fast moving world, but which clearly pays dividends for those companies (and sports) that embrace it.

Where does this leave Talent Management, the much vaunted predecessor to SaaS based core HR? It's a good question because the whole premise upon which TM was introduced assumed the need to both hire and retain the best people. For perspective, I turned to the writings of Josh Bersin, arguably the leader in HR thought. Three months ago, he talked about 'bold' HR, making the clear statement that: order for HR to thrive and add value in today's new world of work, we have to be bold in our thinking, bold in our strategies, and bold in the redesign of what we do.

Bersin uses the term 'BOLD' as an acronym to describe the HR framework of the future. It's a neat device and is certainly encouraging in its view. I liked that you can readily see a consistent thread of investment in learning as a key component of modern HR strategies. That's all  fine. But, nowhere did I find the term 'long term' anywhere in this seminal piece. Instead, I saw different takes on leadership for which you can substitute 'funding for elites.' Here's how it is found in the corporate world:

Today there are literally hundreds of vendors, models, and consultants to help you build great leaders. Bold HR means you innovate, identify the characteristics of great leaders in your own company, and build a leadership development program that speaks to your own company's culture.

(My emphasis added.)

But what if your company's culture only values the short term or believes it must run as slave to Wall Street or believes that automation is having such a radical impact that investing in people for the future is a mug's game? Where does that get you?

My sense is that we're at an inflection point in terms of both technology and funding. Plenty has and will be written about the need for lifelong learning, the so-called - and in my opinion phony - war for talent, both coupled to strategic imperatives. What I don't see is an appetite for being BOLD for the long haul in the way that TeamGB's sports leaders are viewing the problem of nurturing excellence. I've come to the conclusion that if business is serious about the business of talent, then solving for the long term is a vital component to making those TM investments deliver what they say on the tin, rather than act as fingers in the leaky dyke of business.

For its part, Silicon Collar argues that the choices available to the next generation of workers is vastly greater than those available to my generation and that, therefore, young people will likely try many new things. Maybe so for the privileged few that can afford such a 'career' path. I remain far from convinced that is a viable let alone palatable choice for many entering the workplace or, indeed for many already in the workplace and who are finding that employment security is becoming a thing of the past.

Where to next?

Some will argue that the sports analogy is mis-placed because the relatively short term nature of a sports person's 'career' counters my long term view. It can also be argued that olympic success is a matter of prestige rather than business ROI. But then I look at the number of athletes who came back to Rio and repeated past glories not once but twice and ask the question - why would anyone do that if the rewards were not there? Why would anyone put themselves through the obvious pain over 4,8 or 12 years?

Despite stories to the contrary for other nations, the UK has a deliberate policy of ensuring that potential olympians don't starve. Some go on to lucrative careers. Achieving those rewards not only requires a natural talent for whatever sport is in mind, but, as TeamGB has shown, a very clear and well funded strategy for taking raw talent and molding it into something truly great and inspiring to others, supported by science and technology that help enhance performance.

The one glitch in my argument is in the area of funding sources. In TeamGB's case, the necessary funding came from a requirement that the UK's National Lottery allocate funds to sports. That's a clear public policy decision that could not be replicated by way of business handouts. However, I do believe there is a place for both business and government to find compromises and common ground that benefits business and society as a whole.

At the risk of  unwittingly wading into a political quagmire, it seems to me that now, more than ever, we need an atmosphere where the long term needs of people take some measure of priority. That can only come from a reframing of business and capital, objectives that are firmly in the hands of government. The outcomes from TeamGB's strategy and laser focus are there for all to see. While there are side issues in play around value delivered, I believe there are principles at play which business can learn from and which, combined with technology progress, will lift all boats. It won't happen today or tomorrow but, it can happen when the time horizons over which business is prepared to plan are beyond those of the next few quarters.