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Running head: Work Force Agility

Work Force Agility

Walter Vanstone
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Today, organizations and the business environment that they operate in are faced

with a never ending challenge to adapt to change. These challenges to organizational changes are

largely due to organizations competing in a reactive business environment: globally, technology,

customer demands, and government regulation are some of the forces that contribute to an

organization to respond to change. From this reactive business environment, challenges to

change must be brisk and the organization must have the ability to adapt; thus the need for agility

among organizations and its workforce. However, before analyzing an organizations agility and

its workforce agility let’s take a look at the origin, concept, and definition of agility.

Origin, Concept and Definition

The origin of agility according to Breu, Hemingway, Strathern and Bridger (2001)

who quotes Richards, 1996 was “develop in the 1950s in the field of air combat, agility was

defined as “an aircraft’s ability to change maneuver state, or, put another way, as the time

derivative of maneuverability.” (p. 21). Thus, a general definition of business agility would be an

organizations ability to change or move quickly, react too, and anticipate its business


The 1950s definition of agility was then developed into a concept that according

to Breu, Hemingway, Strathern and Bridger (2001) it, “was popularized in manufacturing in the

early 1990’s and was soon extended into the broader business context…defined as an

organization-wide capability to respond rapidly to market changes and to cope flexibly with

unexpected change…” (p. 21)

From the manufacturing definition of agility a resultant definition of organization

agility emerged. According to Breu, Hemingway, Strathern and Bridger (2001) who quotes Yusuf

et al., 1999, “…successful exploitation of competitive bases (speed, flexibility, innovation

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proactively, quality and profitability) through the integration of reconfigurable resources and best

practices in a knowledge-rich environment to provide customer-driven products and services in a

fast changing market environment.” (p. 22). From this definition came a plethora of definitions

and applied concepts of agility with in a business organization. Breu, Hemingway, Strathern and

Bridger (2001) site several, such as; agile competitor, agile supply chains, agile decision support

systems and agile workforce.

Organizational Agility

Organizations must create an organization that promotes and maintain an agile

business. To do so, they must establish strategic goals, promote change, reward employees and

remove the road block to change. Today organizations that foster these changes will find that

they are completive, increase their shareholder value and have a productive workforce.

Moreover, there leaders must communicate, lead by example, and have problem solving skills. It

also must have a workforce that can solve every day challenges at its lowest functional level. A

true agile organization will have a workforce that can change with any demanding change in its

business environment. Its workforce must be able to identify process improvements through

continuous improvement events, six sigma and quality process improvements and become

proactive and not reactive.

Workforce Agility

It can be said that in order to have an agile organization there must be an agile

workforce. Human resources will be the main driver in establishing this agile workforce.

However, before indentifying what makes up an agile workforce an attempt will be made to

define workforce agility. With previous definition of agility and organizational agility a

suggestion of a definition of workforce agility can be generated. An agile workforce can be

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defined as a culture or organization with a knowledge based diverse workforce that can adapt to

a changing business environment.

Now that a definition of workforce agility has been established a closer look at the

basic framework for an agile workforce will be explored. As Hopp, Tekin and Van Oyen (2002)

point out that “the main motives for pursuing workforce agility can be classified as improved

efficiency, enhanced flexibility, increased quality, and improved culture.” (p. 17). To accomplish

this human resource must build a workforce that is flexible, must have a diverse business and

technically knowledgeable workforce in all areas of business, be able to troubleshoot day to day

problems, and be cost effective and completive. So how does HR accomplish such a tall order?

First HR must establish a plan by analyzing it current workforce, by doing so this

will establish a base line of what currently is in place; the old adage, plan the work and work the

plan would fit here. It also establishes what is lacking or what is needed to accomplish the task or

project that demands the change. In addition, organization must analyze their corporate culture,

and establish practices and policies to facilitate it agile workforce through empowering their


Next, is the workforce ready for the change? As Hopp, Tekin and Van Oyen

(2002) suggest; does your workforce need to be flexible, what skills or skill sets, and tools are

needed and does the workforce need to be cross-trained in order to respond to business need

changes. “Cross-training is a resource that should be properly balanced by indentifying tasks that

benefit optimally for worker task-sharing.” (p.192). However, the authors caution that” cross-

training carried beyond a certain point results in workers trained in skills that…will be seldom

used.” (p. 193). On the other hand, the authors also suggest that cross-training requires an

employee to learn new skills and he or she becomes more productive. With regards to HR and its
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recruiting effort in attracting and retaining employees, cross-training “suggest that the

opportunity for learning is a key factor in employee satisfaction and in attracting and retaining

employees. Thus, it may be prudent to train workers broadly, as way to attract and retain them.”

(p. 193).

Even if you cross-train your workers, there may not be employees with the

desired skill set required to accomplish the task or project; or perhaps your workforce is retiring

(baby boomer). So, how do you eliminate this challenge? Hire more skilled employees, right?

Perhaps, but the key to an agile workforce is to know when to hire the right employee for the

right job and project. Recruiting employees require time and money, and if you are planning an

effective agile workforce strategy then you will need to be flexible, if your business needs are

urgent than the most cost effective solution is a temporary employee, commonly known as a job

shopper, temp or in some cases the not so policy correct label of Kelly girl. These temp workers

usually have skills and experience that can be taught to your workforce so use their knowledge


Now that you have identified a plan, and you are planning your work and working

your plan how do you communicate your plan? That’s right, technology. As Breu, Hemingway,

Strathern and Bridger (2001) point out that “In order to respond to the emergent information and

collaboration requirements of an agile workforce, flexible IT infrastructures need to be in place

in order to support the rapid introduction of new systems.” (p. 28). By doing so, this will provide

an excellent framework for communicating tasks as well as providing tools for project

management to your agile workforce.

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Boudreau, J., Hopp, W., McClain, J., Thomas, L. (2003). On the interface between

operations and human resources management. Manufacturing & Service Operations

Management, 5(3), 179. Retrieved April 10, 2009, from ABI/INFORM Global database

Breu, K., Hemingway, C., Strathern, M., Bridger, D. (2002). Workforce agility: the new

employee strategy for the knowledge economy. Journal of Information

Technology, 17(1), 21-31. Retrieved April 10, 2009, from ABI/INFORM

Global database.

Hopp, W., Tekin, E.,Van Oyen, M. (2004). Benefits of Skill Chaining in Serial Production Lines

with Cross-Trained Workers. Management Science, 50(1), 83-98. Retrieved April 10,

2009, from ABI/INFORM Global database.