May 08, 2019

The Rise of Autonomous Teams and Social Capital

Hung Vu

Hung Vu
Chief Executive Officer/GROFACT /ɡrōTH faktər/

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  • 74% of C-level executives say “businesses will have more influence than governments or other organizations to shape social equality and stability” - Deloitte Human Capital Trends 2018

The ever-increasing digital nature of work and rapidly changing workforce demographics have flattened the hierarchical corporate structure, shifting from the traditional functional alignment and ushering in the rise of network of autonomous teams. This new and potentially confounding model of work has significantly evolved corporate organizational strategies and talent management practices in order to harness the growing power of the individual, with millennials at the forefront, and to align the values of the enterprise, community and environment.

By most 2020 projections, one in two of all U.S. workers will be millennials. Naturally tech-savvy, hyper-connected, multi-tasking collaborators, they are the most educated and socially conscious generation in history. By comparison, Gen-X, likely their managers, coaches, and mentors, represents only 16%. Millennials prefer purpose over paycheck, work-life integration over work-life balance and seek self-fulfillment, community service, and environmental sustainability. 86% think company performance should also include social capital in the effort to address income inequality, financial inclusion, health care access, diversity, and cybersecurity... Social capital plays an outsized role in whom they work with and where they buy from.

In meeting these challenges and opportunities, leadership is more crucial and multifaceted than ever. This vanguard leadership model requires an unprecedented level of cross-functional vision, connectedness, and collaboration from leaders. They must play in a transparent, interdependent, responsive and cohesive team, as they manage their respective autonomous functional groups. In other words, even C-suite leaders, aside from the much-valued expertise in domain experience, market awareness, process engineering, talent management, financial acumen, and emotional intelligence, must also learn to play in the sandbox in the way millennials already do intrinsically.




Uber, one of the most disruptive and innovative companies in transportation and logistics, has a network of city managers who, in turn, manage their own local network of functional managers in marketing, government relations, staffing, and operations. 

However, the non-trivial challenge is how do we foster an environment in which autonomous teams will align, share information and work together?  How do we motivate and reward people and groups in a workplace model that no longer promotes "upward mobility" and "power by position"? 

We do so, by:

  • Emphasizing team performance over talent engagement and engender trust and mutually beneficial interdependency and connectedness between teams and within teams.
  • Providing information centers and real-time feedback loops to optimize self-directed decisions and ensure the low-cost, easy flow of information. While groups and team leaders are kings in this workplace model, everyone must be aware of what is or isn’t working, what is or isn’t selling, what is developing into a problem or opportunity. Teams will then be able to make decisions independently, self-correct, execute effectively, and productively coordinate collective efforts.
  • Aligning mission, culture, values, and metrics will not only keep geographically dispersed teams on the same page and cadence, but high performance and resilient coherency also imbue team motivation and self-fulfillment, especially when aligned with the meaningful and positive social or environmental impact.
  • Rewarding people for the needed skills and contribution, not position. Artifacts like organization charts, job descriptions, performance appraisals, and career paths are being reinvented, redesigned, or even thrown away before our eyes in this age of merit-based network of autonomous and self-accounting teams.


  • Social capital is the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition (Bourdieu 1983: 249)
  • Social capital refers to the institutions, relationships, and norms that shape the quality and quantity of a society’s social interactions… Social capital is not just the sum of the institutions which underpin a society – it is the glue that holds them together (The World Bank 1999).

Plainly speaking, social capital is the collaborative collective effort and resources that are dedicated to consistently delivering value to the community through the stakeholders’ interactions, inside and outside of the enterprise.




A social enterprise combines revenue growth and profit-making with the need to respect and support its environment and stakeholder network. This includes listening to, investing in, and actively managing the trends that are shaping today’s world. It is an organization that shoulders its responsibility to be a good citizen (both inside and outside the organization), serving as a role model for its peers and promoting a high degree of collaboration at every level of the organization (Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends, 2018).

The 2018 Deloitte Millennial Survey, which explores the views of 10,455 millennials and 1,844 Gen Z respondents around the globe, reports that, against a backdrop of a fragmenting social and political environment and profound changes driven by the awe-inspiring Fourth Industrial Revolution (Industry 4.0), workers are increasingly pessimistic about the prospects for political and social progress and environmental sustainability. Their perception of business social capital, which had trended up the past two years, has unfortunately taken a sharp turn downward. 66% of respondents say companies have no ambition beyond revenue generation, up from 50%. Four in 10 respondents say business leaders are having a negative impact on the world. This author’s suspicion is this “downward trend” is indicative of the workforce demographics changing faster than the pace of social capital in the workplace.

More business leaders could adopt the longer and more sustainable view in maximizing the bottom line. Those most aligned with millennials’ values, cultural preferences, and professional development needs are likely to attract and retain the best young talent and, in turn, uplift financial performance in a sustainable fashion. Loyalty must be earned and continuously nurtured. The vast majority of millennials uber-connected, uber-aware, and are prepared to move on for better workplace experience.

None of this suggests general hostility toward employers; indeed, millennials are “pro-business”— they just simply expect more from leaders and corporations. It’s noteworthy that, in spite of their reservations, millennials see business leaders as making a more positive impact on the world than leaders in other areas. They are eager for businesses to aggressively commit more to making a tangible impact on society while preparing their organizations and employees for the Industry 4.0 sea change. This call-to-action serves as an exceptional opportunity for perceptive business leaders to further differentiate by investing diligently in social capital and fill what is regarded as a stark leadership void.

Read the full version of the article with graphics on LinkedIn here.

Comments? You can contact me directly via my AdvisoryCloud profile.

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