Book Review – “Workforce of One” by Susan Cantrell and David Smith

I was scanning the shelves of a book lending library, when I came across this book – the title intrigued me, so I picked it up and browsed through it. Based on the title, I had imagined an extraordinary organization of one person (me!) – it turned out to be something else, but interesting enough :-). Anyway, I borrowed the book, read it, and here is the review.

The main theme of the book/ book summary is as follows:

  • In the last few years, retail customer experience has been highly customized by internet based enterprises (e.g., Amazon, Netflix, Dell) with a great degree of success.
  • Employee experience too can be customized, to provide an environment to motivate each employee to deliver his/ her best for the organization.
  • This is required because people’s expectations have changed due to their experience as customers, because other organizations are already doing it, because it enables higher employee retention, engagement and productivity, and because it increases the ability to attract high potential employees. “One size fits all” is no longer a desirable approach.
  • Customization has become feasible because of the variety of tools and technology that are increasingly available.

According to the book, workforce practices have evolved from chaotic, ad-hoc, person-specific, unstructured, unfair systems to something that is monolithic, over-controlled, one-size-fits-all, and over-standardized. And now it is time to make the systems more flexible, tailored and customized.

The authors propose a four pronged approach to this customization, comprising:

  • Segment the workforce on dimensions like geography, tenure, career level, role, age, etc. to understand the requirements and needs of different segments.
  • Offer modular choices, in areas like compensation, working hours, learning methods, working place, etc. The modularity ensures structure and equity while providing flexibility.
  • Define broad and simple rules, instead of defining very elaborate policies and procedures. This will permit flexibility while ensuring that the values of organization are adhered to.
  • Foster employee-defined personalization by making people aware and enabling managers to guide employees to make appropriate choices.

The book covers multiple areas of people practices that can be customized. Some of them are rewards and recognition, learning, work place, work time, career growth pace and choices, assignment mix, performance goal setting and feedback mechanisms, compensation mix, benefits, and work place tools/ technology.

The authors use examples from organizations like Best Buy, Microsoft, Accenture, Procter and Gamble, Deloitte, The Container Store, Royal Bank of Scotland and others.

As a reader, I found some of the examples (illustrating the concept of customization) as being trivial. For example, the authors use the fact that a multi-national organization provides company transport to employees in Hyderabad (while it does not do so elsewhere in the world) as an example of customization (geographical segmentation). To me, this is like saying that the company follows Indian labor laws in India :-).  Since the organization has set up their office far away from the city’s residential areas and the city does not have adequate public transport, there is no choice for the company but to arrange transport for the employees.

The problem with trivial examples is that on reading the examples, many people will go, “yeah, we do that, actually we started that 10 years ago”. And miss the whole concept of the customization approach.

The book is easy to read and grasp and proposes a powerful concept worth investigating. Definitely worth reading for senior HR folks and CXOs (just ignore the trivial examples :-)).

Here are some details of the book:

By the way, you DON’T need a Kindle device to read a Kindle ebook

Front Cover - Workforce Of OneBook Title: Workforce of One: Revolutionizing Talent Management Through Customization

Authors: Susan M. Cantrell, David Smith

ISBN: 1422147584; ISBN-13: 9781422147580

Binding: Hardcover

Publishing Date: Nov 2010

Publisher: Harvard Business School Publishing

Available at: Amazon.com, Amazon.in, and Flipkart

Available as eBook in Amazon Kindle.

By the way, you DON’T need a Kindle device to read a Kindle ebook.

How do the concepts covered in the book align with the People CMM®? Well, that is the subject of another post, some other day! :-).

Other book reviews uploaded on the same blog:


I am Rajesh Naik. I am an author, management consultant and trainer, helping IT and other tech companies improve their processes and performance. I also specialize in CMMI® (DEV and SVC), People CMM® and Balanced Scorecard. I am a CMMI Institute certified/ authorized Instructor and Lead Appraiser for CMMI® and People CMM®. I am available on LinkedIn and I will be glad to accept your invite. For more information please click here. To get email alerts for new posts, click here to subscribe.

10 thoughts on “Book Review – “Workforce of One” by Susan Cantrell and David Smith”

  1. Dear Rajesh,

    Read your review and loved it Rajesh. The content of the book as I understand reflects back on EFQM Model of Business Excellence. Or may be that I am so hooked on to the model that I see everything through the glasses of the model. Keep up the good work

  2. Interesting and insightful review. Thanks Rajesh. I am in the last few pages of Tom Peters’ Re-Imagine. I like his style of writing though it comes across as very aggressive at times. What I liked best was that he was not only proposing changes that organizations have to make (Re-imagine) for the changing trends in the markets and customers expectations, but was also proposing how employees have to view themselves. He uses the phrase Professional Services Firm instead of departments for HR or Finance or Legal. If you were to run your own PSF, how would you do it? Now run your department or project or program like that. Imagine having awards for the best PSF in the company! Not for the best department. I like that!

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