Gazing Ahead

In the year 2037, when HRE will celebrate its 50th anniversary, what will the working world look like? We asked some futurists for their forward-thinking thoughts.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012
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At the lavish affair to commemorate the 50th anniversary of this magazine -- which will probably be held in a spacious, zero-gravity ballroom at one of the newly opened Moon resorts -- what will the cocktail-hour conversation be about?

Will the gathered HR leaders of the working world discuss the latest techniques to implant specific pieces of knowledge into a worker's brain via a USB port, or perhaps debate the finer points of the latest law handed down by the international body created to govern global workplace issues?

While it may not address those two aforementioned hypotheticals, the Institute for the Future at the University of Phoenix Research Institute did some in-depth projecting when it released its latest report, Future Work Skills 2020, in which it outlines a number of what it considers to be vital job skills for future workers to have in the coming decade.

Included in the list are the following futuristic-sounding skills: novel and adaptive thinking, computational thinking and cognitive load management.

But perhaps what is most interesting about the report is what's not in it: the actual jobs of the future.

And there's a good reason for that, the authors say.

"Many [futurist] studies have tried to predict specific job categories and labor requirements," the report states. "Consistently over the years, however, it has been shown that such predictions are difficult and many of the past predictions have been proven wrong."

As the title suggests, the report focuses on the job skills of the future workforce, but it also addresses the implications for businesses, stating that they must be alert to the changing environment and adapt their workforce planning and development strategies to ensure alignment with future skill requirements.

Global connectivity, smart machines and new media are just three of the drivers reshaping how we think about work, what constitutes work and the skills needed to be productive in the future, according to the report.

"A decade ago, workers worried about jobs being outsourced overseas," it says. "Today, companies such as ODesk and LiveOps can assemble teams 'in the cloud' to do sales, customer support and many other tasks."

So, when HR looks to the future, creating a workforce strategy for sustaining business goals should be one of the most critical outcomes.

To that end, and in order to gain a more complete vision of the murky future of work, we recently asked a number of workplace futurists to gaze into their crystal balls and look ahead -- both short-term and long-term -- to help identify the coming trends that will shape the future world of human resources.

Toward Uniformity

Seymour Adler, a futurist, workplace psychologist and partner at Lincolnshire, Ill.-based Aon Hewitt, says any predictions about the future of work are "really speculative." So what is he speculating? That the rapidly changing technologies already being used in the workplace will help bring about a future of radical change sooner than we all may think.

"I think that we're going to hit a wall in the next three to eight years," he says. "Companies will be spending large amounts of money to align all their processes. It's just a reflection of how crazily complicated it is, from an HR perspective, to run a global company."

Couple that with navigating all of the different legal hoops a company must jump through when working in multiple regions of the globe -- each with its own intricacies on issues such as compensation and mandatory leave time -- and the future looks even more daunting for global organizations, he says.

"This kind of harmonization [of processes] required by HR departments across the globe is going to get so complicated and resource-consuming," says Adler, "that I've got to believe something is going to happen on a global level in an effort to make things more uniform," perhaps in the form of an international body, similar to the United Nations, to govern global labor laws and compensation.

Businesses, he says, may begin to find value in joining other companies on an international level, in much the same way European countries banded together to form the European Union in order to increase their collective-bargaining power.

"Otherwise, it's just going to eat up so many resources," he says, "that companies will get to the point where they pressure their own governments to come to some sort of broader agreement around certain workplace ideas."

He says such a hypothetical organization could set wage rates in each country, perhaps by creating a linkage between the minimum wage rate and each country's gross domestic product or national economic index.

As the world gets flatter and smaller, says Adler, the importance of a company's home country will also begin to fade.

"As boundaries erode, those national boundaries -- behind which are all sorts of labor regulations -- have got to erode, as well," he says, before cautioning that participation in a worldwide governing body "would require organizations to give up autonomy," which may keep many of them from participating.

But before the world's leading companies coalesce under one governing body, Adler says, smaller changes are already afoot in the working world, such as a shift toward a "fully autonomous work model," or the Results-Only-Work-Environment that some companies have already begun experimenting with, in which a worker has complete control over the manner in which he or she completes assignments.

And no one will have an office in the future, he predicts. Instead, everyone will be "hoteled," where otherwise-remote workers reserve physical spaces within company buildings for however long they may need them, and then give them up when business meetings or specific projects requiring their physical presence have concluded.

"[This trend is] going to accelerate," Adler says, "because we can do it well, thanks to technology, and also because the financial people will not be able to resist cutting costs [associated with providing dedicated workspaces to everyone] in everything besides manufacturing.

"There will be no real territoriality like [there] used to be," he says.

HR and the Brain

The nebulous nature of the workplace is something that another futurist also clearly sees coming down the pike.

"In 25 years' time," says Jennifer Jarratt, principal of Washington-based Leading Futurists, "work will be what you do, rather than where you go."

Jarratt, who is also a founding member and past chair of the Association of Professional Futurists, says that, by that time, Generation Y will be at the helm of many organizations and they will have grown up -- job-wise -- around flexible scheduling and unorthodox working models such as ROWE.

"So much of work is already migrating into computers and automation," she says, "that many of the people you work with may not even be in the same building or even country."

One area where groundbreaking work being done today may pay off in tomorrow's workplace, Jarratt says, is the human brain.

"Genetic issues will be much bigger in the workplace of the future," she says. "We will have more genetic knowledge about people's aptitudes and how certain [genes] connect with various types of work."

She says current research being done by the military on such issues as the effect of post-traumatic-stress disorder on soldiers may someday lead to breakthroughs in the workplace.

"[Being in the military] is a job, and we're looking at it now in terms of what it does to the brain and the psyche," she says.

While Jarratt acknowledges that PTSD may be "on the extreme end of brain issues and behavior," such research, she says, could also have for-profit benefits, as well.

With the use of brain science, she says, organizations will someday have greater insight on the type of worker to fill a certain position, and "people will have a better sense of how they fit into various kinds of work and what they want to do."

"We haven't started looking at ordinary jobs that way," Jarratt says, "but we will soon."

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Due to employee-privacy concerns, she says, "it's not [going to be] easy to bring in classifications of brains in employment, but I do see an increase in knowledge in the selectivity of individuals in what they want to do for work in the future."

And, in addition to knowing more about their own brains, Jarratt says, future workers will be comfortable with a different understanding of what it means to learn.

"This millennial generation will teach [its] kids a new style of learning," Jarratt says, "and that they have to be responsible for their own learning."

To the Holodeck!

On the topic of the future of learning and development, Joyce Gioia, president and CEO of The Herman Group, in Austin, Texas, says such programs will be light years ahead of how it's done today.

"In 25 years, we'll be training with virtual reality," she says, "similar to Star Trek's Holodeck."

Gioia also says the brain science Jarratt previously referred to will also affect learning and development plans.

"Learning plans will be tailored to learning styles," she says. "If we know you learn best by ear, then we'll give you the information in audio form."

She adds that organizations may even be able to insert information-filled computer chips into workers' brains (with their permission, of course) in order to speed up the learning process by that time.

"Training is really going to run itself," she says, "because the machines will be choosing the best programs for each individual."

And these new-fangled training and development programs will, of course, come with their own metrics to measure effectiveness, which, Gioia says, HR leaders must not only be aware of, but be on top of as well.

"If HR does not stay on top of these metrics," she says, "then there's a good chance the company will not have the people it needs."

Along those same lines, Gioia says, HR may someday also include the title of Chief Experience Officer.

"The CExO will be responsible for the experience that all organizations and employees have in interacting with the organization," she says. "For instance, what's it like to be a supplier for that organization? What's it like to be an employee for that organization? What about a customer's experience?"

While the conjectures and projections above are, by no means, guaranteed to occur, Gioia says, businesses -- and, more precisely, their HR leaders -- must keep peering into the hazy future of the working world, regardless, in order to be successful.

"HR professionals need to stay on top of the trends," she says. "They need to make sure they know what is happening, not only in their geographical areas, but across the globe . . . . They may think that what happens in India and China won't affect them, but it will.

"People who don't study the future," she concludes, "are destined to be its victim."

Read other stories and features relating to the 25th anniversary of Human Resource Executive® magazine:

Lessons from the Top

Brave New HR

Great Expectations

Top 25 Most-Read HREOnline Stories

Word Clouds: Then and Now

Top 25 HR Milestones

A Tale of Two Cities

25 Haikus For 25 Years

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