HR Expertise: Facing the Future of Work

By John Boudreau Jan 21, 2016
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HR Magazine December 2015As this year’s headlines proved, there is no shortage of criticisms of HR. Whether the reproaches came from the popular or business press, it seemed everyone wanted to share why they think HR is hated, unnecessary or ill-equipped for the challenges ahead. But wouldn’t you rather hear about the future of our profession from the people who are actually leading it?

That’s what Project CHREATE (The Global Consortium to Reimagine HR, Employment Alternatives, Talent, and the Enterprise) sought to do when it began in 2013. Through interviews, focus groups and research reviews, more than two dozen top HR executives revealed this year how they think HR should evolve over the next decade. The group included CHROs representing many industries in the public and private sectors, including Disney, Gap, LinkedIn, Shutterfly, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), Starbucks and others.

As it turns out, HR’s toughest critics may be themselves. Our leaders often rated HR’s effectiveness lower than those outside the field. Even some of the world’s most accomplished CHROs indicated an urgent need for HR to improve its ability to keep up with the demands of a rapidly changing world. The project team identified five forces shaping the future of work—and how HR leaders must address them.

Exponential technological change. The rapid adoption of sensors, autonomous vehicles and artificial intelligence will trigger a fundamental rethinking of work. HR leaders must be equipped to manage flexible and transient workforces that can adapt to continual change, including frequent job loss and obsolescence of skills.

Social and organizational reconfiguration. The “democratization” of work will shift power away from traditional hierarchies toward more-balanced organizations. As work relationships become less employment-based and more project-based, HR will need to source and engage talent in diverse work arrangements that include more part-time, freelance and crowdsourced workers.

A truly connected world. The world will be increasingly linked through mobile devices and the cloud, allowing work to be done anywhere, anytime. It will be up to HR to manage newly defined talent systems that support a distributed global workforce.

An all-inclusive global talent market. Work will be seamlessly distributed around the globe, and women and nonwhite ethnicities will become talent majorities. Moreover, as people live longer and healthier lives, their work lives will extend as well. In response, CHROs must lead organizations in segmenting their workforces and directing tasks to the best talent, whether inside or outside the company. They’ll also need to address cultural preferences in policies, work design, pay and benefits.

Human/machine collaboration. Advances in analytics, algorithms and automation will improve productivity and decision-making. The challenge for our leaders? To successfully migrate tasks from people to machines or robots and use “big data” to find the optimal human/machine balance.

These are not roles traditionally associated with HR, yet it’s critical that our leaders take them on by 2025. The SHRM Competency Model represents substantial progress toward preparing HR leaders to succeed. At the same time, we must keep thinking beyond our conventional notions of HR’s goals and responsibilities. That’s the only way to ensure that our leaders are poised to tackle the demands of tomorrow’s world as well.

John Boudreau is a professor at the Marshall School of Business and a professor and research director at the Center for Effective Organizations at the University of Southern California.

This article was adapted from an essay that appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of People + Strategy, published by HR People + Strategy, titled “HR at the Tipping Point: The Paradoxical Future of Our Profession.” ​

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