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Class of '98 Hits and Misses on HR's Future

The predictions made in 1998 about HR in 2008 were overly optimistic but on the right track.

December 19, 2008
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Overly optimistic, but on the right track.

That sums up the quality of predictions made by a group of experts a decade ago, when Workforce Management (or Workforce, as it was called then) asked them to forecast what HR would look like in 2008.

The panel of HR executives and researchers was largely on the mark, for example, in forecasting that "collaborative cultures" would become the workplace model; that many jobs would be "redesigned to be much broader in scope, especially in management positions, resulting in leaner headcounts"; and that the continued emergence of a world marketplace would "require development of an international workforce."

But the futurists overreached on a number of forecasts. Consider the utopian prediction that "families will return to the center of society; work will serve as a source of cultural connections and peripheral friendships." And the still-futuristic notion that "Freelance teams of generic problem solvers will market themselves as alternatives to permanent workers or individual temps." Then there’s this example of wishful thinking: "HR will have a ‘seat at the table’ as part of the top management team and report directly to the CEO in most companies."

That hasn’t happened, says Jac Fitz-enz, chief executive of consulting firm Human Capital Source and one of the 10 panelists from 1998.

"In certain areas, we had the right direction," Fitz-enz says. "We just expected things to happen faster than they did."

Jason Averbook, CEO of consulting firm Knowledge Infusion, has a similar view. He says HR departments have spent more time getting up to speed on such topics as virtual work arrangements, the global nature of work and just-in-time learning than putting the ideas into practice. "The last 10 years have been spent educating HR around those concepts, not HR implementing those concepts," he says.

For the story a decade ago, Workforce Management asked Fitz-enz and his peers to generate and rank predictions in six categories. Workforce Management has conducted a similar exercise this year, with a largely new set of panelists.

Though not all the 60 predictions from 1998 have materialized, the top-ranked choices from each category reveal good forecasting:

Workplace flexibility: Collaborative cultures will be the workplace model.

Global business: The role of corporate HR will change to that of creator of overall values and direction, and will be implemented by local HR departments in different countries.

Work and society: Family and life interests will play a more prevalent role in people’s lives and a greater factor in people’s choices about work—there will be more of a "work to live" than a "live to work" mentality.

Workforce development: Lifelong learning will be a requirement.

Definition of jobs: Organizations won’t pay for the value of the job but for the value of the person.

Strategic role of HR: Successful HR departments will focus on organizational performance.

Today’s growing interest in corporate social networks, ad hoc teams and in the cooperative style of Millennials shows that collaborative cultures are growing in importance, even if they are not yet the workplace model. And to take another of these top predictions, companies do seem to care more about finding and tapping the value of individual employees, rather than simply paying for a job. Consider all the attention to identifying and grooming high-potential employees in recent years, as well as the push for better succession planning and career development.

On the other hand, there are some major developments in workforce management that the 1998 story largely ignored. It failed to capture the emergence of metrics in HR and increased interest in quantifying the return on "human capital" in the past decade. Nor did the panelists forecast the mushrooming importance of complying with various laws and regulations—a trend that hit HR and other corporate functions in the wake of the Enron and stock-option-backdating scandals.

In other areas, the panel had the right idea in general, but set the bar too high. HR, for example, continues to struggle in its quest to have a seat at the table. Jodi Starkman, executive vice president at consulting firm ORC Worldwide, says HR for the most part hasn’t spearheaded efforts to optimize the performance of organizations.

It could do so, she says, through such means as having visibility into the global talent pool, which would enable it to deploy people better. "My observation is that HR in most organizations is still barely a partner, let alone a leader," Starkman says. "Ten years later, it continues to play a largely transactional role in most organizations."

The software systems used by HR officials haven’t helped much, Averbook says. For years, vendors have been touting "strategic" human capital management applications. But the tools have by and large fallen short, Averbook argues, beginning with the employee data typically found in HR systems.

Commercial social networking sites do a better job gathering information about people, he says. "LinkedIn and Facebook know more about the employee than the company does," Averbook says.

Some of the predictions from this year’s panel are similar to those made a decade ago, underscoring the fact that the field hasn’t changed as fast as many expected. Even so, a number of panelists this year said the pace of change would increase in the coming decade.

Fitz-enz says that breaking down tradition is not a speedy process.

"You’re talking about evolution," he says. "And evolution takes time."

Workforce Management, December 22, 2008, p. 23 -- Subscribe Now!

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