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Future Workforce Predictions: Teams, Brain Scans and Externships at Work

November 26, 2012

The year was 1968, and a futuristic film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, pitted man vs. machine in a battle for domination.

Today, the massive HAL 9000 might be the size of a tablet computer, but fears of technology taking over are nothing new. Many pundits and prognosticators have imagined a machine-run society where superpowerful robots either enslave humans or give us lives of leisure.

Research in artificial intelligence, according to a feature on Discovery Channel's website, could one day lead to robots performing unassisted surgeries, preparing meals at restaurants or even teaching our children's classes. Let's just hope HAL's homicidal tendencies will be left out of the equation.

To wit, technology is advancing at a breakneck pace—consider, for instance, how much mobile phones have changed in just five years—but the future workplace isn't all about technology taking over either. Companies are looking for ways to bring the future to the present using teamwork. Human teamwork.

Medical device company Hospira Inc., for one, has a futuristic training program.

Called "Ignite," the program allows groups of employees to apply collectively for company grants to learn new skills. Ignite supplements a traditional tuition-reimbursement program for individuals at Hospira. Checks for up to $5,000 have gone to such initiatives as a proposal by the company's women's networking group to work with a consultant to increase global awareness and reach.

Lake Forest, Illinois-based Hospira launched Ignite in 2010. But it captures what many experts expect to be a crucial feature of the workforce a decade hence: increased attention to teams rather than individuals. Author Jeanne Meister, for example, predicts organizations will increasingly hire and train entire teams to tap the effectiveness of coherent work units.

Meister, who co-wrote The 2020 Workplace: How Innovative Companies Attract, Develop, and Keep Tomorrow's Employees Today and is a founding partner of consulting firm Future Workplace, says Ignite smartly fosters collaboration skills because colleagues have to join forces to apply for the funds. And she calls Hospira's program a good example of the more collective work styles on the horizon. "Because of the complexity of the businesses we operate in, nobody can really do the job without being part of a high-performing team," she says.

A greater focus on work groups is one feature of the likely workplace of the future. People management practitioners, researchers and consultants Workforce interviewed predict that over the next 10 years organizations also will likely turn more to nontraditional sources of labor, tap "crowdsourcing" for performance management and involve networks of organizations for employee career development.

Prognostication about the future of management is a well-trod field. In 1998 and again in 2008, Workforce took stabs at foretelling what human resources would look like 10 years out. We didn't always hit the mark. For example, consider this wishful-thinking item from 1998 about how HR would change by 2008: HR will "report directly to the CEO in most companies." But our 1998 crystal-ball gazing did include a forecast that "collaborative cultures" would become the workplace model. That's largely panned out. In 2008 we made a similar projection, saying "there will be an increased focus on infrastructures—such as social networks and wikis—to support building strong relationships and collaboration." With growing business interest in social media tools, this prediction seems to be coming true as well.

The importance of teamwork continues to be compelling to experts and executives as they guess at what's ahead. .

Hospira's Ignite program fits into this context. The initiative has roots in a quest to use employee-development dollars more efficiently, says Ken Meyers, senior vice president of organizational transformation and people development at Hospira. Officials reasoned that if one person needed training in a particular area, it probably applied to others as well at the 15,000-employee company. Since 2010, the company has given out close to 120 Ignite awards affecting 3,850 employees on topics including statistical analysis, customer service and infection prevention.

Even as Hospira promotes team development, Meyers expects individual initiatives to remain crucial to organizations in the years ahead. In particular, he says employee engagement will be less about companies trying to motivate workers and more of a shared responsibility. "It's not about how we engage employees," he says. "It's a choice employees make to be engaged."

Individual choice in another form could make up another striking feature of the future workforce: more people contributing to companies in nontraditional ways. One of these ways—working on a contingent basis—has been on the rise in recent years. And it will continue to become a popular option, says Jennifer Christie, chief diversity officer and vice president of executive recruitment at financial services company American Express Co.

"In the next five, 10 years, the employment relationship may evolve in such a way that organizations may not 'own' their talent, but there may be times where they 'borrow' it for a defined period of time," Christie says. "We see there being a mix of longer-term career employees and finding talent to fill short-term assignments."

Another alternative form of labor is enlisting volunteers, says John Boudreau, a management professor at the University of Southern California. Already, organizations are starting to take steps in this direction by arranging contests designed to help solve problems. Consider Foldit, an online game created by University of Washington researchers that aims to let the public tackle puzzles related to the way proteins are configured. In one case, gamers provided key insights for solving the structure of an enzyme vital to the reproduction of the HIV virus. The accomplishment could lead to new drugs to treat AIDS.

Boudreau says he can envision more such examples in the years ahead. "There may actually be some creative solutions that involve tapping into this voluntary talent pool," he says.

What Boudreau is talking about also goes by the name of "crowdsourcing." And the same principle could apply increasingly to employee reviews and performance management. Software tools such as Saleforce.com Inc.'s Work.com have emerged in recent years to make it easy for people to give one another praise. And this trend can morph into a smarter overall approach to people management, says Eric Mosley, CEO of recognition software and services provider Globoforce.

In an e-book titled The Crowdsourced Performance Review, Mosley foresees a future in which the performance-review process includes the feedback of a range of an employee's peers. Not only does this approach produce richer information than traditional top-down reviews, but also it inspires better behavior on the part of workers, Mosley says. "Because they have the power to reward others, they help to weave a stronger social fabric in the company," he writes. "As they nominate others for awards, they will become more conscious of company goals, values and teamwork. And they won't take these things for granted. They'll be active builders of culture."

Tom Vines, IBM's vice president of technical and business leadership, takes the social-performance management prediction a few steps further. Vines, who is responsible for the computing giant's leadership development and succession planning globally, thinks comments and endorsements will evolve to the point where employees will select their managers based on very visible feedback given to those supervisors. What's more, Vines expects companies to publish this information as a recruiting tool. Call it talent acquisition via radical transparency. "It will be both inside and outside" the company, Vines says. "Companies will want to expose their managers' ratings to attract talent."

Boudreau offers another prediction that fits in with the notion of a decentralized, more permeable organization. It is that companies will allow for and encourage their employees to take positions in other organizations for extended periods of time to increase their skills and develop their careers. These individuals may return to the organization, even as the firm accepts such long-term, temporary workers from other companies.

For an early adopter example of this, Boudreau points to Malaysia and a government agency called Khazanah Nasional Berhad. Khazanah has a mission to improve the country's economy through investments in strategically important industries such as telecommunications, transportation and utilities. One of its methods is to strengthen leadership development in Malaysia. To do so, it has created a cross-organization leadership exchange, where high-potential middle managers take assignments in another company for up to two years. The role is designed to be a challenging one that fosters growth, and the "home" company pays the employee's salary. If such "externships" take off, they would mark a new chapter in the relationship between organizations and employees.

"It's an example of this employment deal really being boundaryless," Boudreau says.

Speaking of new boundaries, companies will become much more sophisticated about the optimal function of workers' brains in the future, says Wayne Hochwarter, a management professor at Florida State University. He says this will include considering the role of stress on brain performance. And it could lead to a daily mind diagnostic. "I can see a future where an employee gets a brain scan every morning and is then assigned tasks based on what the test shows," Hochwarter says.

By way of example, he says that if a worker shows high activation in the frontal lobe of the brain on a particular day, that person may get the assignment of a key review of a 50-page financial report. That's because the frontal lobe controls functions including attention, problem-solving and judgment, Hochwarter says, which are important for a detailed scouring of a document.

Hochwarter argues organizations have just begun to appreciate the importance of brain health and its effect on productivity and organizational success. "You'll have a staff of people whose function is to chart and develop the mental capacities of workers, in terms of how stress is evaluated and reacted to," he says. "Much of this will come from the evolution of mind-enhancing diet and supplementing."

Would workers object to once-a-day brain diagnostics as invasive? Couldn't it raise fears of companies—if not supersmart, sinister machines like HAL—knowing too much? Hochwarter doubts it. To him, the future use of such technology will be commonplace. To his point, employees have come to accept surveillance cameras and software that records their every keystroke and Internet site visits while at work.

The scan "will be as simple as walking through a doorway," Hochwarter says. Workers "won't even know it's happening after a few times."

What about work way into the future? What can we expect to see closer to 2050 or 2060? Will human beings be mere batteries for machine masters, as The Matrix grimly suggested, or could people and computers become adversaries as we saw in 2001? On the other end of the spectrum, will computer advances lead to a work-free utopia for mankind?

IBM's Vines envisions something in between: people remain at the helm of ever-more powerful technology and organizations continue to need the services of flesh-and-blood workers. The age of "Big Data" is emerging, Vines says, and computers can sift through mounds of information. But he says companies require people with industry and analytic expertise to help them make sense of facts and figures. As paradoxcal as this sounds, humans are becoming as indispensable to companies as technology, he says.

A future where people still have to put their shoulder or brainpower to the grindstone may be the most realistic. But can't we dream about a day when work is a thing of the past? "Boy, I would like to live in that kind of world," Vines says with a laugh.

Whatever's coming down the pike, one thing's for certain: It will be an odyssey. And if there are any mistakes along the way? As HAL said, "It can only be attributed to human error." Indeed.

Ed Frauenheim is senior editor at Workforce. Comment below or email efrauenheim@workforce.com.