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HR 2008 A Forecast Based on Our Exclusive Study

January 1, 1998
January is always a time when human resources professionals think about the future. It’s a time to plan, envision, prioritize and set goals for the new year. Although management, by its very nature, demands that HR professionals look ahead, it can be difficult, if not downright daunting, to see beyond the veil of 1998 and into the years beyond.

So we set out to help you do just that—get a picture of what the workplace, HR and jobs themselves will look like 10 years from now. Earlier this year, we handpicked 10 leading HR directors, vice presidents and consultants, and invited each of them to make some educated guesses in six specific areas Workforce editors thought would undergo the most upheaval over the next 10 years: workplace flexibility, global business, work and society, workforce development, the definition of jobs, and last, but not least, the strategic role of HR.

The process went like this: Workforce determined through a strategic analysis of HR and the workplace what the six areas of greatest change might be in the next 10 years. Then we painstakingly selected 10 panelists who were former Workforce Magazine Optimas Award winners or who’ve been leading consultants to the HR profession.

Once we selected the panel, we asked them to brainstorm individually what developments they think will occur in these six areas. Next, we asked them to rank the importance of these developments. Then we fed the rankings back to them for more ranking. Finally, we chose their top-60 predictions to report to you.

This process is what futurists call a Delphi study. Futurists, however, use the technique of iterative polling to generate discussion and critical examination. Workforce has used it here to create a consensus, to get a feeling for what this particular profession anticipates for itself in the next decade.

This is a picture of HR and the work environment in the year 2008 that's decidedly confident in the status of HR.

The result is a picture of HR and the work environment in the year 2008 that’s decidedly upbeat and confident in the status and influence of HR professionals. Perhaps we might have expected that, given the status of our panelists. But their predictions are by no means "predictable." Although they collectively paint a picture of HR moving further along already established HR paths in some areas, our panelists forecast some completely unexpected twists and turns in other areas, such as envisioning the end of job descriptions and job titles, and the advent of HR professionals as organizational performance experts. Their suggestions are compelling.

But this study isn’t so much about predicting the future as it is about surfacing the assumptions that will guide the behavior and decisions of HR professionals over the next decade. Workforce predicts you’ll think about this year, and indeed the next 10, with a new perspective. Here, we discuss the highlights and give you insight about how the predictions might affect you, your workforce and your organization by the year 2008.

Workplace Flexibility: Collaborative work in a virtual office.
Our panelists believe the future workplace will be characterized by creative, flexible work arrangements. Specified work hours and schedules will have little or no importance, and information technology will even free the employee from a specified work location. Work will become much more collaborative, and the government will support the flexibility by increasing benefits portability.

According to panelist Evelyne Steward, senior vice president of HR for the Calvert Group in Bethesda, Maryland, organizations don’t have very much choice about this. "We need to change our business paradigm," she says. "The employee is in the driver’s seat. We need to meet employee needs if we’re going to have a competent workforce."

Several panelists said they thought the study’s predictions about workplace flexibility confirmed their personal beliefs. "I have always thought the hours of work would become less important and there would be increasing emphasis on performance and results," says panelist Bonnie Hathcock, vice president of HR and development for US Airways in Arlington, Virginia. "What we’re seeing is the elimination of the traditional command-and-control structure and the creation of the virtual workplace."

According to panelist Tharon Greene, director of HR for the City of Hampton, Virginia, employees are [able to meet the challenges and] demands that will be made on them by the massive redesign of work. "Employees respond to their jobs," she says. "Design a big job, you get big work."

The No. 1 prediction in this area emphasized "collaborative cultures," so we contacted futurist and consultant Joyce L. Gioia. She suggests this trend is well under way. "We’ve been seeing more managers who spend nearly all their time managing work teams. These are self-created and self-sustaining cross-functional teams that take their objectives from management but work with a great deal of autonomy. They recruit their own members and plan their own strategies. They may even have virtual structures, communicating via e-mail and teleconferencing." Gioia is president of Herman Associates Inc., a Greensboro, North Carolina-based firm that offers strategic consulting and training to help organizations handle HR issues and prepare for the future.

It may sound paradoxical that jobs are going to be both more autonomous and collaborative. But if you’ve ever participated in a chat group on the Web or on one of the online services, then you know it’s possible to create and maintain a community or a team even across time zones. Chat groups are fairly primitive compared to some of the software (known as groupware), such as Lotus Notes, that facilitates teamwork.

If there’s a single, large implication from our panelists’ 10 predictions in the area of workplace flexibility, it’s that we can all expect to attend fewer meetings in the future. It’s true we can have face time through videoconferencing, but millions of self-employed people and telecommuters function perfectly well (and productively) without them. Their example suggests that offsite workers (who some studies say eventually will be two-thirds of an organization’s workforce in the next century) will likely spend far less time in videoconferences than they spend with their e-mail.

Can you shape employee behavior without face-to-face meetings? For that matter, can you sustain a corporate culture without the thousands of subtle signals that reinforce it in an office "neighborhood"? These are particularly important questions for HR professionals, who in many organizations are the cultivators and keepers of corporate culture. But the experience of successful inter-company task forces and standards committees (not to mention virtual organizations) shows that you may not need a full-blown culture to establish values. HR professionals should be studying the employees their companies assign to inter-company work groups, as well as telecommuters and other offsite workers, so they can understand the most important variables in independent work arrangements, because these will be more the rule than the exception in the near future.

Incidentally, we may not regain all the time that may be wasted in meetings. Human nature is surprisingly constant in different arenas and media. Anecdotal evidence suggests many groupware users waste time prettying preliminary and interim work products because it’s visible to other group members. Team leaders will have to learn how to manage this tendency the way they have always had to learn how to contain grandstanding and preening at meetings.

Our panelists clearly believe work is going to occupy a smaller part of people's emotional lives in the future.

There are some things that must or ought to be done in person—counseling, performance reviews, company softball games—and there probably always will be a small core of employees who habitually work at a central office, a core that may include at least some HR professionals. Perhaps this also suggests we’ll move further and further toward the decentralization model of human resources organizations that we’ve been moving to in the past several years.

At the very least in the future, most of us probably will see our Federal Express couriers more often than we see our supervisors. And how human resources professionals will help manage that eventuality will be necessary to address.

Global Business: Borderless business requires a global workforce.
As could be expected, our panelists see major growth in world trade, the world marketplace and the development of an international workforce. Because of this, they see organizations relying on HR professionals as the facilitators of work across borders and among different cultures.

But panelist Russ Campanello, an independent HR strategy consultant in Arlington, Massachusetts, said this prediction is just part of the picture. "Globalization is a given," he says. "But we haven’t said much about the implications of that. Globalization, for example, means that business goes on 24 hours a day. This has profound implications for the way work is done. Look at the Internet commerce company Verifone, which has attempted to design the work to be handed off from time zone to time zone, so that it follows the daylight around the globe. What does something like that do to the organization’s acquisition and location of talent?"

Workforce sought the advice of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for International Economics, where Visiting Fellow J. David Richardson (author of "Why Exports Really Matter!" and "Why Exports Really Matter More!"; National Association of Manufacturers 1995) confirmed that globalization means the world won’t work in the old way. "Cross-cultural adaptation is becoming more necessary," he says. "I can tell you that as an educator, I see changes in the relative values of different kinds of preparation for students. We’ll see more emphasis on language, history and geography and less on natural science. You can hire science." Richardson, who’s also a professor of economics at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse, New York-based Syracuse University, sees an interesting effect of globalization among his master’s degree students. "Other things being equal," he says, "the students who are most successful in finding jobs are the ones from cross-cultural families or who have some kind of experience with another culture in their backgrounds."

Richardson didn’t quite like the wording of prediction No. 6 ("Megaglobal business alliances will grow in number and scope, requiring great finesse on the part of the HR professional"), saying that "mega-alliances" have very little to do with the growth of global business. "There’s a great deal of growth in international business among small firms in the form of international supply chains, representation deals and a lot of creative arrangements," he says. "When you look at the number of American firms that have become exporters over the past 20 years, there has been almost no growth among those with 500 or more employees. But among smaller firms, the number of exporters has grown 20 percent."

Is Richardson hopeful about the role of HR in global business? "I think most people have a stereotype of HR people," he says. "They are thought to be maintainers —they maintain peace, mental health, employee career momentum and so on. Looking to the future, they need to be adventurers rather than maintainers. That’s not the stereotype, but that’s who will succeed in HR in the global marketplace."

If you have any doubts about the need to prepare for globalization, they can easily be dismissed by a glance at current headlines. Last fall, real estate lending in Thailand led to a financial crisis in Hong Kong, which caused the Dow Jones average to plummet. This globe-circling shock wave alone is enough to show us that national economies are becoming increasingly irrelevant. There’s only one economy, and it spans the world. But the picture of a great, booming world economy that emerges from our panelists’ predictions may be a little too rosy. The Hong Kong stock market crash and its aftermath are proof that adjusting to globalization may not always be easy.

Nevertheless, it’s increasingly unlikely that American business can or will turn back from the rush to globalize. If most companies maintain a presence in other countries, either through local branches or international business alliances, they cannot leave the intercultural work issues to chance, and our panelists suggest it’s the HR function that will manage this beat.

At the most mundane level, this may mean support services in obtaining visas for border-crossing employees. At the deeper levels, however, someone will need to maintain written and unwritten corporate policies for transportability to other cultures. It’s clear that our panelists think HR professionals will have to step up their global skills and competencies in the next 10 years.

But we must not assume that human resources professionals’ roles will just be another exercise in managing multicultural diversity. The global landscape is littered with companies that have been forcibly ejected (or decamped in disgrace) from countries that found their work offensive. Manage your domestic diversity badly and you may get a morale problem or a lawsuit. Manage your affairs in another country badly and you’ll have a market disappear or employees taken hostage. The first order of business is to keep top management informed of the costs of not paying attention to the transnational issues.

Our panelists suggest that corporate HR will keep in touch with local HR departments in different countries. It will maintain a corporate culture that works for both the domestic company and its international presence. This will require an understanding of foreign cultures. Local human resources departments can help with that, but communicating clearly with them (in both directions) will be corporate’s responsibility. Our panelists may be whistling in the dark when they suggest human resources professionals will not need to learn foreign languages. They will certainly have to have foreign language speakers on staff.

The proposition that small teams of human resources professionals will take performance improvement consulting services to different global locations is one of the most exciting propositions to come out of the study. Although human resources managers might not have to know local languages in depth, it’s unlikely you could be on such a team without understanding the language of those whose performance needs to be improved. The members of these teams will have to be steeped in the values and assumptions of the other culture before they enter it. There may be a role for corporate anthropologists in this arena. Not only will human resources directors have to think outside the box in determining how they deal with global workforce issues, they’ll have to make sure they remember the proverbial business box is getting increasingly bigger and more complex.

 

Work and Society: Working to live, not living to work.
In this area, our panelists foresee a workplace that will free up employees to pursue life interests and family obligations. They also anticipate a growing involvement in the community by business organizations, which will take increasing responsibility for social needs.

"We’re starting to see signs that people are questioning how much of their lives must be dedicated to work," says panelist Dave Pylipow, director of employee relations for Hallmark Cards Inc. in Kansas City, Missouri. "Companies need to consider the fact that this questioning is going on if they want to remain competitive."

Says panelist Greene: "The issues in this section struck a responsive chord with me, not just around child care, but around elder care as well. In our office of nine, we have four people dealing with this. It must be the same all over. These are tough issues, and they have changed a lot even in just the past five years."

As with the global business area, panelist Campanello thought the predictions on work and society didn’t go far enough. "It looks to me like the focus is on 1980s and 1990s backlash," he says. "It sounds like we’ve all decided we’re done killing ourselves with work. That’s true, but I was disappointed that the real possibilities didn’t show up here. I think telecommuting may spark a resurgence of home and community that’s even more powerful than what we suggest here. People may begin sharing information in communities, for example, the way we now do in organizations."

Panelist Bob Peixotto, vice president of total quality and HR at L.L. Bean Inc. in Freeport, Maine, pointed out that the first four predictions, which emphasize how employees will realize more fulfillment in their personal lives, are at odds with the fifth prediction, which says that the struggle to balance life and work will get worse. "I think prediction No. 5 is more realistic," he says. "While I’d like to see [predictions] one through four come true, (these forecasts all involve families and workers’ personal lives taking on a greater role and work itself taking on a lesser role) this trend could reduce U.S. competitiveness. As long as people in other world economies are willing to invest in education and work harder for less pay, we’ll have a difficult time unilaterally working less. This pressure may be equally strong for both blue-collar and white-collar workers."

The emphasis on families prompted us to call the Families and Work Institute in New York City and speak with Research Associate Jennifer Swanberg, who’s on "The National Study of the Changing Workforce." She confirmed that the nation is enjoying an increased focus on family life. "There appears to be an attitude shift under way," she says, "and it’s showing up in how people spend their time. Since 1977, we’ve seen an increase in the amount of time men spend on home chores and on child care. Among women, we’ve seen a decrease in the amount of time spent on chores and no change in the amount of time spent on child care." But the institute’s research also seems to underline Peixotto’s remarks about the struggle to attain balance. "Both men and women are spending less time on themselves," she says.

Our panelists clearly believe work is going to occupy a smaller part of people’s emotional lives in the future. Some people will adjust to this easily, because they already have family and life interests standing ready to fill in the gap. But others will doubtless feel a little lost, which may cause them to demand more support from their employers or lead them to bring more of their personal and life interests—such as family, community or even spirituality—into the workplace. Of course, if they are working at home, they may not have very far to go.

"HR 2008" panelists say the prevailing attitude of "live to work" will shift over toward one of "work to live" as people devote more attention to family and life interests. But are people fleeing the workplace to pursue personal interests, or are they simply finding that new patterns of work allow them to attend to those interests more closely? The rise in self-employment and telecommuting is allowing people to decompartmentalize and integrate their lives. When workers’ offices are in a corner of their bedrooms or right off their family living rooms, work becomes just another thing they do rather than another world they travel to. In the future, work will be more like an ongoing transaction and less like participation in a culture.

In any case, modern industrial culture separates people’s work lives from their personal lives fairly rigidly, and anything that pierces the barrier between them is bound to impact human resources management significantly. Does this mean you will have to deal with employees on a much more personal level than you’re used to? Not necessarily. Although employees will be integrating their personal and family lives into their work more, it’s difficult to imagine our ideas of workplace privacy changing significantly. Nor will employees necessarily seek more support from their employers for personal problems, since they’ll have access to this support from their communities. But they will expect greater flexibility from their employers regarding personal issues, and this may affect the way managers (with human resources’ directors’ instructions) do evaluations, performance reviews and career planning.

Workforce Development: Constant learning in a just-in-time format.
Our panel foresees a world in which employees will learn constantly, and the nimbleness with which they learn will set their value to their organizations. They will have basic computer skills, and they will use technologies as training vehicles, acquiring both skills and learning only when they need them. The firms they work for will train them for performance, not for skill building.

According to panelist Pylipow, the ability of employees to learn quickly and repeatedly has implications beyond training and will affect other areas in the purview of human resources management, namely recruiting and HR planning. "It’s the critical piece in talent sourcing," he says, "the ability to learn over and over again."

We sought advice in this area from the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD), based in Alexandria, Virginia. "Your predictions seem consistent with what we’re seeing," says ASTD President Curtis Plott, "but I think there’s an area you’ve missed—that intellectual capital is no longer just something to talk about. Wall Street has discovered it. Recently, Smith Barney, and Montgomery Securities have developed investment lines in training and education, and the interest has been so high that they’re oversubscribed."

A new focus on performance measurement is shifting emphasis away from skill building. Our predictions picked this up, and Plott says it will alter the structure of the training industry. ASTD’s research indicates that companies will transform into learning organizations—one of the 10 major trends the organization says its members need to understand.

Plott says prediction No. 5 falls slightly short in not mentioning learner control (a major issue in just-in-time, technology-delivered training) and prediction No. 3 ("Employees with varied skills and competencies will be valued more highly than those with a depth of experience in a single area") seems to sell expertise short. "Varied skills and depth of expertise may be valued equally in the future," he says.

Another implication the study didn’t surface in workforce development, according to futurist Gioia, is the learning an organization’s managers will have to undergo. She thinks most work will be accomplished by teams that will require more leadership than management. "The leaders of such teams need first to have a high level of trust," she says. "Second, they need to ensure that the required skills and abilities are present. And third, they need to know how to appreciate individual team members. It’s going to be up to HR people to help managers learn to behave this way, because for many of them it’s not natural."

Our panelists’ prediction No. 5 ("Training will be delivered just in time, wherever you need it, using a variety of technologies") suggests that future workers might never have to go to a class again. But there’s already a movement afoot to make training virtually unnecessary. Given the ubiquity of powerful desktop computers with multimedia capabilities, it’s theoretically possible to build into the applications employees use whatever they need (training, guidance, advice) to get a job done. The example that partisans of this approach, known as electronic performance support (EPS) systems, like to point to is the applications software Quicken™. The manufacturer says if you know how to write a check, you know how to use Quicken, and it’s pretty much true. If all our systems at work could be made to function in an intuitive, user-friendly way, it could eliminate a great deal of the training burden for corporations.

That EPS systems are possible, however, is no guarantee they’ll happen on a broad scale. They face enormous political problems because their development is interdisciplinary—involving information systems, training, documentation and line functions. There are questions of ownership and control that are seemingly insurmountable in many organizations. HR undoubtedly will have to be involved in sorting out the issues and implementing solutions.

Definition of Jobs: Jobs get bigger and broader.
The predictions show our panelists believe that as organizations become more flexible, employees will have to be more flexible as well. Their jobs will be broad, generalized, challenging and independent. They’ll be required to produce results rather than just put in time, and they’ll be prized for their versatility and for skills that are more generic than specialized. The panelists felt this area of the study had the strongest consensus. "The commonality was remarkable," says Campanello. "It’s good to know there’s consensus in the field about these issues."

Over the two centuries of the Industrial Revolution, both employers and employees have come to rely on the job description. But if work goals change constantly, and work-group membership shifts from assignment to assignment, a formal job description becomes more of a hindrance than a tool. In the next 10 years, job descriptions, even job titles, may go the way of bureaucratic hierarchies. Companies will continue to shed the trappings of military-style command-and-control mechanisms and become much more collegial.

If jobs have fewer specifically defined responsibilities and there’s less emphasis on specific technical skills, it will doubtless affect personnel planning. It may be that organizations will recruit less for particular skills and more for organizational fit. The idea of a finite job description is rooted deeply in our culture, and many organizations will have a great deal of difficulty adjusting to the ambiguity of tomorrow’s jobs. This certainly has implications for employment law, given the fact that it’s difficult to measure work for hire, if that work is a moving target. We can probably expect a great deal of litigation between now and then. The HR profession should be mounting a formal effort to educate the rest of society on the flexible jobs of the future and how to prepare for them.

This need for preparation is true for more than just the managerial and professional jobs. Blue-collar jobs are increasingly being automated, and the people in them often have to be "up-skilled." The factory worker of the future (or even the present) isn’t simply expected to master a set of steps required to run a machine, but must grasp the workings of a system in a way that was never expected in the past.

We’ve learned that computerization doesn’t dumb-down jobs. It makes them increasingly complex, and it requires greater judgment, discrimination and even imagination on the part of the worker. In short, the worker increasingly will define the job, rather than the other way around.

Strategic Role of HR: Becoming leaders, not just partners.
Our panelists see a growing importance for the human resources profession and HR professionals over the next 10 years. HR will focus on organizational performance, and it will move into a leadership position as organizations come to understand how much they depend on it.

This area, understandably, generated some of the greatest excitement among our panelists. "The nature of HR is changing," says Steward. "We’re finally getting a seat at the table. The reason is simple, really: People are important."

Says Peixotto: "The focus on organizational performance and human capital development is critical. I see it as a move away from a service role and toward a consulting role." He adds, "I think we’re approaching a time when HR people who don’t understand the organization’s business will have a hard time succeeding."

Workforce editors think that many predictions in this area will be realized in our panelists’ organizations, because our panelists are among the foremost practitioners and activists in the profession. However these new roles and responsibilities won’t be handed to HR professionals on silver platters. No function in an organization gains new responsibilities without first gaining influence. As the changes outlined in the first five areas of our study take place, HR leaders will have to watch for opportunities to acquire influence within their organizations and to make people understand that the importance of human capital isn’t just a slogan; it’s a competitive advantage. In many firms there will be a great deal of inertia to overcome.

How do you spot the opportunities to make yourself more strategic to your company? An important first step, as Peixotto’s comment implies, is to understand your company’s business. The top prediction in this area is that "successful HR departments will focus on organizational performance." Such a focus requires a knowledge of your company’s industry that’s deeper than many HR professionals are used to. What are the principal issues your company faces in the areas of materials supply, production, quality control, distribution and sales? Find out. Then address the workforce capability gaps.

Note that Peixotto’s position combines responsibilities for both HR and total quality assurance. It’s an arrangement that seems prescient, given our discussion about job flexibility and redesign. It also foretells HR’s increasingly collaborative role, just like every other job in the workplace. It means HR pros’ core competencies will need to change along with their roles.

The Value of Predicting: Having a vision and a way to achieve it.
We have put some of the best minds we could find to work on creating a vision of HR a decade from now, but we can’t say for sure all their predictions will come true. Even such intelligent and well-informed people give us a description of the future that is, at best, secondhand. Like the rest of us, our panelists can visit the future only in their imagination. No one crosses the moving line of the present, which means there must always be uncertainty on the other side.

Yet HR professionals have an enormous opportunity to influence the future of jobs, the workplace and the human resources profession. If you can see it (as the saying goes) even in your mind’s eye, you can achieve it. HR leadership is all about envisioning and engaging the power of a creative, capable, global workforce. If you see something in the future that doesn’t look right, change it now. You’ll be 10 years ahead of the pack.

Workforce, January 1998, Vol. 77, No. 1, pp. 47-60.