The Push Forward HR's Response to a Changing Workforce

January 1, 2000
We have a difficult time imagining that work will ever be different from what we know now.

Think about the movies and television series set in the future. Sure, the clothes and the furniture have changed (most often, they re streamlined versions of the familiar) but little else has. People still work in a very structured hierarchy. They still have jobs, which look pretty much like jobs as we know them. And, generally, everyone is still working in the same place at the same time.

But work will change. It will change because everything around it is changing. It will change because it has to.

We shouldn t be surprised. Work has changed before in very dramatic ways. There was a time when the majority of the population worked on farms. Those who didn t work on farms usually lived in small cities and had a trade (not a job) that they learned as apprentices from the masters.

That world changed forever with the advent of the Industrial Revolution. What began with a move away from an agrarian economy ultimately led to Henry Ford s assembly line. And whatever we knew about productivity and work systems were challenged and ultimately improved by the need for mass production during World War II.

So change is not new, but it may feel new because the pace of it has accelerated so much. We can blame that on the Information Age. Change has always been slow in the past primarily because it took so long for information to get from one place to another. That s obviously no longer true. With e-mail, cell phones, pagers and more, we can communicate to anyone anytime even when we re 30,000 feet above the earth in a jumbo jet.

Because we can work en route from Los Angeles to New York, we do work. And that fact reflects everything about today s economy: A smaller world; work largely based on ideas, not tasks; ideas as the currency of the new economy; a workforce that can work anywhere and must work almost constantly to keep up.

We ve come a long way from working on the assembly line. Yet in some ways we haven t come far enough, because we re still trying to fit the square peg of outdated work systems into the round hole of the new economy.

Ultimately, the new economy will win and work systems will change. Happily, that inevitability offers HR one more opportunity to be at the center of everything interesting and important.

We re already in the midst of that change, and there s nothing magic about January 1, 2000. But the new year does offer us an opportunity to take a deep breath and think about where we re going and how we re going to get there. The insights shared in this month s special section may read like science fiction, but change will be here before you know it.

Workforce, January 2000, Vol. 79, No. 1, p. 29.