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May 10, 2007
Another Renaissance? Trends for the Future of Work

By Lynda A. Rizzo, J.D.

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WorldatWork's 2007 Annual Conference ended this week with a look into the future of work. Mary O'Hara-Devereaux, Ph.D., is an internationally renowned futurist and author, her latest book entitled Navigating the Badlands: Thriving in this Decade of Radical Transformation. She took conference attendees on a journey to the year 2020 with her predictions for the future and how the human resources profession will be impacted.

O'Hara-Devereaux set the stage by placing these trends in a big picture context. "We are in a cycle of disruptive innovation." In other words, we are in the middle of a transition between eras that will extend over the next 15 years. According to O'Hara-Devereaux, this is the most disruptive era since the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Traditional ideas about work have become antiquated, yet companies have not yet been able to place new ideas in a workable framework. This is the challenge for businesses and human resources professionals.

In forecasting the future, O'Hara-Devereaux identified four "laws of the future."

  1. If something is unsustainable in the long run, it will come to an end
  2. If something big is going to happen, it has to start somewhere
  3. People overact to short term ramifications of innovation but underestimate its long term effects
  4. Beware of conventional wisdom because it is usually wrong

With this big picture in mind, O'Hara-Devereaux gave the conference a glimpse into the future by identifying a number of trends that will bear out in the coming years.

  • Changing demographics. In the future, baby boomers will slowly exit the workforce due to increased life expectancies, while Generation Y will come of age and try to wrestle control away from their predecessors. In addition, more women are graduating from college than men, and they will account for the majority of knowledge workers by 2020.
  • Globalization grows. The future will not arrive at the same time and in the same way everywhere. O'Hara-Devereaux predicts that the largest player in the global economy in coming years will be China . Businesses and human resources professionals need to understand the impact of China 's economic emergence on their organizations.
  • Escalating demand for innovation. Innovation is the "holy grail" for successful organizations. It is the role of the human resources professional to help eliminate barriers to innovation that exist in most companies by revamping the inner circle, changing context, changing the social and physical environment of the workplace, rewarding managers for doing less managing, supporting a drumbeat of temporariness, rewarding simplicity, giving employees the chance to dream, and seeking diversity, all to motivate employees to be more creative.
  • Persistent productivity. Studies show that productivity creates wealth but not jobs. While productivity and business profits have increased, wages have not kept pace. It is crucial that human resources professionals bring about a new social bargain for work by enhancing employability, increasing employee opportunities to own assets and increase wealth, support all employees getting at least two years of college, and securing wage insurance. These goals are vital to the continued stability of the United States .
  • Extreme individualization of work. Companies are becoming clients of their top workers. Control of knowledge workers will become obsolete and the virtualization of the workplace is the future. Employers need to learn how to optimize temporary workers and build strategic alliances with their top performers.
  • Escalating global distribution of knowledge workers. As the United States plateaus in education, especially in the areas of science and technology, other countries are placing a higher premium on educating their workers for the future. As a result, there are more knowledge workers available around the globe. Employers need to offer their talented employees more internal mobility so that their abilities are best utilized.
  • Slow growth of global competency. The ability of workers to function in a global and culturally diverse environment is developing slowly. Yet diversity is a key to innovation. Employers need to provide cross-cultural training for their employees to support creativity and ensure their future viability.
  • Growing strategic nature of local social issues. There are smarter people everywhere, and workers will continue to make more demands of their employers. Companies need to understand how local social and political issues play into the global supply chain. For instance, many workers are concerned with global warming. Employers and human resources professionals need to recognize value opportunities in these local issues as part of how to harness talent.

As we move toward the year 2020, it is clear that several changes will occur in the workplace. According to O'Hara-Devereaux, leadership will come from the center of the pack" through collaboration, women will dominate, employees will work across boundaries, and companies will seek outside influence due to a lack of internal diversity.

These insights offer employers the opportunity to prepare for the future today. By paying attention and adapting to even the smallest signs of the emergence of the future, employers can ensure their viability and relevance in the coming years.

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