In a rapidly changing world, previous certainties about the nature of work can no longer be relied upon. This in turn impacts the type of training required for forward-thinking organizations and the people who work within them. We invited Business Futurist Bart Götte from FutureFlock to discuss these issues with HR managers, HR advisors, HR Directors and CEO’s at De Baak, and would like to share the resulting insights with you in this article.
The future of HR will be about creating an inclusive, fluid environment in which there is room for smarter working practices and for all sorts of contributors who benefit your organization.
You can’t predict the future, but you can be aware of how you may be approaching it
The only thing we can be absolutely sure of with regard to the future is that it hasn’t yet generated a single piece of data. All of our predictions and visions of what’s ahead of us are based on signals, trends and the robust undercurrents that propel them forward. It’s important to distinguish between these three fluid indicators of change.
Signals (such as an exciting wave of new products) are often the first superficial, eye-catching indicators of something more profound. Diving deeper, we find that these are based on dynamic yet short-lived trends (such as ‘design thinking’). What we really need to look at is what is happening at a greater depth. This is where we find the stronger, more structural streams of societal change flowing onwards to create a more lasting effect. For instance, there is an undeniable increase in digitization, individualization, connectivity and internationalization. And populations in developed countries are rapidly aging; there is a rise in urbanization and in female power; geo-political shifts are threatening the status quo; and climate change is affecting people all over the world. All of these dynamics provide the broader context in which organizations operate today.
Three years from now is a very uncertain time
It is important to look forwards and backwards when trying to work out how to succeed in the future. You can of course learn from the past, but you shouldn’t count on it – or on the mountains of data it has generated – for an accurate prognosis. Three years from now is a very uncertain time. How we deal with that depends on us and we ourselves are only human: we’re not always sufficiently calm, objective or level-headed to draw the right conclusions.
Broaden your perception
Our own personalities and ways of thinking actually have a considerable influence on how we perceive the forces of change within our own organization. For example, one HR Director or CEO may feel they are constantly operating on a rough sea in a storm, while another may enjoy the tranquil sensation of floating calmly in a boat on a lake. Yet both of these watery scenarios may be part of a larger picture of which the storm is only a small part, or where the sense of calm is deceptive because the boat is gradually being sucked into a vortex.
The trick is to be aware of the overall situation. By knowing which form of turbulence you face and how you are likely to perceive it, you can act accordingly by steering in the right direction and at the right time to get to a better place. Uncertainty about the wider context is what makes this task so difficult, and it’s also the reason why it’s crucial to take a broader view of your company’s situation.
Fluidity in language and working methods is on the rise
“In a liquid modern life there are no permanent bonds. And any that we take up must be tied loosely so that they can be untied again as quickly and as effortlessly as possible, when circumstances change - as they surely will - over and over again...”
Zygmunt Bauman | Filosoof 1925 - 2017
In addition to broadening our perception, we also need to be aware of ambiguities. We live in a world characterised by VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. Even the language we use may serve to confuse rather than to clarify issues. This means that we understand each other less well than before. After all, what do we mean by terms such as ‘the employee’? Who exactly is a ‘freelancer’, a ‘contractor’ or an ‘associate’? Should we instead refer to the ‘worker’ so that all kinds of working relationships and employment laws are included?
We also face communication difficulties when it comes to engaging different audiences, such as people who are digitally aware as opposed to those who are not digitally interested or enabled, or people who use different communication channels. This all adds up to a whole spectrum of diversity where homogeneity used to be.
We’re living in a liquid society that can flow in all sorts of directions. So we need to listen to each other better, look at issues from different perspectives, and take a step back to gain a more complete viewpoint. It’s also important to listen and query each other’s understanding of work-related terms so that we can communicate clearly and effectively in this dynamic context.
Motivations and relationhips are no longer fixed
Whether you like it or not, the fluidity of the modern world obliges us to go with the flow. This poses interesting questions about important aspects of life that for many years formed the fixed points in people’s existence. In a liquid society, what do you do with your fixed 30-year mortgage, fixed long-term relationships, fixed job functions, fixed career paths, fixed car payments, fixed sickness ensurance, fixed telephone contract… and fixed organization? Is there still any point in these static constructions?
Individuals now have gigantic power when it comes to switching their choices. Maybe we should facilitate the ability to switch by enabling people to learn new skills, try out a range of functions and explore different aspects of themselves. There’s a huge responsibility involved in offering such choices, but it’s clear that people increasingly expect to be able to select from an entire menu of options.
It’s also a generational thing: anyone who went to school more than 30 years ago was educated to develop and to push themselves forward individualistically in the career market, whereas the next generation of schoolchildren was encouraged to work on projects within a team, and the current generation is being stimulated to earn lots of money through entrepreneurship. That’s why there are often three generations of people, with a very different education and outlook, working together in the same company. No wonder we often don’t understand one another.
The Netherlands: ahead of the flow
As befits a country built on land that was reclaimed from the sea, the Netherlands is more at home in a fluid situation than many other nations. We are even pioneers in certain things, such as having a highly flexible workforce. Currently, about 40% of the labor market is composed of independent tradespeople and temporary workers. This is a linear, structural development that has its own pros and cons. The group of independent workers used to mainly be composed of people aged over 40, but its members are now much younger, indicating that some people are confident of holding their own at a younger age. The number of temporary employees is also growing. This is a more problematic group: they don’t have any guarantee of work, are often not well educated, and have a low ability to look after themselves. We are therefore encountering work-related social issues earlier than other countries, and will hopefully provide leadership in solving these too.
Where’s the talent?
So, on the labor market and probably in your organization too there is a group of well-educated employees with secure jobs (a lot of them aged 50+), a group of highly-educated freelancers and temporary workers. The interactions between these different groups of workers can be refreshing; their different perspectives mean they can learn a lot from one another. When deciding who to hire or train, it’s therefore worth checking your internal bias: the workforce is getting more flexible, and HR departments have to have a more flexible attitude too. It’s currently quite unusual to train temporary workers or contractors, yet doing so can prove a highly worthwhile investment.
The automation paradox: it’s making work more human
Automation is spreading, and is likely to soon take over many more functions traditionally performed by humans. However, it is better at ‘hard’ functions such as analytics than ‘soft’ ones such as interpretation. Jobs that require truly human skills and interactions, such as certain aspects of teaching or managing, will be relatively immune, whereas many automatable functions are at risk. Typically human skills such as empathy and creativity are important and will continue being so. Human beings are also good at complex work that involves a whole variety of skill sets and whose effects cannot always be foreseen. All of this means that jobs involving human skills are on the rise.
Wave jobs goodbye and say hello to projects instead
The entire purpose and structure of a traditional job is something we must now question. Someone who works in a department, with a departmental head, may not feel or behave like a multidisciplinary thinker capable of carrying out complex tasks. But someone who works on a project basis may feel less constrained, especially if they need to team up with a whole range of people from throughout the organization to carry out their tasks. Hierarchies and functions are becoming less relevant and less productive than teamwork and skills.
So who wants the restrictions of a traditional job now that they have the freedom to develop themselves more broadly? More and more people will be able to sell themselves to a variety of clients. A growing group of workers are freer to look around and focus on projects and tasks, either as a traditional employee or as a temporary or contract worker. What’s important is their contribution, rather than their work form.
What this means for the future of learning
Not everybody enjoys learning, especially if they don’t see the personal advantage in doing it. People whose mindset is fixed in the static ‘old world’ of work may not appreciate the need to keep updating their skills and becoming more versatile in the tasks they take on. Perhaps then it’s up to the HR manager to take a more flexible approach. Is it better to train the reluctant employee, to do things in a new kind of way, or to get a fast, enthusiastic freelancer to do them instead? It’s becoming increasingly important to consider who you train, why you train them, and how you can show them the importance of being trained – whether this is for their current or future role.
Learning on the job is also becoming more about collaboration. It’s crucial to be able to work together with a whole host of different specialists in dynamic project teams who are all focused on the outcome. Young people entering the world of work want to spend their time in a pleasant, healthy environment that gives them the opportunity for personal development. Hyperspecialists who prefer to work alone may not fit in this new corporate structure, although there should be room for their valuable skills too. It’s important to recognise each person’s motivations, as well as their specialisms. By adapting the training you offer to take account of the individual, you will be able to make the most of each individual’s motivation and contribution.
Learning = sharing
One way to make the most of each individual’s talents could be to put everybody available into a total talent pool so that they can be matched with the various tasks that need to be done. You could do the same when looking at your training requirements. And yes, ‘everybody’ does mean everybody, including contractors and temporary workers. The immediate reaction might of course be “But what about my budget? And what about the competition?” The answers to these questions depend on the particular situation and firm. But if it works for you, why not try it? Times are changing, and so are the ways in which you can treat everyone who contributes to your organization’s success, whether or not they are a traditional employee.
Encourage self-awareness and self-development
In today’s less hierarchical organizational culture, negative stimulation imposed from on high doesn’t work very well. So instead of telling people that they must learn something, it’s more productive to allow them to do so. Dangle the opportunity in front of them, and explain the benefits of keeping their skills relevant. Collaboration is crucial in this fluid labor market, and even the hyperspecialists in your workforce will benefit from developing their ability to work together with other people. This kind of enabling approach fosters the sense of autonomy that is key to self-development. It also creates a sense of trust, because you show that you recognise and value each person’s potential. Equally importantly, it encourages the person you are dealing with to see and use this potential and versatility within themselves too.
How are you planning to stay afloat?
Certainly though, it’s challenging. The world of work is becoming more complex. More and more people are becoming contributors rather than employees. What’s going to be your own contribution to this process? Can you offer more personalised or individual training options? Are you able to help your team to understand the relevance of the dynamic global context in which you all operate? Will there also be secure and meaningful roles for groups with lower skills and abilities?
Last but not least, let’s get personal. Are you yourself a specialist, a generalist, an enabler, an eye-opener, a source of inspiration, a catalyst or a blocker? Do you still even have a role within a contributor platform? Are you able to work out who fits – even for a short time – within your organization, and to establish your role towards them?
The future of HR will be about creating an inclusive, fluid environment in which there is room for smarter working practices and for all sorts of contributors who benefit your organization. It’s up to you whether you sink or swim.
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