A framework for understanding the future of work

Posted by John Hagel III and Jeff Schwartz on September 27, 2017.

In a recent issue of Deloitte Review, John Hagel, Jeff Schwartz, and Josh Bersin suggest a framework for understanding the future of work and its implications for individuals, organizations, and governments. HR Times caught up with John and Jeff to hear more about the framework and how HR leaders and professionals can apply it.


HR Times: How did the framework come about? What led you to create it?

John Hagel: We were seeing more and more discussion of the future of work, from mass media to conferences and from corporate boardrooms to lunchrooms. We were struck by how very fragmented the discussions were. People would zero in on one aspect and view that as the whole future of work. Our sense was that they were losing the interdependencies, and that to really understand the future of work and the opportunities it presents, you need to view it holistically, not in fragments. We were also struck by how much the discussion was dominated by fear: ‘Robots are going to steal our jobs.’ Our view is that, while it’s certainly a challenge, there’s actually enormous opportunity, but only if we understand the whole domain.

Jeff Schwartz: We recognized that to help individuals and leaders understand the future of work, we needed to get an integrated picture. Not a bigger picture, but an integrated picture of what is driving the future of work and where it might have the biggest impact, such as the role of technology, or the whole notion of work moving off the balance sheet to contingent arrangements. As Tom Friedman said in his interview, jobs are being redesigned around technology, and jobs and work are being separated from companies. So what does that mean for individuals and businesses and HR and government? That was central to how we structured the framework.

HRT: It does sound sweeping. What can our readers do, as HR leaders, to get a handle on it? What are some concrete things to consider?

JS: For years HR leaders have talked about getting a seat at the table. As the future of work discussion moves center stage, HR leaders are increasingly center stage, too, and the spotlight is on them. The questions about how we redesign work and jobs and reimagine learning—how we use technology and emphasize the essentially human things we can do—present a seismic opportunity for HR leaders at every level.

Many of these initiatives, particularly around automation and different labor models, are being driven from outside of HR, by technology and IT but also by supply chain and procurement groups. HR leaders have an opening to both understand these opportunities and to accelerate them in ways that lead to better work and careers as well as more productive operations. With exponential technologies, we’re looking for 10x improvements in productivity. But the question is, what are the 10x improvements in employee experience and 21st-century careers?

JH: HR leaders have the opportunity to become the catalyst for fundamental change, but it does require them to break out of the HR silo and think in a much more integrated fashion about these forces. But who’s better positioned to understand the future of work than the HR leader? That ought to be in their domain.

HRT: This sounds like maybe a different role for HR. What should HR leaders be doing to operate at this level?

John: Obviously, it goes beyond just changes in hiring practices or performance ratings into really all aspects of the institution. HR leaders need to look ahead. In a world of mounting pressure, we all have a tendency to get short-term focused, and that’s not going to cut it in terms of effectively addressing the future of work. You have to be willing to look ahead and try to imagine where this is going. What forces are shaping this, and what could we be doing in order to take advantage of it?

In terms of what can HR leaders do early on to get some traction and start to demonstrate impact, one of the big things we’re proponents of is applying design thinking and methodologies to the work environment to accelerate learning and performance improvement.

We’re not saying redesign everything tomorrow, but take one frontline work environment that can be particularly pivotal in terms of driving the performance of the company. Start thinking about how you would redesign that work environment to accelerate learning, and be very explicit about the metrics of performance improvement that would tell you whether you’re on track or not. One of our key themes here is that it’s not just a one-time improvement in performance; it’s ultimately exponential, sustained over time. That’s an early step that could build credibility and make this tangible to the broader leadership of the company.

JS: That design thinking piece of reimagining learning and performance and work in an exponential environment is spot on. The other thing I would encourage HR leaders to understand is that there are couple of things going on at the meta level. So if I were advising an HR leader—by the way I say something similar to almost any C-suite leader—I’d say you need to understand exponential technologies and you need to understand convergence.

Right now no one in the company is looking at the different kinds of learning going on: there’s machine learning, individual learning, and ongoing, workplace learning. So machine learning is over in technology and individual learning is over in the L’D group, and we’re not really sure anybody is thinking about workplace learning (we’re trying to encourage people to shine the light over there). But if HR leaders can really wrap their thinking and their entrepreneurship in the organization around machine learning, individual learning, and workplace learning, there’s an exponential play there, and a convergence play there. The future of work is about people and smart machines working next to and with each other.

HRT: When you say “workplace learning,” what do you mean?

JH: Our view is that the learning that is most important and most powerful in an exponential world is learning in the form of creating new knowledge, not just accessing existing knowledge that you get in a lecture or training video. It’s about how you get work groups who are confronting an unexpected situation, maybe it’s never been seen before, to figure out how to creatively and imaginatively address it—that is creating new knowledge, through action. And then come back from that saying ‘Wow, what we did was pretty amazing. What we did is something new and different.’ It’s that kind of embodied learning we think is going to be more central to the performance improvement of companies and, again, that requires rethinking the practices that work groups have in terms of how they interact with one another.

HRT: Are there things people can be doing as individuals to try to prepare for this future?

JH: One of my key messages to individuals in this changing world is to find your passion and integrate your passion with your work. One of the challenges today is that most people are products of the schools and society we’ve had, which encourage you to go to work to get a paycheck, and if it pays well, that’s a good job, versus encouraging you to find your passion and find a way to make a living from it.

JS: The next years belong to people who understand curiosity and understand how to pursue curiosity and actually learn and explore new things. Being comfortable with learning and newness is critical. I go back to something that Daniel Pink wrote maybe 10 years ago in A Whole New Mind, about the importance and usefulness of being left-brained and right-brained. We’re seeing that even more today, in the importance of STEM skills and art and creative skills. I think Tom Friedman talked about ‘STEMpathy’ jobs, which is a nice example of touching both sides of the spectrum. So one of the things I encourage people—particularly young people—to do is pursue your passion, and if you can combine passion in different fields, architecture and economics or biology and medicine and theater, that’s even better. It’s my guess that people who are comfortable in these convergent/divergent situations will be better prepared.

HRT: Getting back to that scary element: Will I have a job? How will I make a living? Are people right to be afraid?

JS: Everyone wants to know, will I have a job? I think our view is you will have a job; it will be different than today. Even if it’s the same role, it will be a different job and you’re going to work differently in terms of the way you team and use technology. Many jobs will use technology—from truck drivers to retail workers to doctors and all sorts of professionals. What’s relevant for us as HR and business leaders is figuring out how to help individuals and companies and governments navigate the change in jobs. What does it mean for people and machines to work together?

JH: We’re ultimately optimists on this in the sense that the way we’ve defined work in the past is in terms of tightly specified tasks, highly standardized tasks, and tightly integrated tasks. That’s what work is, whether you’re talking about a factory worker or a salesperson or customer service person.

To be provocative, I would suggest that all of those jobs are going to go away. Robots and machines are much more efficient in work that is tightly specified, highly standardized, and tightly integrated. However, it becomes a catalyst to ask, ‘What can we as human beings really harness in terms of our unique capabilities?’ And it goes back to what we were talking about earlier in terms of curiosity, creativity, imagination, emotional intelligence, and harnessing those to both solve problems and creatively identify new opportunities.

We as human beings have a great need to bring those characteristics out in all of us. And on the other side, as consumers, I think we’re going to have increasing demand for highly creative, individualized, rapidly evolving kinds of products and services that machines can help with. But, ultimately, it’s going to be up to us to come up with the creative ideas and find creative ways of reaching the marketplace. I think that’s going to be the Big Shift in terms of redefining work.

John Hagel III has nearly 35 years of experience as a management consultant, author, speaker and entrepreneur, and has helped companies improve their performance by effectively applying new generations of technology to reshape business strategies. John currently serves as co-chairman of the Silicon Valley-based Deloitte LLP Center for the Edge.
Jeff Schwartz is a principal with Deloitte Consulting LLP, serving as the global leader for Human Capital Marketing, Eminence, and Brand. He is also the senior adviser for the firm’s Human Capital consulting practice in India.

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