The Future HR: Five Essential but Overlooked Questions

August 20, 2019

The future of HR is inextricably entwined with the future of work, leadership, society and organizations.  It has long been insufficient to consider the future of HR strictly from the perspective of changes in the HR function, its organization, its operating model and its technology.  Such questions are important, but HR leaders and their constituents (non-HR leaders, investors, workers, policy-makers and others) must consider the future of HR through more fundamental questions about the future of work.

Though there is an immense amount of useful writing and information about the future of HR and work, here are some questions that often get too little attention and research activity, and that also happen to be the focus of emerging research at the Center for Effective Organizations and its affiliates.

What is “talent” in organizations?

Every organization has a “talent management” system, and the word “talent” will undoubtedly appear thousands of times in organizational statements of their values, culture, employment branding, investor communication, and descriptions of social and sustainability efforts.  It’s easy to assume that the concept of “talent” means the same thing to all of these groups, because that’s a basic assumption for an effective system of talent, work and HR.  Lacking a common perspective, can organizations expect these diverse constituents to work together toward common goals?  The inconvenient reality, however, is that the fundamental concept of “talent” means very different things to different constituents, organizations and contexts.  Try this experiment:  Convene a group of leaders, employees or strategists, and simply ask them to define “talent” as it applies to your organization.  When Sharna Wiblen and I did this experiment at the recent meeting of Center for Effective Organizations sponsors, we heard definitions ranging from “the high-potential employees who are identified for significant advancement” to “the inherent capability that exists in each of our employees,” to “the competencies that we identify in our internal system,” to “the capacity that our employees have to do their jobs.”  Think how differently your talent systems would define value, productivity, performance, potential and advancement under each of these definitions.  As Sharna’s research has convincingly showed, the “epistemology” of the word “talent” reveals often-overlooked differences that can explain thorny problems of goal alignment, performance management, and effectiveness in attracting, developing and retaining your workforce.  As an example, consider how differently leaders approach conversations about employee development depending on whether their concept of talent is “the high-potential employees identified for significant advancement” versus “the inherent capability that exists in each of our employees.”

Is Automation Part of the “talent pool?”

The implications of work automation are no longer just the topic of discussion for economists, HR leaders and social scientists.  If you wonder whether work automation is mainstream, just take a look at a 2019 segment on “This Week Tonight,” where the host, John Oliver, describes the research finding that there are actually more bank tellers today than before the automatic teller machine was invented.  Mr. Oliver’s closing point is that it’s not a question of workers being replaced in jobs, but how work changes when humans and automation are combined.  The future of work will increasingly mean that the “talent” doing the work represents an ever-changing combination of automation and humans, so optimizing how work gets done will require understanding and guiding how work elements are constantly reinvented.  The idea of a fixed “job” will be increasingly outdated and less useful.  What will replace it?  Organizational systems, including HR systems, must evolve to allow the elements of work to be “deconstructed,” and considered on their own.  Those deconstructed work elements, whether they be tasks, projects, etc. become the new currency of work.  They will be constantly recombined and reinvented.  Sometimes automation will replace the human worker doing that task, but just as often automation will augment the speed-efficiency-reliability-safety of the human doing the work, and frequently automation will allow the work to transform the human worker to contribute much greater value in ways that were simply impossible without automation.  Considering how fundamental is this human-automation combination, shouldn’t the concept of “talent” and “work” include automation?  Seen this way, we can envision that soon the HR function may be the place to start an automation project, rather in the IT or Operations disciplines.  How would your talent systems need to change, to incorporate automation into measures of human performance, potential and development. Sharna Wiblen posed a fascinating question at the CEO sponsors’ meeting: “Will the most valuable human talent in some situations be the ability to know how and when to turn the technology off?”

What is “performance” and “merit?”

These changes in talent and work reflect a larger set of trends that reframe the fundamental ideas of performance and merit.  Traditionally, performance meant some measure of achievement or behavior related to job requirements, and merit-based rewards meant allocating more to the higher performers and vice versa.  Yet, as my colleague Alan Colquitt points out, decades of research suggest that typical merit-based performance ratings vary more based on the rater, than what’s being rated, and that the idea of allocating rewards against an “objective” reality of work value rests on some very tenuous assumptions, and may often cause more harm than good.  These challenges increase when the work is constantly evolving, and when human and automated work blend together.  Should organizations reduce their reliance on performance measurement and “merit” based rewards, perhaps opting for more uniform rewards except in cases where the differences in worker value are most obvious?

What is Leadership?

The changes in work at the level of the job and individual are profound, but they also challenge the fundamental idea of “leadership.”  First, the ever-increasing array of work arrangements (contractors, freelancers, volunteers, gig workers, etc.) means that some work will often be done by humans who are not regular full-time employees.  Yet, most HR and organization systems still define work in terms of a set of jobs, done by humans who have a regular full-time employment agreement, and who exist inside a boundary called the “organization” where employees are “inside” and others are “outside.”  When a high proportion of the work is done by contractors or through other arrangements, shouldn’t HR and organization systems hold leaders accountable for “leading the work,” not just “leading the employees?  How well do your leaders lead the entire array of workers, both employees and others?  Few HR systems can do that today, but it may be increasingly essential where work spans across the organization boundary.

Automation and digitization raise even more fundamental questions about leadership.  My colleague, Jay Conger, asks whether leadership in the digital age merely an extension of traditional leadership, simply transferring the same leadership principles to new types of work and automation, or something more fundamentally different.   Emerging digital capabilities will increasingly allow front-line workers to directly access digital information about processes, consumer behavior, product performance and financial results, all in real-time.  If traditional “leadership” meant communicating such information to achieve worker alignment and motivation, does that go away in the digital organization?  Can “leaders” emerge outside the regular hierarchy, through the empowerment of front-line workers with access to information formerly available to only a few “leaders?”

What is the “organization”?

Is your organization adequately represented in the organization chart?  Does everyone understand the value and meaning of job titles like “manager,” “supervisor,” “director,” “president,” etc.?  As noted above, digitization offers tantalizing alternatives to the traditional organization chart.  Haier Group reorganized the very concept of their organization as a hub for employee-entrepreneurs, who are armed with real-time data about processes, products and consumers, and then encouraged to create start-ups to implement product and service innovations, all with very little formal structure and job titles.  Consider the importance and power of your “social networks,” which comprise the actual relationships between individuals and teams through which flow information, values, energy and trust.  Evidence suggests that when those social networks are mapped, they reveal very different patterns of influence, expertise and leadership than the formal organizational structures.  Indeed, as Michael Arena noted in his book Adaptive Space, better understanding such social networks is often a key to creating and sustaining innovation.  Yet most organization and HR systems continue to rely on formal organization charts and job titles to describe things like accountability, authority, influence and information.

On their face, these questions seem to have obvious answers, which is precisely why HR leaders must help leaders, workers, investors and other constituents rethink them to understand the future of work and HR.

Future of HR
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