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Staying Relevant – Five Fundamentals of Leading the Future for HR and Training

By Steve Wells, Rohit Talwar, Alexandra Whittington, and Maria Romero
How might the role and value of HR and training evolve in the rapidly evolving future of business?

Technology and its many uses promise to reshape society and business in dramatic ways in the decade ahead. The arrival of the Fourth Industrial Revolution—characterized by smart machines—will force a fundamental rethinking of the nature of firms and markets, organizational roles and designs, and people’s place and value within them. Whether we pursue the path of using technology to eliminate the workforce, or to truly unleash human potential, HR and training should be central to the business transformation process. The rapidly changing reality of business will undoubtedly create new opportunities, sweet spots, and stress points for HR and training.

Should we wait for disruption and future shocks before we respond? Alternatively, are there practical steps we can take now to prepare for a range of possible outcomes and thereby increase our resilience in the face of uncertainty? Here we explore actionable ideas to help HR and training prepare for the inevitable surprises that these changes might bring.

Tomorrow’s world of work will be shaped in large part by artificial intelligence (AI) combined with successive waves of exponentially improving, transformational science and technology developments such as blockchain, big data, hyperconnectivity, cloud computing, the Internet of everything, 3D/4D printing, synthetic biology, new materials, and human brain and body enhancements.

These developments could make the typical user experience of office technology far more interactive than ever before, with smart technologies that seem to respond and evolve based on users’ needs and wants. Soon, the workplace might be populated by humans, robots, digital entities (i.e. algorithms), and hybrid augmented human workers performing side by side, each with a say in how things get done.

In the face of such potentially seismic changes, the first step is for business leadership and the HR and training functions to decide on the future role they should be playing in helping the organization prepare for and navigate potentially transformational change. For example, there is an emerging spectrum of possible roles for HR, from administering people procedures through to ensuring the organization has awareness of and access to all the resources required to secure future business success.

In the future, an evolved “resourcing function” might have a remit that ranges from capability and workforce planning to internal staffing, and procuring external partners, services, technologies, research, and advice. Hence the Chief Resourcing Officer might work in tandem with the Chief Operating Officer to guarantee the latter has access to all the elements required to transform and run the business.

A key driver for HR’s evolution is that the potential future applications and impacts of AI and its sister technologies are almost limitless and unknowable. We are too early in its evolution to know how far AI could replicate and ultimately exceed the human brain’s capabilities. Predicting the reactions of humans, businesses, governments, and civil society is almost impossible as there is limited understanding across society today of AI’s true potential. There is seemingly even less willingness to think deeply about the possible impacts and consequences. Hence HR has the opportunity to step into the vacuum to start anticipating and preparing for inevitable surprises.

Forecasts vary of how many jobs could be replaced or created by technological disruption. Whether 80% of jobs are eliminated or 50% more created, the new jobs will require advanced skillsets and different mindsets. The transition will be dramatic, painful, and require new knowledge and competences. Governments, businesses, and civil society will need to rethink the assumptions and mechanisms that underpin our world. Human resources and training could become central to helping envision different possible futures and helping organizations get there.

Already, in business, fundamental changes are taking place in the way organizations are using technology. Many are embarking on radical digital overhauls, enabling them to deliver new offerings, enhance service, improve efficiency, and increase cost competitiveness.

The emerging technologies of the corporate ecosystem will have economic, social, and environmental implications that change the workforce, work models, and people development. Digital transformation is likely to spread throughout the business world, and wide-scale automation will inevitably lead to job reductions across economic sectors—from mining and manufacturing, to transport, retail, and finance.

In parallel, new sectors are emerging and creating opportunities. Under favorable conditions, the global economy could grow from about US$75 trillion in 2017 to around US$120 trillion over the next decade—over half of this could come from industries and businesses that are just emerging or don’t yet exist. No one yet knows if these newcomers will generate enough jobs to replace those displaced by technology.

While there might be a temptation and tendency to wait and see because the challenges seem so immense, this could be calamitously risky. The changes will cascade and accelerate rapidly, overwhelming and paralyzing unprepared governments, businesses, societies, and individuals.

Strategically, it seems far more prudent to prepare for a range of possible scenarios and to try to anticipate impending shocks and risks. The insights can help us to act now to start putting society and business on a more sustainable footing, thus ensuring sufficient resilience to cope with the risk of large-scale technological unemployment. Here we identify five fundamental actions that forward-looking organizations, governments, societies, and individuals should be thinking about right now. These factors could occupy an increasing amount of the workload for HR and training.

1. Rethinking Education at Every Level

Success in the future will require a smart, adaptable, and highly educated workforce. Indeed, many commentators and some governments anticipate that within a decade, most new jobs will require graduate level education at a minimum. How those qualifications are acquired may well look very different to today.

To survive and thrive in business, there is a need to understand both the technologies and the mindsets shaping the future. Mindset is key here—there are plenty of technological competitors to Uber and Airbnb—for the latter, their true point of difference is their mindset, a radically different way of thinking about how to deliver on customer desires without owning any assets or employing any service delivery staff.

Job one for HR and training must be raising technological literacy. We must ensure that, throughout the organization, leaders, managers, and employees truly understand these future-shaping technologies, how they might impact different sectors, and the new ways of thinking, business models, and delivery approaches they are enabling. Much of the required content is already available through free online platforms—the key is building it into the training and development agenda.

People will also need support developing higher-level skills that will help them learn rapidly and transition into jobs that don’t even exist today. These skills may include collaboration, problem solving, navigating complexity, scenario thinking, and accelerated learning. Clearly, businesses can play a major role here in helping their own staff transition to new roles in the organization or new jobs elsewhere.

More broadly, we also believe a massive increase is required in the provision of free adult education across society. This could be done using existing facilities in businesses, schools, and higher education institutions. Most teaching and meeting spaces in these facilities are unused in the evenings; why not put them to use for continuing adult education? Some of the teachers and lecturers would ideally come from the emerging growth sectors of the future—helping students understand their context and mindset.

Pupil-teacher ratios at school level will also need to be reduced to increase personalized support–the evidence is clear on the impact. This also means re-evaluating the expectations for students pursuing higher education: A well-educated workforce is needed to propel the country forward, and while many other nations provide free degree level education, some still need to develop a sustainable solution that doesn’t leave future generations demotivated, disillusioned, and saddled with debts that many cannot repay. Employers can play a big role here in lobbying government to think strategically about the financing of higher education.

Education and work have shaped the way society functions. Redefining both of these fundamental institutions will generate a series of opportunities for HR including:

  • Compulsory participation in technology awareness programs for those seeking promotion.
  • Providing immersions on critical technologies and their possible impacts.
  • Developing life-long and life-wide learning paths to support employee education beyond the organization itself, and growing such programs to include workplace coaching and training in diverse life skills and knowledge such as accelerated learning, problem solving, career path planning, and collaboration.
  • Embracing such life-wide learning programs might incorporate the accrual of education microcredits or nano-credits, which would be similar to video game badges. Sensors and self-quantification would certify achievements in and out of the classrooms, so the nano-credit system could become completely automated.
  • Developing closer workplace-school relationships, e.g. workplace experts instructing vocational classes at schools, students visiting workplaces regularly, providing physical community learning spaces, and involving corporate HR teams in the development of schools’ curricula.
2. Experimenting with Guaranteed Basic Incomes and Services

Firms pursuing high levels of automation will need customers to buy their goods and services; however, widespread automation could dramatically reduce employment and societal purchasing power. Hence, many in Silicon Valley in particular argue for some form of automation tax to fund the provision of unconditional basic incomes (UBI) and services (UBS) across society. Some governments reject the idea on ideological grounds because they think it reeks of socialism or communism.

A number of governments also recognize that something needs to be done to avoid large-scale social decline and potential citizen unrest. Countries including Finland, Germany, and Canada have undertaken UBI experiments to understand the concept, test out different options, assess the social impact, measure the costs, and prepare themselves while they still have time. For HR, this could mean:

  • Taking the lead role in modeling alternative future workforce strategies.
  • Educating the workforce on the importance of taking control of their own earning capacity.
  • Assessing the potential business impact of automation taxes based on different workforce scenarios.
  • Providing support to help displaced workers access new skills and jobs.
  • Lobbying governments to conduct early pilots of alternate UBI/UBS models to avoid being caught flat-footed as and when technological unemployment starts increasing.
3. A Massive Expansion of Support for Start-Up Creation

While the jobs outlook is uncertain, the only thing we can assume for certain is that people will need to take more responsibility for their incomes. Many will do this through the creation of small and micro-businesses that are far more immune to the risks of technology replacing humans. Employers can play a massive role here in providing start-up training and mentoring through the early phases of business creation for employees they are replacing with technology.

The most forward thinking businesses might even co-invest with such start-ups to help them get going and potentially provide them a route to market. A massive expansion of support for start-up creation would both generate jobs for the mentors and accelerate the rate at which people can build new businesses and create new jobs. In addition, HR could:

Provide access to simple online platforms for business creation, marketing, networking, financial management, invoicing, accounting, and tax submission, enabling founders to focus on the development of their business.

  • Encourage and support staff to spin out innovation initiatives from within the firm as separate businesses, possibly with financial support.
  • Provide an incubator space and mentoring support for employees to work up new ideas in their spare time prior to starting out on their own.
  • Create regular showcases to enable past employees to present their business offerings to potential customers.
  • Commit to buying a certain amount of goods and services from firms run or managed by past employees.
  • Provide a panel of executives who could act as ongoing advisors to start-ups for their first few years in business.
  • Provide crowdsourcing platforms where past employees could trade ideas, requirements, and opportunities with each other.
  • Provide new ventures with a blockchain based smart contract service so that contract creation and execution can be fully automated against standard rules.
4. Research and Development in Key Knowledge Sectors

A competitive economy demands cutting edge innovation. Not all R&D lends itself to assessment based on the return on investment—some just has to be undertaken for the betterment of society. Hence, expanding research funding and the number of research institutions are important enablers of tomorrow’s job creation. While the firm’s core R&D agenda might be driven by other functions, HR could play a key role in ensuring governments understand the knowledge base and skills sets required to feed to future of business.

The pace of change within organizations also opens up a role for HR and training to lead research into the capabilities required to run and grow tomorrow’s enterprise. These might include:

  • How best to educate and train leaders, managers, and employees on critical technologies and their applications within the business.
  • How best to manage and mentor in environments populated by humans, robots, AI, and augmented individuals.
  • Researching the possible future evolution of their core business and adjacent sectors to identify the skills that might fuel the industry.
  • Exploring what other new knowledge pools need to be developed to serve the future needs of the business.
  • Helping the organization to master the skills required by the leadership of the future, such as foresight, collaboration, empathy, soft skills, and comfort with complexity and uncertainty.
5. Addressing the Mental Health Challenge

Across society, the scale and severity of mental health issues are rising, a trend that large-scale job displacement is likely to increase. An enlightened, combined approach for government and business would be to fund people to train as therapists while still working today. This would ensure that they will be ready to help when the challenge becomes a major problem in a few years’ time. For HR, there are clear priorities here:

  • Increasing the provision of mental health support in the workplace, especially in the run up to and during massive layoffs.
  • Reinforcing the importance of mentally healthy employees and discouraging the workaholic culture.
  • Providing multigenerational therapy to cope with conflicts that emerge from divergent generational worldviews in the workplace.
  • Encouraging employees to develop interests and personal identities beyond their occupation.
  • Supporting cultural and behavioral change in areas of the organization where the management style and operating culture increase workplace stress.
Preparing for the Next Future

There’s clearly a cost associated with enabling all of the five activities, but the question must be raised: What might the risks and potential costs of inaction be? A short-term focus on cost control could lead to a very long-term increase in the cost of funding unemployment benefits and policing a society that feels let down.

The future could be a very exciting place where society can tackle current challenges and create new opportunities. New industry sectors such as laboratory grown food, vertical farming, autonomous vehicles, clean water technologies, renewable energy, and synthetic materials all hold great possibilities for humanity. However, these businesses will be highly automated from the outset, and will require very different capabilities and a highly skilled workforce. The transition to these new roles will not be smooth but, as Albert Einstein once said, “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” For HR and training, there is tremendous potential here to play an enhanced strategic and operational role in ensuring a very human future.


  • How might we start the conversation about HR and training playing an enhanced strategic role in the organization?
  • What might be the strategic and operational priorities for a new organizational resourcing function?
  • What capabilities might be required to lead and manage diverse work teams composed of humans, augmented humans, AI, and robots?

This article is excerpted from The Future Reinvented – Reimagining Life, Society, and Business. You can order the book here.


A version of the article was originally published in Training Journal.

Image: by geralt


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