Jeanne Meister led the SCN audience on a wide-ranging, eye-opening and hair-raising romp through the challenges and opportunities of the future workplace.
Meister quoted Charles Darwin: “The most responsive to change survives.” This, I feel, was the heart of her presentation. If the issues and insights she raised are true — and she certainly has the data — then she was being far too gentle on her audience.
Let there be no misunderstanding: HR is due for an overhaul so radical it will make management consultant David Ulrich’s “strategic partner” innovation seem like a mere course correction.
Meister listed the now familiar forces of change: the multi-gen workforce, the impending “diversified” workforce, the rise of semi-autonomous, intelligent technology, and the mass customization of employee experience. (Interestingly, she left out the network-versus-hierarchy bugbear).
In response to those forces, she asked: “How can we break HR so that we do a better job?” A powerful question, too softly posed. Like so many roles in the future, we will need to dramatically re-imagine and redefine our roles and ourselves, erasing silo walls and connecting ourselves directly to the success of the organization.
Meister repeatedly stressed that all workers, including HR, need to adopt a new mindset: “Your team does not have the right answer.” I take that to mean that the edges of our expertise are getting fuzzier as our environments become more complex and interwoven.
The human capital job is becoming porous; increasingly, we must reach out into IT, analytics, facilities, other stakeholders and, most importantly, to each individual employee in order to find, engage and retain talent. We will find that stakeholders will simultaneously reach back into us, blurring the distinction between functions and roles, and forcing us into “constantly living in a beta stage.”
The effort to achieve that change in mindset alone is a stretch. And, despite Meister’s offhand “This doesn’t mean that everyone in HR is losing their job,” the re-skilling to support that mindset will inevitably be beyond the reach of some of us.
I concede that a Harvard Business Review-worthy speaker would bring big-brand examples such as PWC, Cisco and Mastercard, but I regret that Meister did not at least nod toward the future of the workplace at the vast majority of organizations that are small and medium-sized. These are companies that are big enough to have efficiencies like an HR generalist, but not small enough to be nimble.
They will be on the back-end of the wave of change that’s coming. I wonder what the hybrid employee experience is going to look like, where an employee at a small manufacturer — whose exposure to HR will remain the punch clock — has a spouse contingently working for a big financial who’s getting real-time HR feedback via a chatbot?
Michael Clark is director of business development at Forrest & Company, an organizational transformation firm with 30 years’ experience in developing the organizational and leadership capacity in organizations.
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