Students unveil working world of 2040

Space isn’t just the final frontier, it may also be your office – and apparently there’s a thing or 2 we can learn from ant colonies
By Ian Hendry, Ray Johnston and Karen Gorsline
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/22/2013

The national university challenge Focus 2040 — in which students gathered at a campus of McMaster University’s DeGroote School of Business in Burlington, Ont., in late March to present their vision of what the working world could look like in 2040 — painted a vivid picture.

They extrapolated current trends and subjected them to a healthy dose of imaginative thinking, presenting a picture of intensified business challenges, instantaneous, seamless communication, an insatiable quest for efficiencies and a highly educated, entrepreneurial and global workforce unwilling to accept the status quo.

Here we summarize the predictions of the 10 finallists:

Google Glasses, 3-D printing

Imagine a world where robots are doing most of the routine jobs and training is done virtually using real-life simulations. Google Glasses, technology available today, will have evolved to become an everyday workplace aid. The glasses could, for example, warn employees they are about to enter a dangerous area and list the safety equipment they require. They could also make on-the-spot training and refresher courses available as needed.

What if, in 2040, 3-D printing was capable of manufacturing a wide range of products designed by “virtual architects,” produced by 3-D artisans in entrepreneurial businesses? Goods could be mass-produced and brought to market locally, saving time and transportation costs. Jobs previously outsourced would migrate back to support the local market.

Business clusters

With major infrastructure problems facing large cities today, producing an enormous waste of time and energy stuck in traffic gridlock, 2040 will feature communities built away from city centres where organizations unite to build business clusters, close to residential communities largely populated by employees.

Business clusters, which will make virtual offices outdated, visibly connect colleagues from anywhere around the globe. All required data stored in the cloud will be available at employees’ fingertips, with connectivity to partners at other companies working on the same project. These same business clusters could also be used to operate heavy machinery in dangerous situations — such as mining companies — or at remote locations.

Space: The final frontier

Is it too far-fetched to imagine a workplace in outer space? After all, there is a working international space station now and Virgin Galactic is planning its first commercial space flight by the end of 2013.

Plus, there are a number of entrepreneurs actively exploring the possibility of mining asteroids for valuable minerals. A commercial workplace in space could take advantage of the infinite energy from the sun, would be ideal for manufacturing components requiring a perfect vacuum and isolate potentially hazardous processes.

This future world will largely reflect the values of today’s Millennials who, by 2040, will form the bulk of the experienced workforce — values that include quality of life, social responsibility and environmental concerns. Global demographics point to a world where diversity will be embedded into the fabric of the business world, going well beyond racial and cultural diversity to include diversity of thinking and working styles. In this future, hyper-competitive world where, as one finalist put it, “There are no more old roads to new directions,” this diversity will be the source of creative thinking and innovation.

Talent will be a global resource and HR will not be constrained by borders. People will be credentialed — not only their grade point average (GPA) education but a universally recognized QPL (qualitative performance level). Employees will be required to complete numerous assessments (think Myers-Briggs on steroids), every role and project undertaken will be identified and performance reports will all form part of the personal scorecard, fully accessible to employers.

So, what does all this mean for HR?

HR as talent sourcing and management: The workforce of the 2040 organization will be largely contingent with a small core (20 per cent) providing strategic leadership and overall management. The use of robots or other automation will see the emergence of new roles for microspecialists to perform very specialized tasks and super generalists guiding the organization. An HR priority will be sourcing and talent management to ensure the right people are in the right roles and able to work effectively in sophisticated teams to tackle complex business issues.

HR and happiness: With Millennials now the primary demographic at the workplace, happiness will be a prominent value affecting the ability of organizations to attract the best talent. Employers will fashion employment packages that specifically address the needs and wants of individual employees. While applying to core employees, this will be even more important for contingent employees who are continually searching the open market. The means for providing “happiness” will be similar to core processes in use today, such as compensation, development, career/experience opportunities and work-life balance, but will be much more flexible and adaptable. In the 2040 workplace, the contingent workforce will be considered in much the same way as the core workforce. The future job market and legislation will force employers to think differently about the satisfaction of contingent workers.

HR and culture: With so many contingent workers, virtual workplaces and global teams, the need to establish a foundation for teamwork and shared set of norms will be a primary role for HR. HR will also be seen as primarily accountable for policy and infrastructure to promote efficiency. This includes the development of quantitative performance levels to provide for more consistency, less subjectivity and more equity in areas such as selection and performance rewards. HR will also play a stronger corporate social responsibility (CSR) role including policy development, partner identification and implementation of CSR standards.

HR and strategy: One of the finalists painted a picture of organizations as travelling along a lifecycle — the Panarchy Cycle — that begins with innovation and experimentation, evolves and matures and then collapses, resulting in the release of its resources and the opportunity for a phoenix-like regeneration. To be successful in this model, HR embraces the implicit complexity of the organizational lifecycle and builds skills, such as data mapping, to identify crucial moments and points at which there are opportunities to change.

HR would promote broader thinking throughout the organization through scenario planning, experimenting with innovations and supporting the business to identify and manage the key moments for rebuilding through a potential crisis using freed resources.

As well as this “big picture” role, HR would develop the infrastructure needed to deliver and manage the talent required to achieve business strategy and goals, as well as alerting the business to emerging trends and needs.

Do ants hold the answer?

The recurring theme of this year’s competition was everything in an interconnected system needs to work together. This year’s winner posed the question: “Could part of the answer lie in the ant colony?”

These small creatures work together to form one of nature’s most complex social systems. Without a hierarchy, they are able to effectively co-ordinate the activities of the whole community by communicating horizontally. This enables them to be flexible, adaptive and focused.

Some organizations, such as Huawei Technologies, are already practising decision-making at the most senior level with a seven-member CEO panel that rotates the CEO role among each member every six months. The “human colony” of 2040 will have harnessed the power of the collective, combining crowdsourcing with collective decision-making as standard operating procedure.

Tomorrow’s star organizations will be “super organisms” that are interconnected but cannot be controlled directly. They can only be influenced at key inflection points in the lifecycle of systems by very focused and strategic interventions.

There is little doubt that many of the projections will occur long before 2040. Also, let’s give hope that the phrase “May you live in interesting times” not be a curse but a challenge that unifies people and organizations to tackle the future together, relishing future challenges.

Ian Hendry, Karen Gorsline and Ray Johnston wrote this article together on behalf of the Strategic Capability Network (SCNetwork). For more information about Focus 2040, visit

Focus 2040

Cronkite’s vision of the future

Readers who regularly follow Todd Humber’s blog will have already read about many of the ideas that surfaced at this year’s Focus 2040 competition. Humber, managing editor of Canadian HR Reporter, provided a link to a Walter Kronkite video from 1967, where the legendary anchor unveiled a possible — and entertaining — vision for the future working world. See to view the video.

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