Students contemplate future at Focus 2040

Competition encourages 'best and brightest' to pursue HR careers
By Danielle Harder
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/03/2010

Fast forward 30 years. What will the workforce look like? Who is in it? What is their background and education? What motivates them?

Then consider the work environment. What social, cultural, economic, technological or political factors influence the workplace? Will technology push workers into isolation — or bring them closer together?

Finally, how will the workforce and the workplace integrate by 2040? What will the HR system look like? How will it engage, retain and inspire workers?

These were the questions 19 students from a range of business programs across Canada grappled with at the inaugural Focus 2040 competition, sponsored by the Strategic Capability Network (SCNetwork) and DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University in Hamilton.

The program was simple in its focus and design, based on a similar experience by SCNetwork member Ezra Rosen at the University of California in 1967. One of his professors broke the class into groups and asked them to imagine business management in 1997.

“We were quite idealistic and hopeful,” he said. “We had some great discussions and we came up with some intriguing ideas, some of which proved to be close to what happened.”

Rosen shared this experience with his colleagues at SCNetwork and the idea for Focus 2040 was born. Realizing the challenges of reaching out to thousands of business students across the country, the organization partnered with DeGroote.

John Medcof, chair of the school’s HR and management area, worked with a team — which included fellow faculty member Mandeep Malik and student co-chairs Ashley Milne and Grace McGeachie — to organize the competition.

“It was very clearly something they saw that would be helpful to the business community and to the students,” said Medcof. “So that was a very intriguing proposition right from the very beginning.”

The competition was split into three phases: the person, the environment and the system of 2040. The winners from each phase were asked to submit for the next, with nine finalists giving a 20-minute presentation before a panel of academics and business professionals.

First place went to Sandeep Achar, an MBA candidate from Bangalore, India, studying at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. As his prize, he chose a six-month paid internship in Toronto at Foresters, a multi-national insurance company. Second-place winner Vanya Grover from McMaster chose a six-month paid internship in Toronto at SCNetwork and her third-place DeGroote peer Viva Nsair chose a four-month internship in France at BPI group, an HR consulting firm.

Students benefited not only from exposure to business leaders but were challenged to try an exercise they had not experienced in the classroom, said Medcof.

“They were dealing with something more complicated and different than preparing for an exam,” he said. “They’ve learned some cognitive skills about how to do the planning and consult with people, but just as important is the emotional experience of being out there doing something you’ve never done before, for which there are no right answers.”

The competition achieved its ultimate goal of encouraging the best and brightest to enter the field of human resources, said Rosen. HR leaders have lamented for years the loss of top students to other business streams.

“These students were much more attracted to finance where there are big bucks to be made or marketing where there’s a lot of pizzazz and creativity was required,” he said. “Students would look to those functions as the most appealing. They didn’t see HR as being able to offer them a career that would be very exciting and interesting long term. We wanted to change that impression.”

What appealed most to him about the competition, as it had back in 1967, also engaged students today, said Rosen.

“There was no wrong or right answer so they could really unleash their creativity and think broadly,” he said. “It enabled them to do some stuff they couldn’t do in their traditional academic courses.”

From a current HR management perspective, the competition opened a window into the longer-term impact today’s students will have on the workforce, said Rosen.

“We didn’t really know what the students were going to bring, not just when they just joined organizations, but how they would impose their thinking and values on the organization longer term, when they moved into management and senior management,” he said.

Students entered from Queen’s, York University in Toronto, University of Toronto, Ryerson University in Toronto, McMaster and the University of Lethbridge in Calgary.

Danielle Harder is a Whitby, Ont.-based freelance writer.

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