What will working world look like in 2040?

Students come up with creative visions of future at annual competition

Albert Einstein once said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”

One of the benefits of the Focus 2040 event — an annual student competition presented by the Strategic Capability Network (SCNetwork) and DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University in Hamilton — is being able to listen to the unshackled leaders of tomorrow share their outlook on the world of work.

Conformity is often the mantra of survival at organizations. “Drinking the Kool-Aid” necessitates adherence and adoption to the rules, regulations and culture of the organization. But students in the Focus 2040 competition are refreshingly unencumbered.

This year’s competitors devoted more time and attention to the employee of tomorrow and how organizations need to reorganize to drive engagement and retention. They envision a world where organizations will not be hiring employees, per se, but the best and brightest candidates will interview organizations to see which ones best fit their needs and desires. They would be free agents, moving to the projects that promise the most stimulating challenges and personal fulfillment.

While most competitors see the current concept of the employment relationship as extinct, and they envision future employees forming a contingent workforce, they vary considerably in how this might actually function.

The employment relationship

The scenario closest to the employment relationships we currently know would be a group of employees who will choose to be affiliated with a specific organization but freely bid on assignments in an open market at the organization. Departments would no longer exist. Managers would compete for the best staff on a project or work-segment basis. One has to assume any work that has ongoing production or routine operational aspects has already been automated or dealt with by technological solutions.

Another scenario envisions professionals or specialized workers who are engaged on a basis beyond organization boundaries, potentially globally, through a third party. This might be a professional association that hosts a matching service for organizations and professionals. Or it could be through a type of specialized online agency service that adds value and manages the matching process.

Finally, there is the view the workforce will be global with a contingent workforce that comes together by chance and opportunity, united around a specific package of work for a temporary duration. In this scenario, there is also advanced supporting technology but no intermediation or middleman. It is a completely open marketplace supporting a global, virtual workforce.

If the above scenarios seem unfeasible, just think about how eBay has created a perfect market for buyers and sellers of specialty items, or how Trip-Advisor adds information on travel options and value to decisions by providing numeric ratings and commentaries.

While technology is already very close to being able to support a virtual contingent workforce, questions remain as to the scope and pace of change. This will largely be determined by the ability and willingness to cross social and economic boundaries on a large-scale basis. The competitors focused on vision for a fixed point in time — 2040 — but a number of related assumptions were identified, such as:

• The willingness of governments to support legislation and police forces that permit a global, virtual workforce on a large-scale basis and the possibility of a global work passport.

• The ability of companies to deal with competitive issues such as protection of proprietary information.

• HR, managers and staff adapting to new ways of working.

Technology driving changes

While these presenters see technology enabling a vastly improved quality of work-life and job-matching across this fluid, global workforce, others see technological breakthroughs as the primary driver of fundamental changes in the way work itself is done.

Nanotechnology — working at an atomic or molecular level — is identified as one source of the breakthroughs that will usher in this new era. With computational processors based on the manipulation of individual atoms already operating, this area is just
beginning to receive serious air time. It points to a future of incredibly small devices with unimaginable power.

Fast-forward to 2040 where technology has become a very real extension of ourselves. Each of us will have a personal device — perhaps an implanted chip — that grows along with us as we learn and change throughout our lifetime.

Imagine a single device, activated by our thoughts, that stores our personal data and accumulated knowledge, connects seamlessly with an infinite range of databases, and provides immediate communication anywhere across the globe. The workplace would become a technologically integrated system where each person is instantly able to connect with colleagues, regardless of geographic location.

Role of managers

The role of managers will be very different, according to the students. Hierarchies will disappear and organizations will be operating much like the film industry does today, where there are a few core managers whose role it is to develop strategy, determine the work to be done, assemble the right people, align them to a vision and goals and ensure the integration of activities.

In creating a film, only the producers, director and writers have the full vision. The rest are contingent workers, including actors and production staff, who each have slices of understanding of the whole vision. It’s the responsibility of the producers and director to ensure the right people are in place so it all comes together.

In the technologically networked workplace of 2040, the role of managers will be to articulate the vision of the whole so each person understands how to maximize his contribution, to ensure each of the individual pieces are delivered and fit together in the end to deliver the expected final product.

In this world of work, managers are primarily dynamic strategists, innovators and network shapers and influencers.

Communicating via thoughts

But, as one presenter did, let’s push the impact of technology in the workplace even further. What if technology enabled thoughts to be directly transferred from one individual to another in a networked system, without having to use language? It would enable direct thinking to be transmitted and stored throughout the system and ensure everyone’s thinking was on the same page.

The advantages are obvious: thoughts communicated directly without the miscommunication that happens through the use of language; communication would be fast and enable real-time development and analysis; thoughts could be digitized for future use.

However, as the competition judges noted, this is a technology that raises some very significant questions: How would private thoughts be separated? What control would an individual have over what thoughts are communicated? How long would thoughts be stored? Who owns the thoughts? These and, no doubt, countless other related issues would keep policy makers fully occupied.

This may all sound very esoteric. Some will say 2040 is so far off that with socio-economic, political and even religious forces at play, there is little value in thinking about a murky future. However, technological innovation is already a fact of life.

Some HR leaders have embraced cloud computing and configured human capital systems within it. Handheld devices are becoming more sophisticated and those at the forefront are expecting organizations to move as fast as new applications appear.

So, what role do we play in influencing organizations to keep pace with the needs of the next generation of students who are techno-savvy and unreservedly leveraging extensive personal networks with information at their fingertips? They share knowledge freely, rather than hoard it, and see the Internet as a key to learning.

They seek feedback, look for recognition, demand to be challenged and will not be buried in infrastructure and bureaucracy. Whether the need to be challenged is available here or abroad, many see themselves as global free agents.

If company growth is stunted by a lack of talent, as well as a failure to innovate quickly, now is the time to strategize about how to attract and retain the brightest minds, and leverage their creative genius.

Change is not made without inconvenience. Do you see change as an inconvenience or opportunity? Are you a vanguard for change or just another naysayer and proponent of the status quo? Do you search out those with imagination, who can point out a possible path to the next obstacles your organization must overcome? Do you want to be seen as the strategic partner who is forcing the dialogue around the boardroom table about today’s changes, to address tomorrow’s roadblocks?

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 www.focus2040.ca. The winners of the competition will be a part of SCNetwork’s Tool Time event on May 23. For more information about that event, visit www.scnetwork.ca and click on the “Events and Meetings” tab.

Student competition 

Focus 2040 winners

First place: Cindy Chan
(University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Ont.) and Mario Vasilescu (University of Ontario Institute of Technology, Oshawa, Ont.)

Second place: Lydia Wu (Queen’s University, Kingston, Ont.)

Third place: Tiffanie Lai (Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, B.C.) and Amanda Feng
(University of British Columbia, Vancouver)

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