There is a distinct sense of uneasiness among many HR leaders of large organizations. It starts with a common recognition that the bread-and-butter pillars of the function, such as learning, recruiting, talent planning, and leadership development, aren’t delivering the level of value they should. Viewed separately, the gaps between current and desired states in these pillars seem painful but familiar. The solutions seem difficult but for the most part incremental and manageable. Yet, when viewed holistically, all doesn’t seem as rosy. A more fundamental gap is becoming apparent, and the solutions may not be so familiar or manageable.
The source of this deeper unease? While HR leaders dealt with the daily tasks of helping their organizations be successful, work itself changed. Yes—work. That fundamental conceptualization for how we match labor to value creation has shifted (and continues to do so). This is not the first time this has happened. As others have discussed, the Industrial Revolution shaped work to be a set of specialized tasks requiring specialized roles to complete, replacing a prior artisan-driven model. Today, as forces such as new technologies, changing workforces, and longer life spans drive changes in our organizations, it shouldn’t shock anyone that such basic definitions might need to be adjusted as well. The challenge is not just in the change. The discomfort for leaders in HR is the queasy recognition that we are already a few years into a period in which we have been dutifully addressing organizational symptoms without engaging the real root cause of the pain.
Most recently, this disconnect has been evident in the widespread dissatisfaction and resulting innovation related to organizational performance management processes. While this particular story is still being written, early indications are that most employees appreciate the shift in focus from competitive differentiation to coaching. Yet, for all the resources and effort that HR has devoted to revamping performance management systems over the past five years, many companies that led this charge are at least questioning their gains. Has productivity increased? Has engagement increased? Leaders in many of these companies note, “We adopted a continuous process. We threw out ratings and moved to check-ins. If anything, we’ve created more work, but we’re not sure it’s worth it.”
Talking with these organizations, we discovered that many were focused only on replacing or improving their processes for managing performance. With all good intentions, they saw their remit as simply replacing one process with another more continuous and inclusive one, not rethinking the underlying building blocks. So deeper pressures brought on by digital disruption, the open talent economy, transient career paths, rapidly deprecating skills, and robotic process automation (RPA) or artificial intelligence (AI)—just to name a few—were, in many cases, not addressed and perhaps not even acknowledged. Consider, for instance, the rapid rise in freelance and gig workers (contingent jobs account for most job growth in the U.S. labor market in recent years). In many of these organizations, HR has focused on reinventing the performance management of just a segment of the workforce (perhaps the least dynamic one at that). Is it any wonder that new employee performance management systems aren’t moving the needle as expected?
These same HR functions would be within reason to point out that they do not have responsibility for expanded workforces in their organizations. But that fact is part of the problem, and performance management is only one example. Similar challenges are occurring with leadership succession, talent acquisition, learning and development, and workforce planning initiatives. HR leaders have revamped processes and infused them with AI and other cutting-edge technologies—yet the benefits have been only incremental. Single-process, surface-level improvements are not addressing a future of work that is already here.
Redefining work and talent
If work itself is changing—what it is comprised of, how it is done, and who does it—then the organization must change how it designs, plans, manages, and evaluates it as well, likely starting with the organization itself. HR knows the definition of talent is changing, but it might be time to go much further and faster on that reconceptualization as well.
The solutions won’t come simply by rejiggering and automating existing processes. HR leaders can’t create processes that are capable of supporting and nurturing the workforce in this new reality until they help their organizations reach a new, operational understanding of what work is and who is going to do it. All of the previous 11 predictions in this article speak to related pressures, but HR must be willing to look more than skin-deep. The following starts to outline how HR leaders should look at the “big” HR picture and how we’ll be looking at things in 2018:
- Redefine work. Many are already looking to identify work under the banner of the future of work. HR needs to help the organization take this type of thinking further. Find the new framework for defining work itself. What are the core components? We humans are social, creative problem-solvers. Could work now be defined as the ongoing identification of problems in context, or “exceptions” (the frequency of which suggests they are not so exceptional), and then the creation and application of knowledge to those problems?
- Reinvent workforce planning. Once organizations know the “what” and “where” of needed work, they can define the “who.” The definition of talent has already expanded from employees to contingent workers to crowds. Now, it is expanding further still—to include smart machines that augment and automate jobs.To take full advantage of automation and augmentation, HR needs to start the planning process from the bottom up by considering the following:
- Where and how will knowledge be processed in the context of work?
- Where and when are goals best achieved with a workforce that is augmented by machines?
- Where and when should work be automated?
As these questions infer, maybe HR can’t focus solely on managing the talent life cycle of employees any longer.
In the near term, each organization should redefine work (and talent) in ways that fit its unique strategy and character and the conditions it faces. HR leaders may not always feel as though they have the mandate to drive decision-making on such fundamental issues. But in this case, they have no choice: If the changing nature of work itself isn’t addressed, the possible impact of their other programs and initiatives will be ever more stunted.
Every day from January 16 through January 26, Bersin will be sharing perspectives on the most timely, relevant, and interesting developments for HR professionals to watch in 2018 on http://blog.bersin.com/. Check back every day, or visit bersin.com on January 29 for a consolidated report with all of the trends.
 “Reconstructing work: Automation, artificial intelligence, and the essential role of humans,” Deloitte Review / Peter Evans-Greenwood, Harvey Lewis, and Jim Guszcza, July 2017, https://www2.deloitte.com/insights/us/en/deloitte-review/issue-21/artificial-intelligence-and-the-future-of-work.html.
 The open talent economy: People and work in a borderless workplace, Deloitte Consulting LLP / Andrew Liakopoulos, Lisa Barry, and Jeff Schwartz, 2013, https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/global/Documents/HumanCapital/dttl-hc-english-opentalenteconomy.pdf.
 “Catch the wave: The 21st-century career,” Deloitte Review / Josh Bersin, July 2017, https://www2.deloitte.com/insights/us/en/deloitte-review/issue-21/changing-nature-of-careers-in-21st-century.html.
 “Letter to The Honorable Patty Murray and The Honorable Kirsten Gillibrand: Contingent Workforce: Size, Characteristics, Earnings, and Benefits,” U.S. Government Accountability Office / Charles A. Jeszeck, April 20, 2015, www.gao.gov/assets/670/669766.pdf.
 2017 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends: Rewriting the rules for the digital age, Deloitte Consulting LLP and Deloitte University Press, 2017, https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/pages/human-capital/articles/introduction-human-capital-trends.html.
 “Future of work,” Deloitte.com, https://www2.deloitte.com/global/en/pages/human-capital/topics/future-of-work.html.
 “Reconstructing work: Automation, artificial intelligence, and the essential role of humans,” Deloitte Review / Peter Evans-Greenwood, Harvey Lewis, and Jim Guszcza, July 2017, https://www2.deloitte.com/insights/us/en/deloitte-review/issue-21/artificial-intelligence-and-the-future-of-work.html
 Beyond Process: How to Get Better, Faster as ‘Exceptions’ Become the Rule, Deloitte Consulting LLP / John Hagel, John Seely Brown, Andrew de Maar, Maggie Wooll, 2017, https://www2.deloitte.com/insights/us/en/topics/talent/business-process-redesign-performance-improvement.html
 The Open Talent Economy: People and Work in a Borderless Workplace, Deloitte Consulting LLP / Andrew Liakopoulos, Lisa Barry, and Jeff Schwartz, 2013, https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/global/Documents/HumanCapital/dttl-hc-english-opentalenteconomy.pdf.