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21 Nov. 2019 | Comments (0)

A Q&A with Rebecca Ray, Ph.D., Executive Vice President, Human Capital, The Conference Board

Dr. Ray will be a keynote speaker at the November 2019 Hong Kong Institute of Human Resource Management (HKIHRM) Annual Conference. In this interview, published originally by HKIHRM, she provides an overview of the future of work, the fast-evolving business landscape, and the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for the HR profession.

What will organisations look like in the next few years?

Fundamentally, organisations will reflect the world we live in — it has always been that way — shaped by business needs, government regulations, world events and cultural norms. What is different now is that we live in a time of massive disruption and change driven by many distinct, yet interconnected, forces, which are changing at a rate that continually accelerates. Geopolitical forces, demographic trends such as aging populations or an absence of skilled workers and environmental challenges including ocean pollution, air quality, rising temperatures and disruption as a result of technology are changing the way we live, socialise and work. Technology, for example, enables the mass distribution of information in real time as well as the demand for a greater level of transparency into political decisions, economic trends, business dealings and the root causes of social issues.

We are seeing how technology can be a force for good, putting information and access to education in the hands of millions. Our interconnected global economic system can serve as a check against drastic political shifts. At the same time, demographics can be a boon to those countries with large numbers of young workers who will fuel not only economic growth, but also innovation as they lift their countries to new levels. And through it all, the steady progress in the development of artificial intelligence will continue to reshape the way we live and work; it holds the promise of smarter solutions to perennial challenges by helping to solve some of the world’s knottiest problems, including environmental, inequality and gender diversification issues.

Organisations, on the other hand, need to adapt by becoming more agile, transforming their business models, seeking new markets, embracing digitalisation, and being more transparent with stakeholders — which include their customers, consumers, investors, employees and the communities they serve. Organisations also need to become more diverse in terms of gender, certainly, but also in terms of demographics that reflect the worker and customer/consumer base, joining forces with former competitors and non-traditional partners to meet customer demands and drive innovation.

What are the key areas that should concern the HR function the most?

The wide sweeping changes taking place will inevitably continue to shape the HR function, which is charged with ensuring that the world of work continues to operate smoothly and effectively in an unpredictable world. It is an almost impossible task. Yet, many HR functions, led by forward-thinking executives, have already begun to fundamentally transform. These executives not only understand their businesses but can anticipate the business challenges that lie ahead and, by extension, the ways in which work will need to get done, by whom and with which skill sets. However, conversations with HR executives reveal that they are particularly concerned about the ability to be agile as a function and to deliver at the speed with which business requires, often with an HR team whose members are navigating their own personal transformative journey.

HR leaders are also concerned about sourcing skilled workers, including, but not limited to, traditional full-time employees, contingent workers, "gig economy" workers and volunteers. The annual Conference Board survey of global leaders, C-Suite Challenge 2019: The Future-Ready Organization, cites the number one internal concern across the globe among CEOs and HR leaders as "the attraction and retention of talent". According to the same study, developing the next generation of leaders, including HR leaders, is also a topic of concern, with many worrying that without a cadre of effective leaders their organisations will struggle to compete and win. Creating an inclusive culture that fosters innovation and a sense of belonging where everyone can bring their best selves to work also depends on the HR function crafting a work landscape where individuals feel they can align the work of the business to their core values.

What measures can be taken in talent development, attraction and retention to build employee engagement against the backdrop of an evolving world of work landscape?

The challenge is to educate people for jobs that may not yet exist. In a tightening labour market, firms cannot hire their way out of a digital talent shortage. The evolution of the company’s existing talent base becomes essential. Research conducted by The Conference Board leads us to believe that organisations in 2025 will be very different. For instance, organisations will blur internal and external boundaries as hierarchies and bureaucracies fade in favour of flexible structures and innovation ecosystems. Work will be unbundled from jobs and increasingly organised around projects requiring agile and diverse teams. As a result, organisations are likely to have an ever-smaller cohort of full-time workers, supported by contingent or flexible workers on project teams. As technology reduces or speeds up tasks, the HR function will need to find ways for humans to integrate with technology.

How can the best-prepared organisations understand the nature of possible challenges and surprises and have a range of scenarios in place for dealing with them?

There are a number of steps the HR function can take to ensure that their organisations and employees can adapt to the changing business and market demands.

1. Think more broadly about how work will get done.

2. Have leaner functions as artificial intelligence translates into a higher cognitive complexity of human work.  

3. Start upskilling existing employees now to develop critical thinking skills, project management and analytical muscle without doing this at the expense of teamwork and collaboration skills or technical mastery.

4. Redefine work with agile, fluid teams as the new work nexus by investing in more individual coaching and mentoring to cater to new generations in the workforce and leadership ranks.

5. Offer future leaders more crossfunctional rotation experiences to broaden their knowledge.

Are HR leaders prepared for the future organisation and future workforce?

While forward-looking HR leaders are prepared to face future workforce and organisational challenges, it is important that they lead through disruption by bringing their teams and colleagues along with them through practising greater inclusion, transparency and information sharing to drive engagement. I have every faith that this can be achieved.

  • About the Author:Rebecca L. Ray, PhD

    Rebecca L. Ray, PhD

    Rebecca Ray is the Executive Vice President, Human Capital, at The Conference Board. She leads the US Human Capital Center and is responsible for member engagement and retention as well as the overall…

    Full Bio | More from Rebecca L. Ray, PhD


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