Technological and social forces are transforming how work gets done, who does it, and even what work looks like. In an effort to understand how organizations can rethink their approaches in the face of the evolution of work, this article tries to tap into the wisdom of crowds by asking leading thinkers to identify what they think are the most important driving forces shaping the work-related realities of tomorrow.
What could work look like tomorrow?
GETTING work done is a fundamental concern for any business. But today, paradigm-shifting forces seem to be driving significant changes in both work and the workforce. New digital and communications technologies are changing how work gets done.
The growth of the gig economy and advances in artificial intelligence are changing who does the work. Even the question of what work looks like is coming under examination as a continually evolving marketplace drives organizations to explore new business models.
In the face of these technological and social forces, it could be imperative for businesses to rethink their approaches to the how, who, and what of work in fundamental, perhaps even transformative ways. And as usual, there seem to be no easy answers. While we anticipate that the future of work will be better in some respects than many of our present-day realities, we also anticipate much turbulence.
The complexity of what lies ahead can make many business leaders feel as if they are navigating whitewater rapids rather than charting predictable courses of action.
The research this report describes aims to bring some degree of clarity to the pressures organizations can expect as they move forward in the future of work.
Through an ongoing research collaboration with WikiStrat, we examine leading experts’ views on the new realities that are emerging and ways in which individuals, organizational leaders, and public policy makers can take advantage of the opportunities that the future of work presents.
Understanding the future by engaging the crowd
The complexities and opportunities posed by the future of work may seem limitless, and they can present newfound realities to multiple stakeholders. And so, to better understand tomorrow’s most pressing issues, we tapped into the potential power of leveraging the wisdom of crowds.
Considering a wide range of perspectives on the future of work allows us to view the issue from a variety of viewpoints, yielding a fuller picture of the transformations underway.
To create this fuller picture, we used the WikiStrat crowdsourcing platform to ask leading thinkers across the globe to identify what they thought were the most important driving forces shaping the work-related realities of tomorrow. These were futurists and experts in law, business, society, health, and economics, representing 14 countries.
We asked this crowd of experts to identify, not only what they thought were the most relevant forces driving the future of work, but also how likely they thought these new realities were to take shape over the next five to ten years. (See the sidebar About the research to learn more about the study methodology.)
As we gathered and unpacked the data during the study’s first phase (conducted in April 2017), five “new realities” emerged that were considered both highly probable and likely to have a big impact on global public policy makers, organizational leaders, and employees seeking to navigate opportunities in the future of work.
Each of these realities holds untapped potential for further developing the workforce, leveraging technology, and advancing economic and social growth in newfound ways.
The study’s second phase (conducted in November 2017) validated the five original realities and identified two additional “emerging” realities on the horizon (figure 1).
Reality No. 1: Exponential organizations
The driving forces of big data, the Internet of Things, and the growing number of Generation X individuals in leadership positions have led to the rise of exponential technologies and data-driven organizations. Organizations that can capture the potential value unlocked by technology and data’s unprecedented availability are anticipated to outpace their peers.
We often refer to these organizations as “exponential organizations” (ExOs). We define an ExO as one that has a disproportionately large impact (or output) compared to its peers, and that enjoys an exponential return on assets (such as talent, capital, or intellectual property).
An ExO’s exponential return on assets may be largely due to the use of new organizational techniques that employ the right mix of exponential technologies, business models, and, most importantly, human talent.
To successfully operate as an ExO, an organization should find the right mix between people and technology to scale impact and accelerate growth. ExOs seem to have mastered artful augmentation—leveraging the power of technology while further developing the enduring human skill sets needed to capture value in the market.
They generally see technology, not simply as a way to create efficiencies and cut costs, but as a way to unleash exponential growth in abundant markets. They can redefine their markets and use data to create new industries (for example, the sharing economy and crowdfunding).
A concrete example of the kind of action an ExO may take to achieve these ends is the steps that a large hedge fund organization is taking to use artificial intelligence to augment the firm’s management decision-making. This allows its investment managers to spend more time engaged in higher-value tasks.2
Another example is that of a leading medical practice that is using cloud technology and data science to provide more precise healthcare and value to patients.3
One challenge to operating as an ExO is the pragmatic difficulty of getting one’s arms around the vast volume of data and information being generated. This volume is only growing; some estimate that 90 percent of the world’s data has been created in the past few years.
We also often hear about the increased flow of information: 2.5 exabytes of data are produced every day, while 140 million emails are sent every minute.4 How then can organizational leaders prepare to harness data and information in the quest for exponential performance?
A good starting point is to create a data-driven business model that focuses on customer value creation by relying on new data streams, technologies, and human talent to inform decision-making and redefine the competitive market. Harnessing a mix of data, technology, and people allows ExOs to create opportunities in untapped markets.
It is also necessary to develop core business competencies like statistical reasoning, data manipulation, and data visualization. And, while ExOs focus heavily on science and data, they also place a premium on technical workers who can also leverage soft skills such as social interaction, creative thinking, and complex problem-solving.
Reality No. 2: The unleashed workforce
Factors such as the growth of freelancing, 24-hour everything, mobility, crowdsourcing, and gamification have unleashed the workforce, freeing it from many traditional bounds and constraints. Indeed, one of the fastest-growing workforce segments is the “alternative” worker—one who works off-campus and outside of an organization’s official talent balance sheet.6
In addition, the rise of platform technologies has made it easier for organizations to use crowdsourcing to tackle tough challenges. And technologies such as artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and robotic process automation allow work to be outsourced to robots.
This broadening of the talent continuum gives employers an opportunity to engage in a multi-channel workforce strategy that leverages a mix of traditional full-time employees, joint ventures, contractors, freelancers, crowds, and robots (figure 3).
To reap benefits from this new reality, successful organizations can leverage team-based models and decision-making protocols rather than building traditional hierarchical business models.
Agile companies can draw upon all points of the talent continuum to rapidly shape new business models, improve output quality, generate ideas, and manage costs.
At the same time, effective organizations also recognize the different needs and specific attributes of different worker types along the continuum. They do not take a one-size-fits-all approach to the employee experience.
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