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Keeping Up with Workforce 2020

For many companies, success in the next decade will depend on how well they implement information technologies that transform when and how people do their jobs.

If business decentralization is a long-running trend with more stutter-steps than successes, it’s primarily because the technology to make decentralization work deftly has yet to be perfected or adopted by skittish organizations unwilling to fully take a chance on the unproven. But by 2020, innovative competitors — and inevitable gains in remote, mobile, and virtual devices — will make it impossible for most companies to deny that information technology is profoundly reshaping the workplace. By then, in many businesses, workers will no longer be bound by geography or by clocks.

In order to position their organizations to attract top talent, drive breakthroughs, and serve customers better, managers need to recognize the effect that information services will have on the evolution of the workforce. The sooner organizations adopt and internalize the technology and skills needed to thrive in an increasingly virtual and flexible work environment, the sooner they will enjoy the significant economic, social, and environmental benefits a decentralized organization makes possible.

Although the end result of any developing model is difficult to predict, we have established a number of likely scenarios that depict the workforce of 2020 and the strategic implications for employers looking not just to stay ahead of the curve but to shape it to their competitive advantage.

The punctuated workday. Software already makes it possible for people to work anytime, anyplace. But although the technology to enable remote and distributed work not tied to tasks at a desk has been available for years, human resources and IT leaders have failed to put it to best use. In fact, because of the absence of a coordinated strategy for managing a virtual workforce, the opposite has occurred: Increased connectivity has made it more difficult for people to draw lines between their work and their personal lives. The emergence of the millennial generation (born between 1981 and 2000) — dominated by former “latchkey” kids who may appreciate the value of work–life balance — will pressure employers to embrace technology that empowers workers to control when and where they work, as well as the policies to prevent overwork. These converging trends will create a punctuated workday, in which people work for several hours and then leave the workplace to run errands, attend events, or care for elderly relatives or young children, only to return to their work for another period of concentrated activity. Access to remote, mobile, and secure information resources irrespective of physical location and time of day will make this possible.

Boomer brain drain. The vanguard of the baby boomer generation (born between 1946 and 1962) is at the cusp of its planned retirement. According to U.S. Census reports, an average of 7,918 Americans turned 60 every day in 2006, which amounts to 330 every hour — a rate that will only accelerate in the next 10 years. Even after allowing for a percentage of boomers who will work longer than their parents did, this mass exodus from the workforce creates a number of issues. Organizations will need to invest more and earlier in knowledge transfer techniques and create real incentives to encourage their most experienced and critical workers to share their knowledge and information. For example, information management systems should be implemented that offer easy access to both details about organizational process and deep pools of learning that individuals have amassed over the years. Strong mentoring programs that help boomers transfer their skills to younger workers and that ease the way for older boomers to adapt to new social and technological realities will prove essential to making this knowledge transfer work.

Just-in-time learning. Technology is important as a means of connecting people in the new world of business, capturing the output of their creativity, and providing them the information crucial to the decisions they face. Still, it is not the only necessary component for a strong learning environment. To successfully educate and retain talent in the future, a commitment to a culture of learning is required. Knowledge contributors should be recognized and rewarded. Incentive structures should be examined and modified to encourage people to develop their own skills and those of their colleagues through collaboration, discussion, and mentoring. A wide variety of other sources, such as personal connections through Web-based social networks and online education, will allow people to learn what they need to know, when they need to know it. Companies must harness these resources and embrace technological innovation to promote and emphasize organizational learning and action.

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  1. Daniel W. Rasmus, “Scenario Planning and the Future of Education,” Innovate, vol. 4, no. 5, June/July 2008: A vision for the future of education that reflects the impact technology can have on policy and practice.
  2. Daniel W. Rasmus and Rob Salkowitz, Listening to the Future: Why It’s Everybody’s Business (Wiley, 2008): How the work experience will be transformed in coming years and how organizations can profit from this transformation.
  3. The Future of Information Work: Rasmus’s blog, exploring what’s coming next in information dissemination, work, and education, among other topics.
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