Blog Article

What Work Was, What Work Will Be, and Why HR Must Innovate

Posted by Ian Wilcox

Ian Wilcox

The July-August issue of the Harvard Business Review has a provocative cover: “It’s Time to Blow Up HR and Build Something New.”

So when I opened the magazine, I expected a cannonade of bombast and hyperbole. Despite the cover’s sensational language, the pages under the cover speak good sense. They offer cogent rationales for making HR a strategic partner to c-suite: who can argue with that? It’s simply common sense.

In fact, putting down the magazine, I felt that the articles didn’t press their cases urgently enough. They treated reforming HR as a task for “nice” for organizations, when all the evidence suggests a full-scale transformation is not just nice but necessary.

HR, as we know it, retains far too many of the trappings of its 20th-century origins. The way we think about HR has not caught up with our digital, mobile age. Fairly or not, we still view its role as administering benefits, enforcing rules, and pestering middle managers. In global, IP-centered corporations, this image is only a few steps removed from the world of Philip Levine, the late poet laureate of the US and son of industrial Detroit. His poem “What Work Is” contains a telling portrait of 20th-century HR. HR is embodied in the poem’s image of a man “waiting who will say, ‘No,/we’re not hiring today,’ for any/reason he wants.”

My point in quoting Levine is not to offer a literary exegesis but to show how cultural history affects the way we think today. If HR has a cultural history, Levine’s poem is a key document in its archive. Even in the precincts of global white-collar work, HR carries the mental baggage of sooty brick, shiftwork, smokestacks, and bureaucracy.

Factories, though, are immobile, while we live in a hypermobile world to which the culture of HR has not yet adapted. Indeed, mobility is the watchword of our times: mobile communications, mobile workers, mobile capital, mobile careers, mobile lives. The speed at which information, people, and goods move has changed “What Work Is,” to borrow the title of Levine’s poem; accordingly, HR today needs to ensure that organizations keep up with and indeed harness this movement, turning the fluidity of the world today to their advantage.

Progress in nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and biotechnology, to name a few fields, is advancing rapidly; the innovations we’ll see five years from now, especially as these fields converge, are unimaginable. Will HR be able to deliver the talent that lets companies benefit from new developments? Are R&D departments, for example, equipped with the skills to bridge disciplinary divides in the sciences?

The rise of a high-talent, mobile workforce poses another challenge to HR. Imagine the 10X programmer who does her best work from a remote outpost in New Zealand, disappears for long stretches of time to meditate in the Alaskan wilderness, and has never met the other members of her team face to face. How can HR drive the loyalty and engagement of top talent under these conditions? And more to the point, does it still make sense to talk about loyalty and engagement? Are there more suitable values HR should urge organizations to adopt?

Leadership looks far different in the mobile workforce model than it did in the factory days of Philip Levine. Today, leadership is social rather than commanding, flexible rather than dogmatic. In today’s workforce, a leader must create shared meaning among people who might rarely interact in person. Is HR equipped to select leaders who can achieve this difficult task?

These are just a few of the questions I’ll be considering at the Hanson Wade conference in Boston during the first week of September. Together with HR executives from the life sciences, I’ll be asking how HR can evolve to foster—and keep pace with—the exciting innovation we see in the industry.

Stay tuned. In my next post, I’ll talk about the demands placed on life sciences HR by the global trends affecting all industries.


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  1. Nirit Cohen

    August 21, 2015 at 11:51 am

    Agree with you completely, and yet it is time to blow up, if not HR at least some of our processes and practices. You might be interested in this post:

  2. Funsho


    August 24, 2015 at 4:54 pm

    Your reasoning is very apt and I agree with you on your points, to say that in a couple of years Human Resources Practitioners would be faced with a huge challenge displaying relevance in the work place (with the ever evolving and mobile workforce ) is stating the inevitable obvious. Managing motivation and attrition of high flyers in companies is increasingly difficult and requires high level of adaptability to modern innovations and technology.

    Would love to read the article itself and get more insights, please forward an e copy if you can.

    Thank you,

    Funsho Ayeni
    Manager Human Resources
    CrusaderSterling Pensions Limited

  3. Frank O

    Frank O'Brien

    August 25, 2015 at 1:41 pm

    Good points made here, but HR best practice doesn’t seem to evolve fast enough to effectively impact our rapidly changing and “mobile” work environment. Partly due to educational and legal responsibilities I feel, but also it seems as a learned precautionary stance or even resistance to overall change by the profession as a whole. I find as a proponent of outsourced service models to help businesses get out non revenue generating activities and gain access to better tools and benefits, the internal HR teams sometimes stand in the way of progress and overly cautious of change or even investigating it for their organizations. In my opinion, HR responsibilities to their C level are best served by a laser focus on acquiring the best talent and effectively connecting with talent to develop them into a “profitable” employee.

  4. Ian Wilcox

    Ian Wilcox

    September 2, 2015 at 11:56 am

    Thank you for the responses. In the comments above and in other corners of the internet, I’m happy to see that leaders generally recognize the need to make HR more adaptable to the 21st century. How is the big question.

    Nirit, I read your article with great interest – you’re absolutely right that leaders and companies, as you put it, “cannot organize themselves for the future while keeping a strong attachment to plans and modes of operations created based on the past.” We live in a new world, and we need to think and behave accordingly. Funsho, an introduction to the provocative July-August HBR issue is linked here. As you say, managing motivation and attrition is increasingly difficult. We discussed this very topic at Hanson Wade’s Life Sciences HR Leadership Forum in Boston, agreeing that companies need to formulate a value proposition for talent that’s built around passion and purpose. Frank, I wonder what it takes to break HR of its customarily cautious habits. For HR, compliance-focused activities, which are by their nature cautious, and innovation, which is by its nature risk-taking, are always in tension. The question is how to make this tension productive. Finka, thanks for your interest in the next post—as it happens, I just published it:

  5. Pingback: 21st Century HR « PeopleSavvy HR - Amanda King

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