Three Futures, One Question: How Will HR Rise to the Challenge?

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It’s almost a cliché at this point, but it bears repeating: We live at a time of incredible, unstoppable disruption. New technologies and new economic, political, and social realities are combining to transform the way we live — and the role businesses play in our lives.

People around the world now trust businesses more than they trust their governments, according to “Reimagining Human Resources: The Future of the Enterprise Demands a New Future of HR,” a recent report from Deloitte. As a result, today’s enterprises have an imperative to become what Deloitte calls “social enterprises”: organizations that value their environments and stakeholder networks as much as they value revenue growth and profit.

“[A social enterprise] is an enterprise that shoulders its responsibility to be a good citizen both inside and outside the enterprise, serving as a role model for its peers and promoting a high degree of collaboration at every level of the organization,” explains Art Mazor, principal, Deloitte Consulting LLP. “This includes listening to, investing in, and actively managing the trends that are shaping today’s world.”

As organizations make the transition to being social enterprises, they’ll need HR professionals who can move beyond traditional practices to become “exponential HR professionals” who “bring new capabilities with a constant attention to growing and stretching their skills,” Mazor says.

“Exponential HR professionals know how to apply advanced techniques and technologies to reimagine the solutions they develop and how they deliver services to elevate the business impact they create,” Mazor says. “[These professionals] lead the future within and outside the HR function [to] spearhead enterprise workforce strategy, access talent from across all workforce groups in the market, and lead the enterprise for its future in a digital world.”

How can you position yourself to become one of these exponential HR professionals? That requires first understanding just what you’re up against.

The 3 Futures HR Must Address

According to Deloitte’s report, the dramatic upheavals HR must now navigate can be sorted into three equally critical categories:

1. Future of the Enterprise

Organizational lifespans are shrinking. According to Yale University Professor Richard Foster, the average S&P 500 company today only exists for 15 years, compared to 67 years in the 1920s. At the same time, people are increasingly looking to these organizations as leaders, placing more faith in them than they place in their own governments.

In response, organizations must become social enterprises, and HR pros must play a key role in negotiating that transformation. HR pros must also adopt smart workforce development strategies to foster innovation and agility, and they must assist in the creation of what Deloitte calls “partnership ecosystems.”

“In this new world, the pace of change demands speed in driving innovation for enterprises generally, and this demand is equally strong for HR leaders and their teams to deliver innovative solutions, experiences, and capabilities for the enterprise to excel,” Mazor explains. “Housing all of the necessary capabilities internally and moving at the pace of change presents a tall order for any HR team. Creating a dependable ecosystem of partners to build upon and enable internal capabilities with speed is imperative for the future of HR.”

2. Future of the Workforce

At the same time that organizational lifespans are shrinking, the length of the average professional’s career is growing, reaching as much as 50 years in some cases, according to Deloitte. However, longer careers don’t necessarily mean more stability: Professional skills are becoming outdated faster than ever, and more than 40 percent of workers are expected to be contingent by 2020.

As HR professionals are often on the front lines of workforce management, they are particularly suited to meet this challenge head-on by cultivating inclusive workforces that bring together both full-time employees and nontraditional talent. HR pros must also forecast future capabilities and provide existing workers with opportunities for continuous learning to ensure their skills stay relevant — and the organization maintains a capable staff as the business world continues to evolve.

3. Future of How Work Is Done

Perhaps no aspect of business has been as transformed by new technology as the way work gets done. HR will need to support networked, adaptable teams of both human and machine coworkers by reimagining work itself, both across the business and in HR specifically.

Standardized, one-size-fits-all operating models don’t work in this environment. Instead, HR must adapt what Deloitte calls a “fit-for-purpose HR operating model.”

“Realizing a fit-for-purpose HR operating model is all about making a series of strategic design choices that enable enterprises to shift how HR works to achieve business imperatives within the context of an enterprise’s values and culture,” Mazor says. Only with a fit-for-purpose operating model will HR departments and their wider organizations gain enough flexibility and agility to meet the ever-changing demands of the market.

Becoming ‘Simply Irresistible’

What all three of these futures have in common is the pressure they exert on HR pros to move beyond quantitative value and, as the Deloitte report puts it, “focus on driving tangible, measurable value that is both qualitative and quantitative across the enterprise.”

“HR leaders of the future are shifting toward leading to achieve business outcomes … like productivity, speed to market of innovative products and solutions, capability growth, and more,” Mazor says. “This doesn’t eliminate more familiar, traditional HR measures. However, a business-outcomes focus shifts the mindset toward driving impact for the enterprise that helps the enterprise win.”

You can start to see this transformation unfold in the new names that many HR leaders are giving their functions, names like “employee experience” and “people.” These names are more than just a rebranding of the HR function; they point toward the exponential HR professional’s role in facing head-on the future of the enterprise, the workforce, and work itself. Deloitte’s report identifies four key areas in which HR must begin to shift if it is to fulfill its new duties:

  1. Mindset: HR cannot simply “do” digital; it must be digital by embracing artificial intelligence, robotics, and cognitive solutions as it redesigns jobs and reorganizes work.
  2. Focus: HR must prioritize human-centered solutions, personalizing for the entire enterprise workforce.
  3. Lens: Rather than an operating model that views the workforce through a lens of compliance and control, HR pros must come to see their organizations through the lens of trust and empowerment.
  4. Enablers: Integrated systems are the past; a unified engagement platform is the future. HR must deploy advanced technologies to promote productivity and simplicity of experience.

By making these changes, HR can begin to build the organizations the future demands, christened “simply irresistible organizations” by Deloitte. These are organizations that adopt Deloitte’s”simply irresistible” model of workforce experience, which focuses on five core drivers of employee success: meaningful work, supportive management, fantastic environment, growth opportunity, and trust in leadership.

“Just as successful product developers and marketers understand the imperative of deeply understanding customers’ needs to shape solutions to meet those needs, HR leaders have increasingly recognized the power of understanding workers’ needs to shape their experiences to enhance engagement, innovation, productivity, and all-around delight at work,” Mazor says.

“Delight” may seem like an odd word to use as enterprises come face to face with an uncertain future, but it also might just be the best possible framework for navigating the challenges in HR’s way. A delighted workforce is a workforce that views obstacles not simply as roadblocks, but opportunities.

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Matthew Kosinski is the former managing editor of