Coming Soon: The Future of Work

by Ann Parker

To effectively prepare for the future of work, approach talent strategy with humility, an open mind, and a lot of questions.

If we weren't already doing it this way, is this the way we would start? On May 7, 2018, 30 talent development executives gathered in San Diego to explore how this naïve question, coined by Peter Drucker decades ago, applies today to a profession facing significant disruption and change. Paul DePodesta, chief strategy officer for the National Football League's Cleveland Browns, led the learning leaders in a fireside chat. DePodesta, subject of the popular 2003 book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game and the 2011 sports film of the same name, described how his unique approach to sabermetrics—guided by Drucker's question—revolutionized Major League Baseball data and analytics two decades ago.

"We became absolutely relentless in asking that naïve question," DePodesta said. "It became part of our DNA. We were constantly questioning our core beliefs and all of the decisions we had made."

The Oakland Athletics hired DePodesta as assistant general manager in 1999, when the A's were one of the worst Major League Baseball teams, chasing six losing seasons while posting one of the lowest payrolls in the sport. At that time, conventional wisdom in the league touted that wealthy teams win because they buy the best talent—until DePodesta's new approach to sabermetrics came along. During his final four seasons in Oakland, the A's won more regular season games than the New York Yankees, which spent $350 million more on player payroll during the same period.

To his captive audience of learning leaders, DePodesta disclosed how even after the A's experienced consistent success—achieving the best record in baseball—the team continued to innovate, using Drucker's question as a guidepost. "We couldn't wait for the end of the season—not because we wanted it to be over, but because now we had a whole new data set that we could look at to see where we went wrong before, how the world had shifted under our feet in the last six months, and how we could be the first ones to change our thinking before anyone else," he said.

Strategy guided by naivety

Several members of CTDO Next, the Association for Talent Development's network of industry thought leaders who are shaping what's next in talent, shared their reactions to the provocative ideas they discussed with DePodesta at ATD's 2018 International Conference & Exposition, adding insight and experience to this narrative around naivety.

Kimo Kippen, founder of Aloha Learning Advisors and former chief learning officer at Hilton, says, "Assume you don't know anything. Shoot holes in everything you propose—look for ways to disrupt it and make it fail. Early on, ask as many questions as you can so you're getting as many perspectives as possible."

Adds Martha Soehren, chief talent development officer at Comcast, "I don't think we should throw away metrics from last year; rather, let's use those metrics and the data to raise the bar, to inform and drive innovation, measure progress, and ensure business alignment."

And progress is exactly what our industry needs. Amid much buzz about the widespread effects of increasing automation and artificial intelligence (AI) on the state of work, talent development leaders must identify what's ahead of them—and what to do about it. In the Quartz article "Your Primer on How to Talk About the 'Fourth Industrial Revolution,'" authors Helen Edwards and Dave Edwards merge the findings of three major studies about AI and automation to uncover the key drivers of human skills and capability replacement.

They assert that many mainstream studies tout chilly conclusions regarding job loss and career displacement, such as that 47 percent of total U.S. employment is at risk from automation. "In all of the studies, researchers had to grapple with the sheer level of uncertainty in the timing and degree of technological change," the authors explain.

With this growing body of research about the future of work, talent development leaders continue to feel the pressure to prepare their organizations today for the reality of tomorrow.

The agility factor

According to the Catalant report Reimagining Work 2020: How Winning Executives Are Building an Agile Workforce, the best way to greet accelerating change is by building agility into all aspects of your enterprise—into your systems, processes, and workforce. In its survey, Catalant asked enterprise leaders about their readiness concerning the future of work. Sixty-three percent of respondents reported currently having a future of work program, and 52 percent said both the chief talent officer and CEO are the key stakeholders driving this program.

This research supports a commitment to challenging assumptions and facing new conundrums with fresh questions. "Adapting to the future of work will take much more than just adding technology tools or gaining access to on-demand talent platforms," the report explains. "It will take developing agile organizational structures that support enterprises in new ways of working and that integrate technology, business processes, systems and new mindsets."

Siloed working and thinking have no place in an agile workplace. The urgency is greater than ever for leaders to connect talent development to the business strategy. This is one area where asking naïve questions can be especially useful. If current learning initiatives are not helping to deliver on the C-suite's priorities, then perhaps it's time to begin again with a blank slate.

"Everything starts with mindset," Kippen concurs. "Identify your organization's purpose, vision, mission, and values, and ask humbly: 'How does talent support or enable all of that?' It's the connective tissue that links it all together."

Upskilling and reskilling

One of the great head-scratching questions that continues to crop up in future of work discourse centers around new job skills: How do we prepare for jobs of the future when we do not yet know what many of those jobs will be?

Unaddressed skills issues could put one-third of organizations at risk, according to ATD Research's Upskilling and Reskilling: Turning Disruption and Change Into New Capabilities. Upskilling is defined as augmenting and enhancing existing skills for success in the same career, and reskilling focuses on gaining new skills for success in a different career.

More than half (56 percent) of surveyed talent development leaders said their companies provide upskilling, reskilling, or both—and doing so was strongly tied to better market performance and learning outcomes. However, 33 percent acknowledged that they have identified the need to upskill or reskill employees yet have taken no action.

The profession continues to explore solutions for skills challenges, which are closer than we may believe. Catalant's research advises: "In the face of accelerating change, you shouldn't give up on assessing your talent gaps and developing strategies to close them. Rather, you'll need to have a sense of what talent you have and what talent you need, blending that knowledge with the capacity to close gaps as they inevitably arise."

Practical steps into the future

ATD's research recommends these next steps to addressing future skills gaps now:

  • Work with other business functions to identify and act on skills needs. Collaboration is imperative for the agile organization, and it is a pillar of talent development strategy that successfully addresses skills gaps.
  • Improve the effectiveness of skills training. Only 17 percent of survey respondents reported that their organization's skills training was effective, and nearly two-thirds don't measure effectiveness. Focus on prioritizing and evaluating skills training programs and gaining the C-suite's support for these critical initiatives.
  • Align organizational talent programs to support skills training. Ensure integration of your talent management strategy, especially as it relates to skills building. Throughout the employee life cycle, recognize and reward employees for demonstrating desired competencies.
  • Try applying next practices in your organization. A trend away from best practices to next practices—such as internal mobility programs, rotational assignments, or tuition assistance programs—can keep your eye on the future.
  • Look beyond your enterprise walls for powerful partnerships. Team up with education, local businesses, nonprofits, government, and other institutions to help drive your reskilling and upskilling efforts forward.

Progressive and high-performing learning organizations already are applying these practices to prepare for the future of work. For example, to prepare for coming changes and maintain a competitive edge, Comcast has commissioned an internal team to research and forecast the implications of AI on the telecommunications industry.

"It's difficult to define the skills and competencies we'll need five years from now," says Soehren. "But we must evolve—and if we have people on our team who are true learners and innovators, then we'll move there together."

Job where humans will thriveInspiration from the outside

For a profession anxious about a future where automation, machines, and computers will replace humans in many careers, more leaders are seeking transformative thought from sources beyond talent development.

Tamar Elkeles, CTDO Next member and chief talent officer at Atlantic Bridge Capital, offers a unique perspective as head of talent at the Silicon Valley based venture capital firm. "Start-up company leaders don't often benchmark, they just lead," she says. "Most leaders have a desire to look in the rear-view mirror at the competition, make decisions aligned with what others are doing, and conform to industry norms. This validates their leadership decisions, investments, big bets, and ultimately overall thinking. Start-up company leaders are bold. They don't want to follow; sometimes they don't even want to know what the competition or anyone else in their industry or sector is doing. They are proud of their independent stake in the ground, forging new paths and directions where no companies or leaders have ever gone before."

Similarly, Soehren explains how working with new start-ups has helped her team members grow their creativity skills and change their thinking. Comcast developed a virtual reality module for a television distribution headend using a drone and then built activities within that module. "By spending time with start-ups, we expanded our thinking and decided to use the drone with VR," Soehren says. "I'd rather learn from new start-ups, even if they're not formally versed in learning and development, than to do best practice sharing."

Approaching talent strategy guided by Drucker's question can help to spur innovation for a future requiring an agile talent development function and different skills for new jobs. The case is strong for learning leaders to approach current strategy, systems, and metrics with open minds, understanding that the future is run by those who are willing to think differently.

And it's time to look outside of talent development itself and learn from other thought leaders and industries—such as baseball.

"We realized early on that if we looked around our industry and tried to follow best practices, that was a losing strategy for us," DePodesta explained. "We had to be the ones creating best practices and chasing that next horizon."



Originally published November 2018 in TD Magazine by Ann Parker. Community of Practice Manager, ATD  Ann Parker is senior manager of the Human Capital Community of Practice and the Senior Leaders & Executives Community of Practice at ATD.

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