By: John Sumser, Principal Analyst, Key Interval Research

Posted on 01 Dec 2015

“My forecast for the future is probably as good as a 19th Century farmer’s forecast of what work would look like today. We don’t know what we don’t know and can’t see beyond what is available for us to see.”

Clearly, industry analyst John Sumser isn’t feeling optimistic: “When I think about the future of work, it looks like many steps closer to prison.” But he adds, “the real future of work is about the future of meaningful compensation for a workforce of 10-12 billion people in the coming years. The challenge will be to find work for a massively expanded workforce when there are fewer well-rewarded and well-regarded jobs.”

Over his career, John has advised Human Resources, recruiting departments and talent management teams with product analysis, HR technology, market segmentation, positioning, strategy and branding guidance. He believes that population growth and demand for work will sit behind the redistribution of resources around the world. And that the bottom end of the market is exploding; sadly, higher productivity may not be an outcome in this environment, lower costs will be.

Performance management is one of his (least) favourite topics. “It really has nothing much to do with the development of the employee. It predominantly serves the manager. The worker does what the manager wants, expressed in goals. This hasn’t changed since work began.” Advances in technology haven’t helped. Instead of a world of liberated, self-motivated workers springing up, technology solutions – such as performance management systems – have created a hyper-monitored, hyper-managed slavery of sorts. The performance management system tries to measure people as cogs in a wheel, but that’s not what they are.

The fundamental premise of performance management is that a hierarchy of goals will result in a host of accomplishments. This isn’t what happens.

In reality, aspiring to a goal is like pointing to the North Star. You navigate by it but you never expect to actually get there. Technology has set the false expectation that you can point employees at the North Star and they can get there – it’s no wonder that managers can’t have a productive performance conversation. It’s a stupid conversation when it’s based on the foundation of why didn’t you do the stuff we knew you couldn’t do in the first place?”

He continued, “To think of HR as a function that ought to be proactive is ridiculous. It’s like saying finance should be proactive. There’s nothing to be proactive about – you want finance to help finance the goals and initiatives of the business, not lead the charge. Similarly, you want HR not to set the goals but to align the people to the goals once set forth by the business.”

HR has its challenges, no doubt. He observed how HR evolves differently in each business, depending on the unique challenges of that business. “We have a lot of frosting but not much cake. It’s scary how little we actually understand about work, how it happens and how to improve it. After all, it’s not that long ago that we were all working under an agricultural model.”

Where are the bright spots? Technology, says John. Software gets the mundane out of the way so the value-producing work can be done. Applicant tracking systems enabled the recruiting process to be controlled and managed. Recruiters rely on such tools in the same way a ditch-digger needed a shovel. You don’t question the shovel; nor does the recruiter question the use of an ATS.

When it comes to HR technology, the front end changes quickly, but the back end moves very slowly. New ideas proliferate but cannot be automated on old platform technologies.

Let’s pretend it’s possible that lots of data and surveillance will lead to liberation, said John. “In our ridiculously goal-centred culture, people only want to measure the goal and not the background noise. And the action is always in the background: this is where the extraordinary innovation lays, not in goal achievement.”

Food for thought.

About The Author

John Sumser
Principal Analyst, Key Interval Research

​John is also ​Principal Consultant for HRxAnalysts, and Founder and Managing Editor of The HRExaminer Online Magazine. John explores the people, technology, ideas and careers of senior leaders in Human Resources and Human Capital.

View all other contributors