Written by Sylvia Vorhauser-Smith, PageUp Senior Vice President, Global Research.

This article was originally published on Forbes.

 

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Remember being asked this question over and over again when you were young? One week it may have been a fireman or a ballerina, the next a doctor or journalist. But the older we got the more we were expected to pick one – and stick to it.

Today, career paths resemble the minds of our younger selves. The expectation to choose one profession no longer exists. People are effectively remodeling themselves many times over in their work lives with the varied career choices that they are making. I call it – career plasticity.

 

Introducing career plasticity

I use the term plasticity as it is used in the neuroscience field. Malleable and constantly changing, in response to environmental cues. Not so long ago, we viewed the brain as a fixed resource that peaked in its learning capacity by the time you hit your 20’s – and it was all downhill from there. Now we know this isn’t the case. The brain keeps changing and remoulding itself, like a piece of plasticine. It’s an analogy that works equally well to describe the way that employment and careers are changing.

The industrial to digital age transition calls for a new way of thinking. Many of the constraints around what a career or job was in the past emerged in the 20th century. Nine-to-five work hours, fixed working weeks, rigid job descriptions. The prevailing mindset locked workers into a profession or trade for their whole life, in which they were trapped because they didn’t have many choices. It was harder to reinvent yourself because the pathway to new learning was hard, expensive and often inaccessible. The only escape would ultimately come through retirement.

With technology…comes freedom

In the digital era, we are freed from these shackles. Technology opens the door to unlimited educational resources that are on tap, engaging and put every worker in the driver’s seat to craft the careers to which they aspire.

Many organizations and HR departments are lagging in this transition, still trying to manage with yesterday’s mindsets. If workers are constantly reinventing themselves and pursuing multiple careers paths, trying to lock them into fixed modes of employment just creates a fundamental mismatch.

Consider a future in which employers may not have employees as we know them today. What if you thought about your talent needs as a fluid resource mix that required continuous adjustment based on your business needs, the availability of talent and the time it takes to source or develop it. A proactive leader might think about it in terms of a virtual talent warehouse, rather than a permanent workforce. Indeed, some of this talent might be ‘permanent’ but much of it could be task or project based, purchased for the purpose of getting particular jobs done. Maybe some of this talent isn’t even human.  With the new capabilities that AI, cognitive computing and robotics will unleash, a new suite of solutions presents itself when it comes to bridging skills gaps.

But there are challenges…

The new-age employment structure is presenting some interesting challenges for HR.

One is control. Talent is free and making its own choices. But many businesses still consider their workers as organizational assets – like plant and equipment, something they contractually own. Without direct ownership, control becomes nebulous, and this makes HR departments very nervous.

The second challenge is reinforcing a consistent culture. Workers with a portfolio of projects and assignments with potentially multiple employers, pose somewhat of a conundrum to organizations trying to embed a strong and uniform culture. It begs the question: can you even have a core culture when a significant proportion of your workforce is contingent and virtual?

The third challenge lies around engagement. How do you get high levels of engagement in a disparate workforce? Some believe you get higher levels because people are working on their own terms and are more in control of their output. Others believe it to be less engaging, because it is more difficult to collaborate, communicate and feel like you are part of a team from a distance.

So, what’s the way forward, then?

Two things need to happen for HR to successfully move forward into the future and for these challenges to be resolved. Firstly, it requires a shift in mindset, and secondly, in the pathways HR creates to build an optimal workforce. The mindset shift requires an acknowledgement that this world is a different one to be working in than the one many of us grew up in. It calls for a modern perspective to help businesses achieve their outcomes through human capital. Then we need to align our new mindset with practices and processes that are agile and adaptive enough to support it.

It’s time to unlearn and relearn. HR best practices are up for scrutiny. As are HR structures, roles and capabilities. Now more than ever, organizations need HR to step up and deliver on the business promises they have made in putting human capital at the center of growth and innovation. It puts HR on the precipice of a cliff – it’s time to build a bridge across the chasm.


This piece was written with insights taken from the PageUp publication, CLIFFHANGER – HR on the Precipice in the Future of Work.  To learn more about the book and download a free chapter, click here.

 

About the Author

Sylvia Vorhauser-Smith

SVP Global Research, PageUp

Sylvia is a regular speaker in the field of human capital management and neuroscience and drives research and thought-leadership at PageUp. She has more than 25 years of experience in corporate and entrepreneurial business environments, including positions as Head of Selection and Development at Westpac Banking Corporation and Human Resources Manager for Citibank Limited.