Work in the 21st Century Will Recognize Human Potential

by Peter B. Grazier

This article first appeared in EI Network newsletter September, 1996

Last July I spoke at the World Future Society’s Eighth General Assembly in Washington, D.C. I was asked to address how work might change in the future, looking at the year 2010 and beyond. The following is the text of what I related and what I sincerely believe will occur, given what we know today.

The Context
Increasing competition in the world economy will continue to force companies and governments to search for greater effectiveness and efficiency in the workplace. Since technology and administrative systems are available equally to all organizations, there will be recognition of the premise that the primary distinguishing factor in performance lies with the untapped potential of the workforce. As a result, the following three trends will gain momentum:

1. High-Intensity Collaboration
The pace of change is dictating that organizations renew themselves rapidly, fueling the need for innovative ideas. Through recent workplace innovations such as employee involvement and empowerment, there is now recognition that workers at all levels of the organization are a significant source of creative thinking. The traditional division of work between thinking and doing will cease to exist, requiring all workers to become part of an organization-wide collaboration process. Team-based problem solving, innovation, and product development will accelerate and become standard operating processes.
Current evidence of this trend includes:

  • Growing use of employee teams
  • Redesign of workplace systems and physical space to enhance collaboration
  • An increase in team-based education in both primary and secondary schools
  • Evolution of team-centered software (e.g. Lotus Notes)
  • Legislation to remove restrictions to workplace collaboration (The Team Act)

2. Shift in leadership competencies from technical to human skills

Historically, people have been promoted in the workplace by demonstrating technical, administrative, and decision-making abilities. Additionally, traditional thinking held that strong leaders were necessary to control the behavior of workers.

As competition has forced organizations to increase management/worker ratios significantly, the entire paradigm of work is being challenged. The control mentality is being replaced by a commitment mentality as workers are being asked to take on more responsibility and accountability. Accordingly, leadership skills must change to accommodate this shift.

There will be an increase in the need for leaders who understand human behavior and potential, engender cooperation and collaboration, and stimulate creativity and innovation. As management ranks continue to thin, leaders will depend more than ever on these skills to create this high-commitment, high-performance workplace.

3. Enhanced/expanded role for the frontline worker
Perhaps no other role will be as affected by competition as that of the frontline worker. As management ranks thin, more of the tasks formerly performed by these managers will move to the front lines.
Therefore, the worker of the future will need to understand a full range of technical and administrative skills such as budgeting, planning and scheduling, quality control, performance measurement, vendor and customer interaction, hiring, purchasing, process improvement, problem solving, procedure development, and more.
These workers, without day-to-day guidance, will depend more on themselves for direction and resources. Workers will also need multiple skills to accommodate shifting priorities and needs within the organization. They will operate more as independent contractors within a team context, moving from team to team as the need arises. This will challenge school systems and companies to develop curriculums that support this expanded role, and will also challenge the worker to take full responsibility for rapid development of skills.
Resistance to Change Will Impede These Three Trends
The full implementation of these changes is at least 15-20 years away, and perhaps more, for the following reasons:

  • 20th Century work has been driven by the control mentality with a clear division between thinking and doing. The current model of work is also characterized by a parent-to-child approach. The new model requires a parent-to-parent or adult-to-adult environment—a significant change in perspective. Leaders trained and rewarded under the old system may never fully accept the new one.
    Managers fear loss of control by moving responsibility closer to the work. Many doubt the ability of the worker to accept responsibility for organization performance.
  • Managers fear personal losses from the change such as loss of job, loss of prestige, and fear of failure with the new concepts.
  • The current workforce, because of prior conditioning, is uncomfortable with collaborative concepts and may always have difficulty in application. It will be at least 20 years before today’s children, some of whom are receiving this training, will have influence over workplace behavior.

Additional evidence of this resistance has been demonstrated by the rapid return to autocracy through top-down driven reorganizations and restructurings. After years of moving forward with employee involvement, empowerment, and team concepts during the 1980’s, the 1990’s ushered in a wave of downsizing that has negated much of the progress made. Managements were eager to regain control and return to Taylorism1, and did so under the banner of reengineering the corporation. Consequently, organization-wide collaboration has been dealt a blow that will take years to recover.

For these reasons, full workplace collaboration-and consequently, full utilization of human potential will take years to achieve. However, the need for creative and constant renewal of the organization will continue to drive the trend.

1 – Taylorism – Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856-1915) founded the science of industrial management, and developed principles concerning efficient factory management. His concepts were widely applied to businesses and industrial plants in both Europe and the United States. One significant element of Taylor’s philosophy was that there was a clear distinction between thinking and doing. Taylor taught that it was management’s role, as experts, to develop the processes and procedures (the “thinking” aspect of work) and the worker’s role to carry out (the “doing” aspect of work).