Preparing for the Workforce of the Future

By Jeff Wacker

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The world of computing is doing the wave. We’ve passed through the first two waves of computing, are well into the third wave, and we are accelerating quickly toward a fourth wave where information technology will have a dramatic affect on business technology.

We all are familiar with the early days of computing. Wave One was the era of bulky mainframe computing. Wave Two ushered in the era of the personal computer. When we surf the Internet or employ enterprise applications such as SAP, we are on the crest of the Third Wave: Networked computing.

Each wave has been driven by overwhelming pressure and unprecedented capabilities. Each has created new winners and destroyed old incumbents. With the dynamic innovations introduced by each new wave, people change the way they live, learn, work and play.

The Fourth Wave—everywhere computing—is on the horizon, and when it fully arrives, it will significantly change workforce location, composition, structure, mission, education and governance. It will involve new markets and new competitors, distorted economics such as off-shoring, and innovation like we’ve never seen.

It’s important that we recognize and prepare for these changes because decisions made today based on a cogent vision of the future are more likely to be good, sustainable decisions.


In his book The World is Flat (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), author Thomas Friedman pointed out that every business in the future will be an international business. The off-shoring phenomenon that is challenging the IT workforce is unlimited in its ability to shift the location of non-IT jobs.

Today, service calls from a home in Memphis might be answered at a help desk in Mumbai, India. And corporations increasingly structure their business processes to follow the sun, handing off work from one part of the globe to another throughout the day to take full advantage of work centers. More and more organizations will employ workers in all parts of the world to better serve their customers and strengthen their business.

And while work increasingly moves off-shore, “onshore” employees will continue challenging traditional work environments. People will choose to work where they live rather than having to live where they work. Alternative work arrangements, which now are a benefit for many companies, will become necessary to attract and retain workers. Energy and environmental concerns will cause more employees to work from home, though probably not in the same numbers as some early projections estimated.


With dramatic demographic shifts and capabilities created by IT innovations, the workforce of the future will be highly segmented.

Employees new to the workforce—the thumb generation of text messages and iPods—are very capable of accepting high degrees of automation. They will work and collaborate with more experienced workers who often want to work in a more traditional environment. Retirees may not wish to work full time or even in their original areas of expertise.

Immigrant workers will comprise a larger percentage of the workforce in many countries. We will manage more global workers. The flat world is driving us to a multi-national, multi-cultural workforce.

In addition to these demographic shifts, companies around the world will face the challenge of having fewer workers available to hire. About 75 million baby boomers are expected to leave the workforce over the next 15 years, and there will be only about 35 million employees to replace them, and all countries except India are projected to have a shortage of skilled workers.

With increasing digitization, many employees, especially knowledge workers, can be located anywhere. The off-shoring trend that started with information technology is expanding rapidly to other work.


These workforce shifts are taking place at the same time that organizations are experiencing an overwhelming need to increase employee productivity. Organizations are automating more and more of their processes, and that trend is changing the structure of the workforce.

The traditional workforce is moving from a pyramid structure with the CEO at the top and line-level employees at the bottom to a structure of concentric circles. In this model, the core workforce is in the middle, and it is surrounded by circles of full-time contractors, part-time contractors, outsourced contractors and work-on-demand teams.

The era of employees staying 30 years with one company until retirement is over. Full-time employees will focus on the true essence of the business. Long- and short-term contractors will fill in gaps, both functional and temporal. Organizations increasingly will outsource entire non-core business functions to reduce the requirements for a larger workforce.


Automation that takes advantage of accelerating technical capabilities will be required to succeed in the high-speed, high-agility, high-complexity business world. The agility required of business will transcend the ability of humans to manage and operate the enterprise directly, driving to new levels of automation that will create “business-by-wire” enterprises.

Automation at this level can be likened to a new fighter aircraft’s “fly-by-wire” capability. The new U.S. Defense Department’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is the next-generation attack aircraft for the Navy, Air Force, Marines and allies; bringing cutting-edge technology to the skies. It is designed to be unstable so that it has rapid maneuverability. Controlling the aircraft requires so many adjustments and corrections that a human cannot react fast enough. A computer actually flies the plane, and humans fly the computer.

Applied to business, this kind of radically improved automation enables business leaders to realign the workforce. Most employees today are in operational mode, with a few focused on improving existing operations. In the future however, with automation managing day-to-day operations, most employees will be focused on innovations that improve the automated operational workflow. Many will be creating the next major enhancements.

Education, Training and the Role of Government

The more transient workforce of the future will not have access to traditional organizational training, and requirements then will shift to more formal and emerging forms of education. Educational institutions and governments must change to support this new reality. The role of universities, community colleges and trade schools is shifting dramatically. Most of these institutions today train students to meet current requirements instead of in anticipation of future demands.

The government’s role will change to providing demand signals to educational institutions about how people need to be trained to create a highly employable local employees who can contribute to a globally empowered, skilled workforce. As business models change, governments will send active demand signals that define the needs of the workforce of the future. Those signals will include policies that move training in specific directions.

Businesses also must send active demand signals to educational institutions about their future needs. In a rapidly changing world, organizations must create the wave of change rather than just ride it.


As the structure of the workforce evolves, the relationship between managers and employees also changes. Traditionally, managers have told employees what to do and then have managed them through the work process to an outcome that is evaluated. This is the command-and-control approach to management.

In the new command-and-empowerment model, managers set expectations. Employees, many of whom are independent agents, deliver the business results. Management by objectives will be back with a vengeance as employees self-manage in a highly visible environment to achieve personal and company success.

Organizations that have workforce requirements, such as for documented employees or minorities, are learning to manage the HR function remotely and to create robust interfaces with these more independent employees. These new models will require companies to create standard ways of defining requirements and processes for how the work gets done and how results are delivered.

Remote management and facilitation of employees is going to become even more critical, and difficult, than it is now. That includes virtual teams, alternative work arrangements, the ability for people to enter and exit the workforce rapidly.

A New World Workforce

Each wave of technology has dramatically changed the role of the workforce within the industry most affected. Each generation has to contend with increasing automation as it shifts how, where and by whom work is done. Each wave of IT has its own effect on the workforce and the emerging “Fourth Wave” will do so as well. Businesses that understand those probable impacts will be equipped to make good decisions today that will put them in a better position to succeed in this flat new world.

Jeff Wacker is corporate futurist for EDS.