The future of work is an adaptive workforce

18 Sep 2019


To build an adaptive enterprise you have to build an adaptive workforce, writes Forrester’s JP Gownder.

Future of Work Week

The future of work isn’t something that happens to you, it’s something you create for your company and your own career. Unfortunately, C-level technology and business leaders are often uncertain on how to do it.

Forrester recently released the report, ‘The Adaptive Workforce Will Drive the Future of Work’, establishing a blueprint for how to get there.

‘For technology to successfully transform your business, your people, leaders, structures and values must all be aligned’

Adaptive enterprises win by identifying future opportunities and proactively reconfiguring themselves, including their business models, in the face of changing customer and market demands.

To become an adaptive enterprise requires significant investments in technology transformation, in culture building, and in setting up structures and processes. For example, an adaptive enterprise must be able to alter its business concept based on insights that improve the company’s odds of fulfilling future customer demand.

As your customers raise the bar on their demands and shift their preferences more frequently, you must build a delivery organisation that’s adaptive, too. This new adaptive workforce taps into technology innovations – particularly AI and automation – to become more flexible, responsive and productive, and to support the broader adaptive enterprise strategy.

3 qualities of an adaptive workforce

The adaptive workforce has three key characteristics.

Number one, it’s burstable. Adaptive workforces can flex up or down their resources in response to changing conditions by tapping into next-generation labour pools. These include the talent economy (contingent workforce providers, the gig economy or employees from the partner ecosystem) and the automation economy (AI, business process management, robotic process automation and other intelligent software that can complete tasks).

Two, it’s less hierarchical. Traditional corporate organisations are extremely vertical and siloed: an employee starts working in one organisational function and continues to do so throughout their entire career at the firm. Now, a ‘botmaster’ who manages bots in the finance department can move to do similar work in HR, contributing and also learning new skills in the process.

Finally, the adaptive workforce is composable. Swarm teams (which assemble employees from cross-functional groups to destroy silos, drive innovation and solve problems) exemplify the adaptive workforce. They can be assembled and disassembled as projects complete or as conditions evolve.

Culture, skills and structure

Whether you hope to prepare your organisation for the next recession or to grow faster than you ever have before, adaptiveness is key to your future success in a world of automation and AI.

Aside from organisational innovations, though, there is a deeper level of preparation that’s required to successfully develop an adaptive workforce. The underlying culture, skills and organisational structures of your company will make or break these future-of-work efforts. Why? It’s necessary but not sufficient to select the right technology and choose the right vendor. But for technology to successfully transform your business, your people, leaders, structures and values must all be aligned.

There are three dimensions to this problem. First, individuals need to be fitter. As AI and automation reshape the workplace and the economy becomes more biased toward temporary, contingent and gig labour, individuals need to be ready to compete. Everyday employees as well as leaders need to up their game in health (physical, emotional and psychological), mentality (curiosity, agility and risk) and action (worldview, cooperation, collaboration and technology readiness).

Second, workplaces need to drive excellent employee experiences. A strong employee experience will drive better customer experiences as happy workers lead to happy customers. Most of what makes up employee experience is making progress toward their work goals and having the resources they need to succeed in the work they do every day.

Third, organisations need to optimise culture, leadership and structures for AI and automation. The future of work involves human employees working side by side with robots and intelligent machines from AI and automation to robotics. In general, your people, leaders and organisation aren’t ready for this revolution. For example, Forrester’s Technographics data shows that only 18pc of global information workers agree with the statement: “My career path in the world of automation is clear to me.”

Investing in these three attributes together drives better readiness for the future.

By JP Gownder

JP Gownder is a vice-president and principal analyst at Forrester serving CIOs. He leads Forrester’s research on the impact that automation, artificial intelligence and robotics have on the future of work, the future of jobs, the economy and CIO strategies.

A version of this article originally appeared on the Forrester blog.