At the start of his keynote session at Gartner’s ReimagineHR summit in London last week, British organizational theorist, educator, and author Dr. Eddie Obeng offered a glimpse of the fast-arriving virtual workplace. A wearable mouse attached to his wrist, Obeng gave the audience a tour of a 3-D classroom projected on the screen, walking to different chalkboards and interacting with his colleagues present in the virtual room while actually participating from a remote office. In this way, Obeng illustrated the potential of flashy new technologies in shaping the future of work.
In our HR research practice at Gartner, however, we know from hundreds of calls with HR leaders and professionals that when many of them see this flashy technology, they say: “We’re not Google, we’re not Amazon; we simply can’t afford this level of digital enhancement.” They want to know what the future of work means for them: What can they actually do with the resources they have? When Obeng asked the audience to share some of their fears about the digitally-enabled presentation he was showing them, they said it would be “impractical,” “too techy,” and “too expensive” for them to implement.
But Obeng very quickly challenged the audience by telling them to forget about technology, that we’re using it all wrong. New technology, he asserted, is of limited value if we don’t rethink the processes by which people work. Technology may be changing around us, but our habits and behaviors have not. Our habits and practices are deeply ingrained, and as a result it is difficult to imagine what the future should look like; instead, as he put it, we “imagine the present, but shinier.”
Relating his topic back to HR, Obeng noted that everything about our organizational structure and talent processes, from compensation and benefits to learning and development to the hierarchical org chart, is designed for the world as it used to be, when organizations were able to see what was coming. Today, that’s impossible: Change happens faster than we and our processes can adapt. A senior leadership team making all decisions for an organization, Obeng said, can process about the same amount of data in an hour as our mobile phones can in a minute. Rather than trying to simply move faster, we need to reimagine the way we move.