The evolution of work 

Young woman presenting speech chart    
Young woman presenting speech chart    

In his book The Fourth Industrial Revolution, Klaus Schwab,1 founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation, discusses four distinct periods of industrial revolution throughout history, including the one the world is experiencing now. Schwab defines an industrial revolution as the appearance of “new technologies and novel ways of perceiving the world [that] trigger a profound change in economic and social structures.”

Per Schwab’s definition, the first globally recognized industrial revolution introduced steam power, completely changing the way humans approached transportation and, importantly, trade. The age of science and mass-production followed as the Second Industrial Revolution, and then came the Digital Revolution. Now, we are beginning another phase of dramatic technological expansion and social change: the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is centered around the idea that manufacturing technologies and processes make way for automation, data, the Internet of Things, cloud computing and artificial intelligence (AI).

Industrial revolutions provide a helpful context for the evolution of work — or what might be more clearly described as the “evolution of the employee.” Jacob Morgan described the concept of our current working world in his 2014 book, The Future of Work,2 this way:

“It’s important to note that when discussing these industrial revolutions, we’re discussing the modern age. The evolution of the working human in recent decades has been remarkable, and is only continuing to accelerate.

“In fact, we have never seen work or the working human evolve this fast — ever. This rapid shift in work practices presents the greatest opportunity in human history for an organization’s people leaders to keep up with and influence major change.

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Find out the evolution of the employee. In the past employees works 9-5 and now work anytime. In the past they worked in a corporate office and now they work anywhere. In the past they used company equipment and now use any device. Before they focused on inputs and now they focus on outputs. Before they climbed the corporate ladder and now they create their own ladder. Before they pre-defined work and now they custimize work. Before they hoard information and now they share information. Before they had no voice and now they can become a leader. Before they relied on email and now they rely on collaboration technologies. Before they focused on knowledge and now they focus on adaptive learning. Before they focused on corporate learning and teaching and now democratize learning and teaching.

The evolution of work isn’t a trend, it’s a historic milestone. Its supporting facts include the humanization and digitization of the work described above. Whether you call it a revolution or an evolution, it means any workforce solution in the “now of work” must meet the rising but altogether reasonable expectations of the human workforce. At the same time, it must meet organizational pressures to design for agility — letting people insights drive business optimization, drive innovation through automation, and advance holistic well-being in the workplace.

Finally, we are called to design work for people, not profit, trusting profit will follow.

Several frameworks exist to deliver on the promise of the evolution of work. One of these is diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) work that has significant, measurable impact. Another is data-driven workforce experience design. There is also a common framework centered around aligning intelligent talent strategies with business strategy, minding the skills gaps as you future-fit your workforce for sustainability.

One of our favorite frameworks comes from a book co-authored by Chris Shipley and Heather McGowan, The Adaptation Advantage: Leading the Empowered Workforce.3 The book reminds us that change happens exponentially over time, meaning that at any given moment, we’re experiencing the slowest rate of change we’ll experience for the rest of our lives.

Technology will drive incredible innovation through atomization, automation and augmentation, but this isn’t where we’ll find our advantage. Instead, our greatest competitive advantage will come from what we learn to do with the extra human capacity this provides. True innovation will come through connecting human performance to human purpose. Clearly and traditionally defined careers won’t make sense when we start asking why we work instead of how we work. This evolving question— not the latest AI application — coupled with agile learning about work and leadership will change the nature of work.

So that’s the crux: The shift of work, the workforce, HR and all its supporting technology have everything to do with a freshly empowered workforce. This isn’t about a technological evolution at all; it’s about a human revolution driven by a shift of employee power.

Technology will follow suit, but we will know it differently. We’ll know it as the Digital Revolution.

What can we do to disrupt work to meet the performance demands of business and the reasonable expectations of humans?

How does the Digital Revolution support the evolution of being human? First, to understand “digital,” we must understand the difference between being digital and doing digital.

Being digital is both your foundation and multiplier regarding workforce experience. It includes design consideration in the tools, systems, processes and programs people use to do jobs. Those tools and systems are designed to meet people where they are, driving natural human addiction rather than unnatural technology adoption in the flow of work. Digital solutions are designed to be frictionless, seamless, intuitive, and iterative and are built for continuous improvement. Digital solution design is high-touch digital (almost entirely automated and intelligent) when it can be and high-touch human (analog) when it must be — and knows the difference.

Being digital is much more than the digitalization of processes or a technology strategy. The practice of being digital looks at all the ways in which work can be accomplished and then sorts those into “hands,” “heads” and “hearts” categories. It automates as much hands work as possible, provides digital assistance for the heads work and applies human-centered design thinking to improve workforce experience, so hearts work can focus on being purposeful and impactful.

Human resources and people leaders are called to disrupt work to meet the business’s performance demands and sustainability needs while also exceeding the reasonable and evolved expectations of humans. These goals are not mutually exclusive; they are symbiotic efforts through which organizations learn to design for the whole person, including health, wealth and career.

Digital is empathy at scale

People-first organizations in the now of work are:

  • Evolving their talent and DEI strategies
  • Addressing pay and well-being
  • Enabling a skills culture and providing talent agency
  • Conducting fluid workforce planning fueled by talent intelligence
  • Deconstructing jobs and rapidly shifting from counting heads to making people count

This is more than people supply chain management; this is human performance driven by, not replaced by, digital acceleration.

Being digital is human-centered, technology-enabled experience design. It is empathy at scale. Doing digital, by contrast, is a bare-boned technology implementation and leaves 90% of the desired value on the table.

Now is the most incredible time to disrupt work for good. The vehicle for this disruption is digital, and we all must act.

What can HR do?

Although digital transformation touches every part of the organization, human resources (HR) remains the only function of the business with the word “human” in its name. Therefore, HR and people leaders have an imperative to become strategic advisors to the organization when it comes to disrupting work, learning to be digital, and leveraging human-centered design thinking to activate and automate humans and work.

This requires a fundamental shift in our understanding of workforce experience; measuring how work gets done and how work makes people feel; and designing with humans at the center of data, technology and business strategies. You owe this experience to every part of your worker population: candidate, full- and part-time employee, gig worker and contingent labor, from the front line to the knowledge worker.

The talent landscape has undergone drastic technological and societal shifts. Digital transformation must embrace the concept of changefulness.

This is an infinity loop highlighting how the cycle is always on and interconnected. Technology implementation happens here, as part of a deployment but it’s only one part of being digital. Deployment, to sustainment to strategy to activation back to deployment.

Digital transformation is an infinity loop

Most transformation programs fail because they start with and focus on technology. When you learn to be digital, not just do digital, you learn how to define a digital strategy, activate a strategy, deploy new capabilities for the business using technology as fuel for experience and scale, and sustain through continuous improvement. Digital transformation is a way of thinking — it’s learning to design for sustained and ongoing change. It was never just about technology. 

What can the C-suite do?

HR is only part of the C-suite. The rest of the C-suite must immediately understand the applications and implications of generative AI, the most important technological advance in decades. Generative AI has the potential to disrupt industries and jobs, promising both competitive advantage and creative destruction. It can unlock productivity, creativity and skills, transforming how we all work. Hypothetically, AI could replace the equivalent of 300 million jobs, so organizations need to factor its advance into their talent and business sustainability plans. They can do this by understanding the use cases that will make a difference in their organizations or industries, knowing how this will impact their organizational structure and talent, and establishing guardrails and legal protections in their business policies.

Considering and alongside the AI revolution, there must be a collective effort to identify and activate hidden and untapped pools of talent in a shrinking global labor market. A major component of this will require flipping talent management on its head and finally sorting out a skills strategy. Again, intelligence, automation and experience design will be vital to unlocking the digital advantage.

What can vendors do?

Workforce technology vendors can drive incredible innovation. However, to best serve the human evolution and digital disruption of work, software and service providers should align product development to organizations learning how to be digital. Software for the sake of software will do nothing to evolve work; the digital transformation of work means work should look different when it’s done. And, importantly, it’s never done.

Partnership is key. Stop delivering products and features, and start delivering solutions and programs. A transformation journey must be sequenced and prioritized for long-term success and sustainability. So too must your solution delivery and measures of success.

What is Mercer | Leapgen doing? 

Mercer | Leapgen provides digital HR strategy services to enterprises to connect each of these dots. We must build our transformation and change muscle to unlearn and rethink how we approach work, talent and technology. We teach enterprises how to be digital, not just do digital. We leverage human-centered design thinking, a whole-person approach to workforce experience and solution design, and changefulness to help enterprises create digital advantages.

We also provide analyst, research, advisory and marketing services to vendors to ensure the digital conversation is two-sided. Innovation requires fresh thinking by enterprises and strategic alignment with their technology and deployment partners. We teach workforce technology solution providers how to align digital solutions with the broadest business challenges they face. This work translates into more relevant market positioning, value-based storytelling and increased market share. This is the digital advantage gained by HR tech vendors that stop implementing software and start deploying digital capabilities for the enterprise.

Conclusion and wrap

Organizations must transform. Creating the digital advantage requires organizations to learn about their people, treat them like people, design everything around their people and love their people. Digital is empathy at scale; it’s how you unleash human performance, driving loyalty, productivity and retention. Remember, a happy workforce creates happy customers and a thriving business. Learning to be digital isn’t an afterthought — it’s a measure of success.
Change is the strategy, not the enemy. It’s up to us — all of us — to act.
1 Schwab K. The Fourth Industrial Revolution, New York: Crown Business, 2017.
2 Morgan J. The Future of Work, New York: Wiley, 2014.
3 McGowan H and Shipley C. The Adaptation Advantage, New York: Wiley. 2020.
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