Speaking at the World Business Forum in Sydney on Wednesday, Ms Erickson said new technologies, changing demographics and the move to “knowledge work” would soon lead to an overhaul of workplace arrangements on par with the shift from craft-based industries to mass production lines during the industrial revolution.
Just as in the ‘80s and ‘90s the lower cost of communication from the introduction of computers allowed companies to radically restructure and outsource non-core activities, the same is about to happen thanks to the “lower cost of co-ordination” today, she believes.
“What has happened is another step change decrease in the cost of communication,” she said.
“And every time that happens, we have an opportunity to rethink our organisation, and rethink it with one eye towards, what do I no longer need to own? What could you just use when you need it, and co-ordinate with on an as-needed basis?”
Employees, she said, are the “next step in giving up things we own”.
“Let’s say you have 1000 employees today. I believe in a very short time, you may have as few as 100 fulltime employees in positions where you honestly need them all the time,” she said.
“But you may have as many as 10,000 community members, people you’re going to tap on an as-needed basis.”
Ms Erickson recalled renowned management consultant Peter Drucker’s prediction 20 years ago that the future of HR was to become similar to a staffing agency in the film industry.
“Just as if a producer wants to make a movie, he goes to an agency and says, I’m going to need a director, a cameraman, a blonde star and a sexy leading man,” she said.
“The agency then assembles the people.”
For the millennials born after about 1980, and what she calls the “re-gens”, born from 1996 onwards, the most important thing is being challenged with new tasks.
That means to keep them coming back, companies will have to offer them ongoing opportunities to learn and develop. And a way of showing off their credentials — like a scout badge, or an achievement pin in a mobile game.
“I call it a badge,” she said.
“Companies are going to have to be able to promise me that I will learn more if I come to work with you than anywhere else, and to prove it you’re going to have to give me some kind of credential that I will be able to publicly communicate.”
But before you get too comfortable, there’s one other problem. Just as machines have taken over industrial work, it won’t be long before they start taking over “knowledge work”, she argues.
Thinking machines are likely to take over a lot of the work we previously thought could only be done by humans. IBM’s Watson, for example, has gone from winning at Jeopardy to delivering world-class cancer treatment.
The two areas least likely to be taken over are decision-making and relationship-building.
“That is, to make choices when the options are all pretty good, the options are rational, and when the decisions you have to make are not based on fact but on values, ethics or strategic issues,” she said.
“And to connect, to form relationships. There I think people will continue to have important roles. Those are the people you’re going to be supporting — the rest of it is going to go to the machines.”