A Human Cloud by 2030?

Shook believes workers would no longer be employees but reside in the human cloud, a new and dynamic people system. Organizations would pick and choose the right worker at the right time and cost, for the right duration, uninterested in anything but the output of the worker. This worker might also be a robot, completing the human performance factor with artificial intelligence and processing power. The human cloud would consist of autonomous digital natives, on-demand free-lancers, who would be flexible, adaptive, responsive, resilient and trainable, selected on their momentous ability to create profit. Shook believes by 2030, this wouldbe a fact of life.

An Inconvenient Truth

Before analyzing what impact this might have on HR, I’d like to qualify Shook’s prophecy somewhat. For those of you who think they landed in the middle of a George Orwell novel or Franz Kafka story, the reality is not as bleak. Most organizations will continue to employ for as long as they can a traditional workforce. Organizations believe they can win by doing the same thing, only in a more effective and efficient manner. The fact that they are running a race to the bottom is irrelevant. If their industry isn’t pervasively disrupted, these organizations can survive for a very long time.

The inconvenient truth however is that all industries will be disrupted and that hardly any organization can fundamentally transform in time to survive the disruption: once a caterpillar, always a caterpillar. Becoming a butterfly when disruption hits proves to be impossible. These companies are doomed. They might succeed in postponing their ultimate demise for years and years, but they cannot turn the tide.

For those of you who believe to have landed in the middle of a Grimm fairy tale, it’s time to wake up and face the music. New organizations are setting themselves up with a liquid workforce, dreaming of becoming totally liquid, untamed by rules and restrictions. Uber is a prime example. The liquid organization plays by different standards and economics. It excels at creative destruction. The traditional Incumbent is a sitting duck.

The Digitized Economy and the Human Element

What are we to make of this? Some facts are undeniable. All over the world, work is being structured in a different way, organizationally, economically and geographically. The digitized economy unrelentlessly gobbles up the traditional world of work, creating winners and losers along the way. In general, the traditional employee seems to be on the losing side. Today, entering the employment market has become very hard. Master degrees are interesting but mostly irrelevant. Tons of talented graduates perform low-paying jobs, displacing a less educated but capable workforce. Staying in the market requires lifelong learning, adaptability, commitment and ambition. The artificially intelligent robot works hand-in-hand with the human only to gradually enjoy a bigger share of the work. In medicine for example, computer-assisted surgery turns into robotic surgery. Tomorrow, the human element might disappear into the human cloud, where only the best and the brightest will thrive. Exclusion looms on all levels. Digitization, while creating enormous wealth, seems to have the power to obliterate not only blue collar but also well paid white collar jobs. The winners win big but are few. The losers are many. Even if technology is creating tons of new jobs, these jobs will only be for knowledge-workers. The less or average educated workforce will be totally displaced. It’s hard to predict how fast and invasive this perfect storm will disrupt our current employment market. Much depends on how governments, and in 27 countries how the EU, will address this global challenge. Market regulating factors as we know them are not capable of mastering this storm.

The Impact on HR

What does this mean for HR? Can current HR departments create a predictive liquid workforce? What would a liquid HR department look like? Will HR also disappear in the human cloud?

As always, it depends. Let’s first look at established companies, stubbornly believing in continuous improvement, making marginal progress. Their HR departments will continue to do what they’ve always done, only more efficient and effective. Supported by technology and decades of learning, they’ll proclaim real change and announce one or another change program every so often. Relying on employee engagement and innovative talent management initiatives whereby data-driven decision making forms the base, they’ll be at the source of all new trends. These trends will encompass talent mobility, an improved performance management gizmo, social media tools enhancing communication and collaboration, project-based organizational design through a company app, etc. but all within the traditional manager-employee framework.  Diversity and inclusion will continue to animate the conversation but the real focus will remain on the right man at the right place at the right time for the right cost within the well-known employee lifecycle. Maybe corporate social responsibility will move beyond some volunteering once a year but that’s unlikely. In these established companies, HR will continue to change like a snake: shedding old skin just to fit the new, quasi-identical skin. Same DNA, same behavior. HR will struggle to create a liquid workforce as it would continue to invest in the current traditional workforce, to make it perform marginally better year-on-year. What a liquid workforce could mean to propel a traditional company forward would remain largely untested.

What about the non-traditional liquid companies? For one, HR would exist in the human cloud and consist of on-demand, digital native, highly competent HR specialists. At ease with complex algorithms and artificial intelligence, these rotating freelancers would work on fundamental differentiators. For small to medium size enterprises, certainly if they are high-tech driven, this is the way to go. Hiring would happen through robotic recruiting, just like learning would happen through robotic talent management.  All HR-initiatives and processes would be driven by the enormous processing power of Artificial Intelligence. For large liquid companies, which I believe will only total a couple of hundred, if ever so many, things are different. I would expect most of these companies to create this capability in-house at first before they make the move to a fully liquid HR department. Such an HR department might look like a server room, with the sparse human and the abundant robots working together. The learning capability and performance of the HR department would no longer be limited by any human factor. Scanning the employment market and the human cloud for the right talent to fill any need. As Artificial intelligence has limitless capacity, it will therefor supersede any traditional human capability.

The Digital Native Experienced Algorithm Jockey

Is this really going to happen or am I dreaming? Won’t most companies just be a blend of both worlds? Does it matter?  In the end, I don’t think it really does. All however will be going after the same talent: the digital native experienced algorithm jockey.  All will shed the same talent: the average or poorly educated generalist. All will try and maximize on robotic and digital power. All will massively invest in artificial intelligence. And for all, it will be all or nothing.