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Embracing the Fourth Industrial Revolution: What HR can do to unlock talent and lead their workforce through digital transformation

Future of Work

By Suzanne McAndrew | March 19, 2018

It’s time to radically retool human resources.

Even the most visionary CHROs can struggle with how to do that. After all, the digitally and technology-driven Fourth Industrial Revolution is causing positive and powerful disruption in almost every industry across the globe. The world of work and talent is rapidly changing, ushered in by the increasing use of automation, robotics and artificial intelligence (AI). And HR is right at the center of it.

Staying ahead of these changes can feel like a full-time job for CHROs, to say nothing of helping fellow leaders, managers and talent shift legacy mindsets and infrastructures to understand and embrace new ways of working. Yet, the time is here. Many of us talk about the digital revolution as if it’s ahead, when in truth the future of work is happening now. Savvy HR leaders know they must lead the way as digital transformation precipitates a quantum leap in how HR can interact with their people throughout the talent lifecycle.

Five forces for change

At Willis Towers Watson, we believe there are five significant forces impacting organizations and indelibly changing the way we think about jobs and talent.

1. Planning for social and organizational reconfiguration

For starters, there’s serious debate about what jobs will remain 15, 10 or even five years from now. The jobs that remain will require thought, empathy, creativity and critical thinking — all things that can’t be automated. How does HR get ready for this shift? We know HR’s role will need to be realigned with the way work gets done across the enterprise, pushing boundaries and bringing new solutions to the business. That means spearheading challenging, even uncomfortable discussions, and delivering the strategic counsel that helps organizations thrive during change. HR must start these conversations now, if they haven’t already.

2. Innovating in a truly connected world

Succeeding in the new world of work will demand collaboration — both inside and outside of organizations and traditional silos. That’s why we’ve partnered with Silicon Valley innovator Plug and Play to create a platform called Enterprise 2.0 that radically re-tools human capital strategies by connecting innovative start-ups with forward-thinking corporations. Together, these organizations are creating solutions for how to hire, build, reward, lead and engage talent to prepare for “the future” of work. We think these types of partnerships will be critical in the working world ahead.

3. Competing in an all-inclusive, global talent market

Five years ago, who would have guessed that the most engaged talent may not be full-time employees (FTEs)? About half of employer respondents to Willis Towers Watson’s recent Future of Work survey say that contingent workers are just as likely to put in extra effort as traditional FTEs. This is among the best evidence yet that the global shortage of highly skilled employees is shifting how we think about talent. Critical skills are coming from emerging markets, and social policies support boundary-less work beyond traditional full-time employment. For HR, it’s increasingly important to design work around differentiated policies, practices, work designs, pay and benefits.

4. An exponential pattern of technology change

Every day, technology helps HR move toward becoming the true architects of work. From sensors that gather data about our daily activities to apps that use artificial intelligence to predict our music choices to automation that adjusts our thermostats to suit our comfort levels, tasks previously performed by humans are now performed by smart technologies. These improvements have boundless implications for the future of the workplace.

Here again, our Enterprise 2.0 example relates. By bringing together start-ups and corporations across human capital, finance, information technology, legal and operations, we’re betting that organizations that develop and sustain an innovative culture will be best positioned to leverage technology and AI to advance their operations – and by doing so, will be miles ahead of their competitors.

5. Human and machine collaboration

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, AI is not about replacing jobs. It’s about creating a new world of collaboration between humans and machines, one byproduct of which is that jobs will indeed evolve. The more we rely on robots, AI and machine learning, the clearer it’s become just how much we need social scientists and humanities experts — not the reverse. The future is bright for CHROs with a passion for engaging talent regardless of when, where or how that talent is procured.

What’s holding us back?

At Willis Towers Watson, we couldn’t be more excited by the opportunities ahead. And we’re enthusiastic about how our partnership with Plug and Play and the launch of Enterprise 2.0 will enable us to discover, curate and deliver focused solutions that will change the talent experience.

But if the future of work sounds daunting — or too good to be true — consider that individual biases and organizational constructs are likely the only things holding HR back.

As we talk with clients and help them complete Future of Work and digital transformation projects, we find the biggest obstacles to change are legacy thinking and systems. Yet, HR leaders tell us they’re seeing the above forces play out already, and disruption in the profession is sorely needed.

As for next steps, we recommend HR leaders across the globe come to understand that technology, innovation and automation present HR with new possibilities to revolutionize their relationships with their talent and require nonnegotiable next steps to proceed. They’ll have to envision a new future and work with their C-suite leaders to radically retool and reskill talent to make that happen. Because, really, when it comes to digital transformation, the future is now.

About the Author

Global Talent Business Leader

Suzanne McAndrew is leading the integrated human capital portfolio across talent management and organizational alignment, communications and change management, employee insights, Saville Assessment and talent software at Willis Towers Watson. Suzanne’s client focus is applying design thinking to HR, organization transformation, future of work, and the employee experience.

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