Preparing for the Workforce of the Future

The world of computing is doing the wave. We’ve passed through the first two waves of computing, are well into the third wave, and we are accelerating quickly toward a fourth wave where information technology will have a dramatic affect on business technology.

We all are familiar with the early days of computing. Wave One was the era of bulky mainframe computing. Wave Two ushered in the era of the personal computer. When we surf the Internet or employ enterprise applications such as SAP, we are on the crest of the Third Wave: Networked computing.

Each wave has been driven by overwhelming pressure and unprecedented capabilities. Each has created new winners and destroyed old incumbents. With the dynamic innovations introduced by each new wave, people change the way they live, learn, work and play.

The Fourth Wave—everywhere computing—is on the horizon, and when it fully arrives, it will significantly change workforce location, composition, structure, mission, education and governance. It will involve new markets and new competitors, distorted economics such as off-shoring, and innovation like we’ve never seen.

It’s important that we recognize and prepare for these changes because decisions made today based on a cogent vision of the future are more likely to be good, sustainable decisions.


In his book The World is Flat (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), author Thomas Friedman pointed out that every business in the future will be an international business. The off-shoring phenomenon that is challenging the IT workforce is unlimited in its ability to shift the location of non-IT jobs.

Today, service calls from a home in Memphis might be answered at a help desk in Mumbai, India. And corporations increasingly structure their business processes to follow the sun, handing off work from one part of the globe to another throughout the day to take full advantage of work centers. More and more organizations will employ workers in all parts of the world to better serve their customers and strengthen their business.

And while work increasingly moves off-shore, “onshore” employees will continue challenging traditional work environments. People will choose to work where they live rather than having to live where they work. Alternative work arrangements, which now are a benefit for many companies, will become necessary to attract and retain workers. Energy and environmental concerns will cause more employees to work from home, though probably not in the same numbers as some early projections estimated.


With dramatic demographic shifts and capabilities created by IT innovations, the workforce of the future will be highly segmented.

Employees new to the workforce—the thumb generation of text messages and iPods—are very capable of accepting high degrees of automation. They will work and collaborate with more experienced workers who often want to work in a more traditional environment. Retirees may not wish to work full time or even in their original areas of expertise.

Immigrant workers will comprise a larger percentage of the workforce in many countries. We will manage more global workers. The flat world is driving us to a multi-national, multi-cultural workforce.

In addition to these demographic shifts, companies around the world will face the challenge of having fewer workers available to hire. About 75 million baby boomers are expected to leave the workforce over the next 15 years, and there will be only about 35 million employees to replace them, and all countries except India are projected to have a shortage of skilled workers.

With increasing digitization, many employees, especially knowledge workers, can be located anywhere. The off-shoring trend that started with information technology is expanding rapidly to other work.


These workforce shifts are taking place at the same time that organizations are experiencing an overwhelming need to increase employee productivity. Organizations are automating more and more of their processes, and that trend is changing the structure of the workforce.

The traditional workforce is moving from a pyramid structure with the CEO at the top and line-level employees at the bottom to a structure of concentric circles. In this model, the core workforce is in the middle, and it is surrounded by circles of full-time contractors, part-time contractors, outsourced contractors and work-on-demand teams.

The era of employees staying 30 years with one company until retirement is over. Full-time employees will focus on the true essence of the business. Long- and short-term contractors will fill in gaps, both functional and temporal. Organizations increasingly will outsource entire non-core business functions to reduce the requirements for a larger workforce.