HRDs must be comfortable with uncertainty to succeed

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Embrace networks and make time to experiment to cope with the uncertain future organisations face

Embrace networks and make time and space to ‘scan and experiment’ to better cope with uncertainty, HR directors were told at the Corporate Research Forum’s (CRF) annual conference.

More than 350 senior HR professionals gathered in Prague to discuss planning to 2025 and beyond in an uncertain world.

Author Margaret Heffernan, who chaired the conference, said that organisations need to be reshaped, with an emphasis on connections and collaborations over competition.

“Organisations need to be febrile networks where communications happen at speed,” she said. “Hierarchies impede the free sharing of information that helps things happen faster. Organisations have to be structured to let information travel.”

HR has a role to play in creating the conditions that allow collaboration to flourish, with a focus on inclusion, Heffernan added. “How do we create those connected networks of different types of people where everyone feels they can, and wants to, bring their best?” she asked.

Paul Schoemaker, senior fellow at The Wharton School’s Mack Institute for Innovation Management, advised that to deal with uncertainty leaders need to “have the capacity to look beyond [their] normal area of focus.

“You need to tap into distributed intelligence and networks,” he said. “The more you focus the less you have peripheral vision. The price of focus is you often miss what is outside of it.” He added many CEOs get fired because they lack the peripheral vision to “horizon scan” and spot emerging trends.

Schoemaker also encouraged experimentation. Uncertainty should be reframed as a positive, as bringing opportunity, he said, and be viewed as something to be “navigated” rather than managed and controlled.

“We need to focus more on strategic leadership,” he said, adding that strategic leadership consists of six key dimensions: anticipate (scan wider; see sooner), challenge, interpret (connect the dots), decide, align and learn.

Arturo Bris, professor of finance at Switzerland’s IMD business school, said that in future creativity will be a more important asset than knowledge, and quoted research that suggests 60% of the jobs the next generation will do don’t yet exist.

He predicted that the job market will become so hollowed out due to automation that there will be mass unemployment, with swathes of out of work people having to be somehow subsidised.

“Companies will no longer be employing as many people so businesses will become more profitable,” Bris said. “How do we fairly redistribute that to society? Can’t we think of a system where corporations voluntarily send resources back to society?”

How much corporations owe to the societies and infrastructures in which they operate emerged as a central theme of the conference. Ian Goldin, professor of globalisation and development at the University of Oxford, said that ethics, reputation and governance will become more and more important, and urged companies to think about how they react to the threats and opportunities offered by a changing world.

On technology and automation, Goldin pointed out that it is “our attitudes to these technologies that will impact how they shape the world”, adding that companies have to decide how to interpret tools like artificial intelligence. “We don’t want a [regulatory] reaction that comes from the private sector’s inability to manage new technologies,” he warned.

“The prospects have never been better,” Goldin added. “If you can’t make money in this environment you are not doing the right thing, in the right place, at the right time. You have to be able to manage uncertainty. If you aren’t comfortable with uncertainty you can’t operate in this new world.”

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