The Future of HR: A Capability-Based Talent Management Approach

July 5, 2019

LMI Research Institute (LRI)

On May 21, 2019, the LMI Research Institute hosted a workshop in Tysons, VA for senior executive HR leaders from across the federal government. The workshop featured two panels and a keynote address. During the event, executives discussed enabling fluidity in the federal workforce to address challenges and innovations and developing and deploying talent in the context of rapidly changing workforce requirements. Read on for an executive summary of this event.

The Future of HR

Executive Summary

In both the private sector and the government, the nature of work is under rapid and consequential change. An emphasis on agile practices and the injection of technology at every level—from robotic automation of simple tasks to the use of artificial intelligence (AI) to inform and even supplant human decision-making—are fundamentally changing the nature and types of job positions. At the same time, the demographics and expectations of the workforce are undergoing major changes, with employees no longer expecting or desiring to remain within a single organization for all or most of their career. In addition, workers value increasing flexibility in the ways in which they perform their assigned duties.

With these changes come demands on human resource (HR) organizations to develop and implement decidedly different strategies for effective talent management. The first in LRI’s series of workshops on the future of HR, this invitation-only event focused on connecting senior government HR leaders with innovators in academia and industry to discuss the challenges of talent management in a world of dynamic requirements. 

The first panel session, Enabling Fluidity in the Federal Workforce: Challenges and Innovations, included speakers from agencies in the civilian and intelligence sectors. These panelists spoke to the challenges facing federal HR leaders in rethinking the ways in which they “build, buy, and borrow talent.” The discussion addressed the need for modernized internal systems that ensure federal agencies have the right people in the right positions at the right time and at the right cost and touched on the unique challenges that agencies face with workforces that require security clearances. Recognizing that the workforce of today is connected anytime and anywhere and should be able to work with flexibilities to accommodate personal lives and circumstances, participants agreed that more and more attention is being placed on designing for agility with a focus on impact to support organizational needs. At the same time, there was broad agreement that current federal requirements and regulations do not provide the flexibility needed to address these challenges. As one panelist said, “The systems that we have today are not set up for the future.” With today’s work best defined by projects and not people, organizations need to identify the right people quickly who can support emergent needs.

Another panelist, Brian Wright, Ph.D., the Director of Operations and Outreach at George Washington University, spoke to “Building Life-Long Learning into GW’s Data Science Curriculum,” and painted a picture of a future workplace in which the data processing capabilities of machines—which is increasing exponentially—will supersede much of the work done by people. This will drive fundamental changes in the nature of the work that humans do, and it will increasingly require the redesign of the core curriculums of educational institutions.

In the engaging discussion that followed the panelists’ presentations, the senior federal HR leaders in attendance agreed that competition with the private sector for top talent is becoming more difficult, with corporations not only able to pay higher salaries but also offer opportunities to work on highly compelling technology and business challenges. The entry of the private sector into areas previously served only by the federal government—as with the creation of the commercial space arena—has impinged upon the government’s ability to offer truly unique opportunities to workers who want to work on the government’s most compelling missions.

A second group of panelists included current and former federal executives whose views were shaped, in part, by their experiences as “consumers” of HR. The panel focused on the topic of Developing and Deploying Talent in the Context of Rapidly Changing Workforce Needs. Continuing the focus on attracting the right talent, the panelists honed in on agency initiatives geared toward developing the workforce using leadership development programs that include rotational opportunities. Of greater interest and concern is the lack of integration and efficiency of legacy systems that organizations rely on to support future work processes and structures (challenges and frustrations of managing the workforce). “What will it take to upgrade the system to support organization changes and mission requirements?” asked Major General Theresa Carter (USAF, ret.).

Brant Horio, LMI’s Director of Data Science, spoke to the “Role of Transformational AI for the Future of HR” in which he addressed the potential for AI and augmented humans to support the increasing shift in how work gets done, saying “AI will be transformative and significantly augment the nature of work.” There was wide agreement among participants that 21st century HR is here, and it requires a different set of skills such as critical thinking, negotiation and persuasion, and understanding and expertise in the use of “big data” to bring value-add to customers.

The discussion that followed touched again on the issue of competition for talent with industry. One participant urged that the private sector be viewed as a potential ally, noting the reliance of the government on federal contractors in the post-9/11 environment.  Reinforcing the earlier discussion regarding the importance of the nature of the work in attracting new talent, one of the private sector participants noted that the questions asked by new hires in the data science arena—for which there is extremely high demand in today’s job market—have changed markedly in recent years. Today, their key questions are often, what will I get to work on, and what data will I have access to?—indicating that their ability to work on cutting-edge problems may trump other considerations.

HR 2030: A Look over the Horizon was presented by keynote speaker Dr. Ronald P. Sanders. Dr. Sanders offered a seemingly bleak yet realistic perspective that challenged the mental models of many in the audience. He started out by stating, “HR 2030 is a lie; it will be here sooner, much sooner.” Dr. Sanders described a volatile and increasingly virtual world for which HR leaders must be prepared, including:

  • placeless or global sentient organizations,
  • AI and augmented humans for most work,
  • bimodal labor force dominated by a small pool of high-skill or high-pay elite,
  • horizontal and virtual (but not vertical) mobility, and
  • peripatetic career paths.

This will lead to placeless, connected workspaces; increasing demands to identify talent early and nurture it; AI and augmented humans; increasing diversity of the workforce to include military, civilian, contractor, and AI; and continuous reskilling.

Recognizing that the morning’s conversation was the foundation for future discussions on the topic, the attendees expressed interest in a follow-on workshop, which would focus on hands-on problem-solving using a case study approach.

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