It is the business of the future to be dangerous
— Alfred North Whitehead, philosopher and mathematician

The quote above is from more than eight decades ago. In times of ceaseless change, organisations that do not adapt, that do not challenge the status quo, are in danger of irrelevancy — or worse, extinction. The seismic barrage of shocks and aftershocks that are buffeting societies and economies today are transforming our very concept of modernity. Change is accelerating, uniformity is giving way to diversity, and complexity has become every leader‘s biggest concern. As for businesses, globalisation and a rapidly evolving workforce is redefining how we think about competence, creativity, productivity, and the structuring of organisations.

Organisations of all types will probably not find many comfort zones in the years ahead. A confluence of disruptive forces will transform work and working in the next 10 years, most of them involving globalisation. But globalisation would not be possible without information and communications technology (ICT).

What is globalisation doing to the workplace?

The sensory-expanding, media-saturated, "global village" that futurist Marshall McLuhan first envisaged in the early 1960s has arrived in the form of the Internet and the web. Many workplaces, especially in the developed countries, are turning into physically and temporally dislocated collaborative environments facilitated by digital communications. With the borders of time and space disappearing, markets are attenuating and economies are merging, even as economic centres are disaggregating. Terms such as "multinational", "localisation", and even "outsourcing" are losing their original meanings as organisations, companies, but also entities such as non-government organisations (NGOs) and industry groups — not only cross but also transcend traditional socio-economic and political boundaries.

By most indications, the world has entered a post-American era, with economies and cultures now interacting on a more level and diverse playing field. And as the world has become "flatter", so has the workplace.

Workplace flattening technology

Aspects of Web 2.0 such as collaboration technologies, universal access, and social networking are beginning to transform business as usual, with traditional hierarchies starting to give way to democratised work styles and looser leadership styles that are more collaborative and less authoritarian. Instead of trying to minimize conflict, forward-looking organisations are beginning to encourage a sort of creative friction that is better able to solve problems and deal with risk.

These transformations will cause upheavals in the ways that organisations have been accustomed to staff, plan, lead, and invest.

Walking backwards into the future of work through a rearview mirror

Any exercise in futurism has to start with the current and familiar. As McLuhan observed, ― We look at the present through a rearview mirror and march backwards into the future. Futurists sometimes distinguish between the probable future, which will develop from what we already know and have experienced, and the imponderable future, which will come about as the result of events, inventions, and social currents that are difficult to predict except in the very near term. We must also be cognizant of what has been termed ―black swans, those outlier events that are completely unforeseen or considered very unlikely, but that cause a disproportionate degree of disruption if they do occur. Examples might include the financial crisis in Asia that followed the devaluation of the Thai bhat in 1997 and the chaotic effect that the eruption of the Iceland volcano Eyjafjallajökull had on European air travel in December 2009.


This paper primarily addresses the probable but also ventures into imponderable territory, if only for the sake of expanding the field of focus. The focal point is the year 2020, a medium-range chronological target that falls within the purview of numerous observers, some of whom are cited here. The paper synthesises published research studies and the views of experts, opinion leaders, futurists, and others to give the reader an overview of the global conversation now taking place about the future of work. There is no attempt to capture every trend or opinion, but rather to illuminate many of the salient — and in some cases, provocative — points currently being debated.

The content is organised into four sections:

  • Disruptive Trends Impacting the Work World: Socio-economic trends that are affecting modern employment, including globalisation, demographics, and technology
  • Toward 2020: Transformations in Workers and Working: Shifting expectations among skilled employees, and changes in job roles, work environments, organizational cultures, and learning 
  • Toward 2020: Transformations in Organizations and Leadership: Organizational and corporate-culture evolution, and the implications for leaders and managers
  • Prospective Action Items for 2020: A checklist for organizations that are strategising about how to transform Workforce 2020 transitions into new opportunities for success

In addition, the appendices provide further information about generations in the workforce, the nature of jobs, and important futurist predictions.

We are well on our way to 2020. This is a preview of what things may look like when we get there.

Click here to read the full report


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