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An Interview with Eva Sage-Gavin: The 2025 Workplace

Eva Sage-Gavin has distinguished herself in HR leadership roles at many of the world's most well-known and respected companies, from Gap Inc. to PepsiCo, The Walt Disney Company, and Sun Microsystems. Her highly anticipated presentation at the i4cp 2016 Conference: Next Practices Now (March 29 – April 1) will explore the 2025 workplace and the implications for HR professionals.

In advance of the conference, Sage-Gavin, who now serves as Vice Chairman of the Aspen Institute's Skills for America's Future Advisory Board and is a member of the UpSkill America Coalition (in which i4cp recently partnered with for a study on developing frontline workers), sat down with i4cp to discuss the evolution of work, how leadership and talent concepts need to change, and why this is such an exciting time to be an HR leader.

You say we are at a transformational inflection point for work. What do you mean by this?

I recently attended a presentation where the CEO said, "Every company is a technology company." If we look at the implications of this, not just for business, but in everything we do as consumers, or as HR leaders, and for our employees, the world of work is at an inflection point and technology is one of the big catalysts that is changing everything we do and how we do it.

We talk about the industrial revolution and we talk about the technology revolution, but digital natives--Millennials and Gen X--have grown up with technology, so their expectations and demands for information and how they expect to experience brands, or gain knowledge is permeated by it. It's changing our social systems and how we solve problems, the way we lead, the way we think about success, how we compete and this evolution has opened the world to a global and tech-enabled marketplace.

What is HR's role in reinventing the future of work?

It's an exciting time. And the reinvention concept I rely on is pretty simple, you've probably heard it before: our role as leaders is to scout, to scan, and to steer.

What I'm excited about is being able to scout for disruption, scan for impact and opportunity, and then steer for success. If you look back at this inflection point of a technology-led revolution, or evolution, and we think about traditional business models, we see that they're changing overnight. For example, this last holiday season, online sales exceeded brick-and-mortar sales for the first time--if you are in a consumer business, what are the implications of this trend five or ten years from now and how do you scout for disruption and innovation?

Looking forward to the 2025 workplace, entire business models are in flux. For example, Airbnb came into an established industry with a disruptive approach, as did Uber and TaskRabbit, and changing existing models forever. I highlight these examples to emphasize what an exciting time it is to be in HR. If you apply this scout, scan, and steer approach and ask yourself questions such as, 'What do I see as an emerging trend? Could it relate to or disrupt my industry?' you can discover potential innovations to bring back to your business partners-proactively and strategically.

Even if you are in an industry that appears to be stable and mature, it’s HR's role to identify the disruption or opportunity for innovation and bring that to light. There is immense opportunity for change, and by scouting for new approaches, we can lead as innovative business partners, not just as ‘happy-to-have-a-seat-at-the-table’ followers.
In pursuit of new approaches, I've had the opportunity to work on some innovative skills and talent initiatives and have seen public and private partnerships come together for great outcomes, such as the UpSkill America initiative at Aspen Institute. I am excited about the future and HR’s emerging role as Chief Change Officer to anticipate how potential scenarios may play out for our organizations and the implications for our business models and our talent. To effectively play this new role, look for opportunity, look for risk, and prepare for multiple future scenarios. It’s critical to prepare yourself, your talent, and your business to be agile and adapt, to avoid falling victim to unanticipated change.

Organizations will increasingly face skilled labor shortages; how will they overcome these limitations?

It's an extraordinary opportunity to develop sophisticated supply and demand talent planning. One of the things I've enjoyed about working in six companies across tech, consumer, and retail industries, combined with my passion for education and my work with Skills for America's Future at the Aspen Institute, is the realization that there is so much data we do know. We can estimate demographic trends and birth rates; we know approximately how many 19-year-olds we're going to have 18 years from now. If we look ahead strategically, we can use technology as an enabler to develop insights into the kinds of skill categories we're going to need and determine which public/private partnerships we should develop now to get there successfully.

Think about it: we do sophisticated supply and capacity planning today for every product and service you can imagine. Why can't those sophisticated solutions also work for talent?

When I'm not working on public/private partnerships, I'm looking at great innovators and startup providers, scientists and algorithmic professionals who are trying to apply sophisticated talent planning and skill models to this talent crisis. We can estimate how many engineers, how many computer scientists we'll need--I don't need to tell you about the need to open up access to girls who code, to our STEM disciplines, to making sure those skills are developed all the way through our education curriculum, so that the foundational elements are there to build upon. The focus on skills based development is happening all over the world, from the Khan Academy to TalentSky, to collaborations with academic institutions, and corporations are partnering as well through initiatives like UpSkill America. No single institution can close the skill gap alone.

What one or two key recommendations do you have for Chief HR Officers who are looking to get ahead in the new workplace?

I strongly recommend, as difficult as it may seem, dedicating 20% of your time to living and role modeling a scout, scan, and steer approach and focusing your time to balance all three areas. I’ve reinforced with each team I've ever led, and tried to allocate my own time, the space to allow for external scanning, innovation stimulation, and lifelong learning in order to enable coming to the table as a business executive who brings trends, themes, and customer information. When I coach professionals who are aspiring to move up, the first thing I'll ask is, 'Tell me how you get new ideas, how you get ahead of your company to see trends and what’s your network for inspiration and information? Do you have a personal board of directors and if you don't, let's build one.'

So often we talk about change happening outside ourselves, but we must keep a strong commitment and dedicate time for inspiration, reflection, and new sources of information, starting with ourselves.

Where do you think HR fails, or will fail, in regard to adapting to the new workplace?

I've been talking about all the upsides of how exciting this technological inflection point is. The reality of our jobs is there are very technical elements that are demanding and they have to be flawlessly delivered. You have to know and stay on top of the policies, practices, and laws around the world that have to change to fit this new global economy. That's heavy lifting and difficult work, requiring constant capability building.

Sometimes stakeholders get frustrated with HR professionals--that can include CEOs, Boards, and employees--we have to balance inspiration with the reality of the business and competition. We need to be able to balance the art and the science of great HR. One example of this is innovative total rewards strategies and the need to design and deliver compensation models that are strategic and innovative, but that are also affordable, cost effective, and fair.

Sometimes we're seen as overly focused on one area of the art or the science, but we're not grounded with strengths in the other. For example, if you're too detail and HR function-oriented, you might miss breakthrough culture and engagement ideas and won't bring in fresh business concepts for competitive problem solving. But if all you do is ideate and focus on the art of the HR craft, but you can't get people hired, trained, or paid accurately, you won't be successful, either. To realize our full potential in this new world of work, we need to be orchestrators, commanding the resources of a technology-enabled talent pool and constantly innovating everything we do and how we do it.

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Erik Samdahl
Erik is the head of marketing at i4cp, and has nearly 20 years in the market research and human capital research industry.