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The 21st Century Workforce: Global Trends

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Linda Jefferson
May 19, 2015

Jefferson mayTwo decades into the 21st Century finds the workplace with as many components and trends as a philharmonic orchestra. Moving pieces, including globalization, technology, accelerated change, diversity and multi-generational employees, require skillful coordination. The ever changing components blend into the complexity of the knowledge and information age. Chaos could erupt easily. But with the right conductor at the helm, the 21st century workplace can function like a well-rehearsed orchestra and play the sweet sounds of music.

There has been an abundance of research on the 21st Century workforce. Given the wealth of information available, there is only enough room to discuss a few elements and corresponding trends. I have categorized my discussion into the following four categories:

  • The 21st Century leader.
  • The 21st Century work environment.
  • The 21st Century employee.
  • The 21st human resources function. 

This column will focus on the 21st Century leader. Future columns will be dedicated to the remaining three categories.

The 21st Century Leader: The Conductor

The leader sets the tone for the organization just as the conductor sets the tone for the orchestra. The skill set of leaders for the 21st century is of great concern across the public, private and public sectors. In fact, Jeff Schwartz, Josh Bersin and Bill Pelster identified leadership as the top priority for developed and growing economies in the report “Global Human Capital Trends 2014 Survey.” The authors surveyed 2,532 businesses and human resources leaders in 94 countries across major industries in 2013 to reach that conclusion.

Similarly, the United Nations Division for Public Administration and Development Management expressed the need for leadership within public service as a key challenge in the report “Human Resources for Effective Public Administration in a Globalized World.”

According to Deloitte Consulting LLP and Bersin by Deloitte, leading the 21st century organization requires both foundational and new leadership skills.

Leadership skills and competencies varied, depending on which study was reviewed. However, some of the leadership competencies/skills identified for the public manager included:

  • Strategic vision – the ability to focus attention on critical issues and choices that have “high probability of potent impact on collective futures.”
  • Forward looking – the ability to “set clear objectives and take into account long term social, economical and political trends.”
  • Outward looking – “extensive knowledge of the policy environment and capacity to develop a local, regional and international policy perspective.”
  • Expert thinking – “knowledgeable use of policy making principles, tools and legal frameworks, historical policy perspective and higher analytical skills.”
  • Awareness of resource scarcity – “a realistic account of the available resources based on feasibility analysis and budgetary responsibility.”
  • Transversal coherence – “taking a holistic view, looking beyond institutional boundaries to the government’s strategic objectives.”

The 21st Century leader must also possess the skills to lead effectively in a diverse environment, to include and use the skills of a diverse team to their greatest potential. The report “Future Work Skills 2020,” refer to it as “cross-cultural competency.” I refer to it as having cultural finesse.

The report from Deloitte Consulting LLP and Bersin  suggested other skills and competencies that include business acumen – “having knowledge of the organization’s core business” and agility – the ability to adapt to the changing environment and move the organization accordingly.

Leading a 21st Century organization will require more versatility than ever before. The 21st Century leader must ignite energy into the lifeline of the organization. This will require the leader to be open, transparent and competent. Above all, the leader must demonstrate integrity in actions and deeds. With a fine-tuned ear on the pulse of the organization, the 21st Century leader equipped with new skills set to match the ever evolving workforce will be close to the perfect pitch.


Author: Linda is a 26-year veteran in the field of human resources in the public sector. She is a certified public manager and a human resources consultant. In addition, Linda is the immediate past president for the North Carolina Society of Certified Public Managers. She can be reached at [email protected].

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One Response to The 21st Century Workforce: Global Trends

  1. Martin Smith Reply

    May 19, 2015 at 10:42 pm

    I hold a master’s degree in music performance and have over ten years of experience as a professional conductor. I also hold a PhD in Public Policy with thirty years of state government management experience. In my experience, a conductor does much more than “set the tone for an orchestra.” The leadership and musical styles of conductors vary to a considerable degree and one can be a successful conductor without following a set of universal pre-defined concepts, whereas the concepts of successful management can be more clearly defined as has been done by the author. Basically, these are two professions that are not comparable and I would suggest that the author not make this specific comparison in the future.

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