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HRExaminer Radio

Guest: Kevin Wheeler, Founder/President, Future of Talent Institute
Episode: 123
Air Date: October 16, 2015


Kevin Wheeler is an Entrepreneur, Futurist, Advisor to several recruitment and learning start-up companies, Tech Geek, CEO and founder of Global Learning Resources, Inc., The Future of Talent Institute, and the Australasian Talent Conference.

Public speaker, Keynoter at major global events.

Lecturer and Teacher on Business Strategy, Human Resources, Talent Development and Acquisition

Former corporate executive at several major corporations

Specialties: Talent management, staffing and recruiting strategy development, learning & development, recruiting process improvement, business strategy, global recruitment strategy, corporate academy/university development, executive development and coaching, learning trends and practices.

Future of Talent Institute Global Learning Partners LinkedIn Twitter


Audio MP3



Begin transcript

John Sumser:                        Good morning. Welcome to the HR Examiner radio show. I’m your host, John Sumser and we’re coming to you live from beautiful downtown Occidental, California, the place where innovation got it’s real start in California when Leland Stanford did his railroad engineering here. Today, we’ve got Kevin Wheeler with us. Kevin Wheeler is the founder and President of the Future of Talent Institute and one of the pillars of the online recruiting industry. Kevin has one of those careers that anybody would be jealous of. He’s worked at the top levels of big companies, he started and founded his own business, he runs global events, he is known throughout the world as the preeminent futurist on the subject of how talent will evolve over time. So, Kevin. How are you?

Kevin Wheeler:                    I’m great, John. Its great to be on the show.

John Sumser:                        Yeah, so why don’t you take a moment and introduce yourself to the audience.

Kevin Wheeler:                    Sure, well you did a great job. But, as John said I founded the Future of Talent Institute and I also have a consulting company called Global Learning Resources and I have a partnership and a conference company in Australia called the Australasian Talent Conference. And we do talent related conferences throughout Australia, New Zealand and Asia. So, it keeps me very busy, and I travel a great deal. And as John said, I’ve had a tremendous opportunity to work in high-tech, work in financial services, and be an entrepreneur. So, it’s been a great career.

John Sumser:                        So, you’ve been a CHRO in really big companies. Could you talk just a little bit about that. You did it. What’s the thing that you remember most about having been the CHRO?

Kevin Wheeler:                    Bureaucracy.

John Sumser:                        That’s actually kind of an interesting question. Do you think bureaucracy is a good thing or a bad thing?

Kevin Wheeler:                    There’s a certain amount of it that, if you have a large  organization, you almost need. But, I think most companies have way more than they should have. I think it’s one of those things that feeds on itself. You know, when you have one thing then you need one or two more and one or two more and you just keep sort of piling up more rules and policies and regulations. I think it probably would be very healthy if people would go back to zero every once in a while and start over. Generally, I would say it gets in the way of innovation. I’m part of an IBM futurist group and we [inaudible 00:03:14] yesterday and Josh [Croven 00:03:14] was speaking and he is a guy who talks about revolutionary innovation. And his biggest point was that big companies almost never have any revolutionary innovation. They have to buy it from outside from the start-ups. And his question was, why don’t they have it? And part of the reason is their inherent bureaucracy and unwillingness to take risks and fear of everything. And I think that really is the problem with bureaucracy.

John Sumser:                        That’s interesting. So, you can sort of expect me to be a little contrarian about something like this, but it seems to me that another way of framing that is what people call bureaucracy is exactly corporate culture. It’s not different from corporate culture. It is the world in which people work and if it’s the case that bureaucracy is precisely corporate culture, then the question of, what’s strong about that? This thing that people describe as constricting, what’s strong about that? My view is that that thing grows and matures as the company does. And it’s natural that companies can’t innovate at that scale. Its just very, very natural because the human connections required to make something work at that scale, inherently limit the range of freedom and when you add market variables … So if you run a huge company and you have an extraordinary revolutionary, innovative break through, it’ll kill your stock price. Every time.

Kevin Wheeler:                    Exactly.

John Sumser:                        So nobody wants to do that. So it’s really less a negative about companies and more sort of evidence of age and maturity.

Kevin Wheeler:                    That’s an interesting perspective and I generally agree with it. I think companies are really designed to be replicators, producers repetitively producing something whether it’s a service or a product or whatever it is.

John Sumser:                        Oh, what an interesting idea, what an interesting idea. So you’re saying … Go ahead, go ahead.

Kevin Wheeler:                    I’m just saying so there’s not much room in that kind of a model for innovation. In fact, innovation is a negative thing in those kind of organizations because it screws up the replication.

John Sumser:                        Right. So you’re saying that it’s actually the entire idea of a corporation is rooted in industrial notions and that’s the limiter. That’s a very interesting concept.

Kevin Wheeler:                    Yeah, absolutely.

John Sumser:                        So you do this thing called the Future of Talent Institute. And I know we didn’t talk about it in the beginning, and you’re a modest man, but you are a well-trained futurist as a part of the, I’ll get it wrong, but there is a legendary think tank in Palo Alto, I believe, that you’ve been a part of for years and has a very specific method of discipline for thinking about the future and you’ve taken that into our industry. So talk about the Future of Talent Institute …

Kevin Wheeler:                    Sure, sure.

John Sumser:                        And your work as a futurist.

Kevin Wheeler:                    I started at the Institute For The Future, which is that group in Palo Alto that you’re talking about. They’ve been in existence for probably 50 years now and they’ve pioneered many of the techniques of research and thinking about the future. I was very privileged to be part of that for awhile, but their focus has been, and rightly so, being located where they are, on the future of technology and the future of things associated with technology but they’ve never really focused specifically on talent or people. That was really where my interests were and so I said I think we should do something in that space and so that’s the reason I founded the Future of Talent Institute, which was really to take some of those same methodologies which are widely in use now around the world by various future organizations or research groups and began to look at applying those to what’s happening to people in general and attitudes and beliefs and so forth around work and employment and then what’s happening in corporations around those same issues.

How are they using people? What’s the changes that are taking place over time in the way we look at what people do and what they should do and why they do it and all those kind of things. We explore everything from demographics and economics and robotics and the impact they all have on us as people and what we do to earn a living. That’s really been fascinating and fun work. I think a lot of corporations around the world have incorporated some of this thinking into their HR practices and into the way that they actually do everything from recruitment to compensation.

John Sumser:                        Very interesting. You hold regular retreats with the Future of Talent Institute. What are they like?

Kevin Wheeler:                    They’re very small intimate get-togethers. We hold them, generally, once a year. Occasionally we do a second one. We present what we see are the trends or the issues that will probably have the most impact on people in organizations over the next 12 to 18 months. We do a deep dive into discussing them and other trends that we have run across out there. And we do it in a very informal, discussion-based format. These are all senior leaders of talent functions within companies. They are either the head of HR or the head of talent acquisition or the head of learning or OD, or something like that.

It’s 25 maximum of these people together. We bring in provocative and interesting speakers who are generally not in the Human Resources profession. We bring an economist or roboticist, or law professors, or social media experts. And they give a perspective that’s broader than the HR world, but it informs that world. It really creates a lot of provocative conversation. The idea here is to challenge people’s thinking. Get them out of the box.

We do them, generally, in the US at least, we do them in nice, remote settings where you’re really away from everything and where you can’t in any way run back to the office or even make a phone call easily. We do this very deliberately. So really, you give us your whole self for 2 days. And we immerse them and us in learning and thinking about the future. We just did our eleventh retreat. It’s been a really fun process for me. We’ve really developed, I think, a good technique for doing them now.

Four years ago, I started doing a version of it in the Netherlands. Over there it’s only one day. But, we still do very many of the same things. We’ve found provocative European speakers to come in. And we’ve had some great people from France and the Netherlands and the UK come in and deliver really interesting talks. We did one last year in London for the first time. That one was really small, only 10 or 12 people. We’re just starting off there. Then we’ve done one for about 3 years in Australia. That’s been, as well, a very different … Every one of them is very different, which is interesting. The issues are different. The trends are the same, but how they react to them is very different. What the level of that trend’s evolution is is very different. We see in the US, we push the envelope more than we think we do in many of these areas. Which is really interesting.

John Sumser:                        That is interesting. So, what are the trends? What are the top 2 or 3 things that you’re talking about at these retreats?

Kevin Wheeler:                    The switch to what I’m calling the workforce or work as a service concept, which is very different than work as employees. I think we’re seeing a pretty rapid evolution to using people as contingent workers more and more. Using them as providing a service to us when we need it. You can call it the Hollywood model which is how they put together film crews to make movies. Nobody’s an employee, everybody is a contingent worker. You assemble a team and make a movie and then it breaks up and they go off and maybe a different team assembles for another movie. I think we’re going to see a lot more of that sort of thing.

The figures are really hard to get that I would trust. But somewhere between 30 and 40 percent of the US workforce probably fits, to some degree, that categorization, as independent, contractor, consultant, independent deliverer of a service in some way. In other words, not a W-2 employee in America speak, and probably more of the 1099.

I see countries like Europe and Australia have developed a category of employment that we don’t have here yet. We have just two kinds, and this is an issue, I think for us as we move into the future. We have only W-2 and 1099 and we don’t really have anything else. In Europe they have a third one called the Dependent Contractor. The Dependent Contractor or Dependent Consultant would be fundamentally, probably what an Uber driver is today. So you’re dependent on the company for marketing and certain services, but you deliver those services independently. Although they might do things like offer you a subsidized car loan or something like that. You’re not really an employee, but you’re getting something from the company, so they’ve called that a Dependent Consultant.

There’s a lot of things evolving in that space that are really interesting. We’ve probably got more people in that 1099 category than any other country per capita. But everywhere it’s growing very rapidly. The issues that slow it down in Australia and Europe are legal issues. Those are somewhat of a problem here in the US as well.

John Sumser:                        That’s interesting. Are you seeing any examples of big companies who are learning to adjust so that their relationship with their employees capitalizes on the strengths that are driving that trend?

Kevin Wheeler:                    Absolutely. I would dare say, without naming any names, pretty much every major company has a significant portion of the workforce that is contingent. They don’t advertise it, they don’t talk about it. Even the people who work there may even think of themselves in some ways employees, but legally they’re not. I think it’s starting with positions that are not considered to be critical or key or core. Or those that are considered to be very unique. So you’ve kind of got 2 extremes, you’ve got things like … I think for many years companies have outsourced, to use the term, things like janitorial services or security. I think those things are even growing more rapidly into administrative services, into finance, into even parts of HR are all being outsourced to third parties or being delivered by a contingent workforce internally.

Then, at the top end, key individuals who may be designers or contribute in some way to the company, but either choose not to be or the company doesn’t think it’s good to have them on the payroll full-time, and they come in as high-level, high-paid consultants or advisors. I think you’ve got that going on on a much larger scale than you ever did before. Ten years ago, at that top level, you’d definitely hire them and try to lock them into a non-compete agreement or some sort of a contract and own that talent. There’s much less willingness for individuals to sign up for that today. That’s, I think, quite interesting. People are saying, why would I sign up for you? I’ll work under contract, but I’m not going to become an employee.

John Sumser:                        I’m noticing something aligned with this that I’d be interested in your take on. From what I can tell, all of the big consulting firms, all the names that come to mind, the accounting firms and the management consulting groups are hiring like crazy, and are growing like crazy, and are expressing a model of the relationship between employer and employee that capitalizes on the trend that’s driving things towards contingent workers, which is the absence of a roof over the workforce. In those places … What’s interesting about that is that they provide contingent services, essentially. They gussy it up. None of those companies would like to be called a highbrow equivalent of Manpower, but that’s what they are, they’re highbrow equivalents of Manpower and-

Kevin Wheeler:                    You’re right.

John Sumser:                        Their workforce is exploding. And they are evolving models of work that look more like the Hollywood model in the ’40’s, Which is very, very, very interesting. If you think about it a little bit, you’d almost have to predict that there’d be a reaction inside of the definition of employee to this big trend. Are you seeing that anywhere else?

Kevin Wheeler:                    Yeah, I think you see that, I think just about everywhere. It’s not articulated very well. I think the vocabulary is confusing, because we have so many (laughter 19:12) different names for the same thing.

John Sumser:                        Right. Right.

Kevin Wheeler:                    If you read a newspaper, you’re not sure what you’re reading about. But, I think we are moving very quickly toward a society that … I believe a majority of the workforce will be independent in one way or another or slightly dependent on somebody, but not totally dependent, as we move further into the century. I think it’s probably going to be the defining characteristic of the twenty-first century. I think we’re moving out of the industrial model that we’ve had for 100 years.

If you really look at history, we’re probably moving back to something parallel to what we had in the eighteenth century and even to some degree in the nineteenth century which was lots more people who were independent. Who had their own farm, or their own craft business or did something. Many smaller organizations, smaller companies with a handful of people that work there. And a few megalith companies that will continue to exist. There’s no question we’re going to have a few large, large companies who will have quote, unquote permanent people on board, but I think that won’t be the dominant model. I think the independent model will emerge victorious. Because I think it’s what people want as well.

We talk about attitudes of young people. We interview people in university, we interview people in their twenties, and there’s a distribution, of course, but generally speaking, most of them want flexibility, freedom, choice. Those are the words they use all the time. As we talked earlier, when you run a big bureaucratic organization, you lose all 3 of those things. I think that the corporate world is not attractive to some of the best thinkers and some of the most creative people. It will be an evolution, it’s not a revolution. I think that people get caught up in the fact that it’s all going to change tomorrow. No one likes change. Humans are very adverse to change. It’s a model we’ve had for 100 years. Of going to work every morning and putting in your 40 hours and I think it’s going to take decades for that to significantly change in our mindset. But, it’s happening already and it may be happening much faster than we imagine. That’s sort of the hardest thing about predicting the future is the speed. You know it’s going to happen, you just don’t know when.

John Sumser:                        (Laughter) That’s good. Is that an official Kevin Wheeler quote? That’s great. The hardest thing about the future is the speed.

Kevin Wheeler:                    It kind of like a Yogi Berra.

John Sumser:                        That’s fantastic. So is that your new objective here to become the Yogi Berra of the future of talent? (Laughter)

Kevin Wheeler:                    (Laughing) Let’s hope not.

John Sumser:                        So there’s this broad trend supported by technology for increased autonomy of the individual. Are there other trends that you see in demographics or in economics that are having an impact?

Kevin Wheeler:                    There’s so many it’s even hard to prioritize them. Demographics is a huge issue. Especially in the Western world where we’re getting older and smaller. We’re not having as many children. Most of the Western world is either just at replacement birth rate or at negative birth rates. The US has had no growth of population from the native birth of citizens since 1970. All the growth in the US, all of it has come from immigration. So when you really look at what this portends for Japan or Europe in general … In particular and then the US.

In the next 20 years we are going to be getting older and older. Older doesn’t necessarily mean bad, but historically it has meant less innovation, less willingness to change, less revolution in terms of innovation and a more acceptance of the status quo.

So, all the really exciting stuff right now for me is happening in places like Africa. The last week I’ve talked to about 4 people from Kenya. All of them just doing absolutely fascinating stuff, in Kenya, that are innovative and creative and they’re doing it with minimal amounts of money, with incredible amounts of creativity. They just have a whole different approach to doing it. I look at the future demographically is going to be places like Africa, maybe Indonesia, potentially pieces of South America. I think the hey day of growth and innovation coming out of the West is slowing. So that’s one trend.

I think the impact of automation and robotics is vastly underestimated by most people. It doesn’t mean that people won’t be employed, but it means that what most of us do, will be done by robots. That’s really scary and exciting. Everything from driving cars and trucks to manufacturing products is going to be roboticized. When you think about that in terms of how many people in America are employed in one way or another in the transportation industry, it’s something like 30 percent of the country that drive trucks or trains or taxis or buses or support those services in one way or another. They’re potentially not going to have jobs in 15 years. It doesn’t mean they won’t have jobs, but they’re not going to be doing those things.

I think the big question mark is what will people do? When you talk to a lot of these economists, most of them believe we will find things to do, but we don’t know what those will be. So that’s a huge trend. I think it’s one we really … I don’t think it’s been taken into account by political establishment in terms of why isn’t employment booming in America? It isn’t booming because the companies say we don’t need the people. And why don’t we need the people, productivity and the output is good. We don’t even have good measures of productivity any more because our productivity measures are based on obsolete assumptions.

John Sumser:                        This would be a great conversation to carry on. I am particularly curious about whether or not what happens is that we start pulling back our off shoring work the flow of the global economy grinds to a halt because the things that are easiest to automate are done by [inaudible 00:27:06] workers. So it’s like the opposite of Colonialism and I wonder what it would be like to have the rug pulled out of you after you finally got a job for the first time.

Kevin Wheeler:                    I think it’s inevitable that the progression is outsource and then automate. That’s a normal progression. We’ve already done that in so many areas. What I think it does do in countries like India or the Philippines, is it suddenly frees up a fairly well educated group of people that learned skills from working on this offshoring business that will potentially use those skills in some new creative way. It’ll be interesting to see how that evolves.

John Sumser:                        Well, Kevin, we have completely blown through our half and hour. It’s been-

Kevin Wheeler:                    Wow. That was quick.

John Sumser:                        It’s been a great privilege to get a chance to hear you talk about some of the things that you’re interested in. I wonder if you would take a moment to re-introduce yourself to the audience and let them know how they might get in touch with you.

Kevin Wheeler:                    Sure. Once again, I’m Kevin Wheeler, and I run the Future of Talent Institute where we do some interesting and innovative work and looking at what’s the future of work and employment and things related to that. You can get a hold of me at web site or at That’s all one word futureoftalent.

John Sumser:                        Thanks again, Kevin. It was great to have you here.

Kevin Wheeler:                    Thank you John, very much. It was a privilege to be on the show.

John Sumser:                        So, we’ve been talking with Kevin Wheeler who is the founder and President of the Future of Talent Institute. Great Show. I hope you have a fantastic rest of your day and head out into the weekend. This has been HR Examiner Radio. I’m John Sumser. Have a great week end.

End transcript

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