New ways of hiring, training and retaining talent. Embracing employee autonomy, feedback and empowerment. Changing the very structures of work and HR.

These are usually the ideas of futurists, outsiders or authors — think Daniel Pink’s book “Drive.” But on Monday at the Milken Institute Global Conference, these ideas were championed by executives from companies such as JPMorgan Chase, Sanofi and FedEx Express.

Panelists at “The Global Competition for Talent” argued that, regardless of country or industry, much of the old thinking and regulation about hiring, developing and promoting talent should change — and already is.

Some of the panelists benefited long ago from the ideas discussed. Jim Cochran, JPMorgan Chase’s chief of global recruiting, attributed his rise through 20-plus years at the company to “internal mobility.” At FedEx Express, Bob Bennett started as an engineer and moved about, eventually becoming chief learning officer and HR chief. He’s spent 34 years at a company that is not yet 42 years old. He described it simply, saying that FedEx provided an environment that worked for him.

But that ad hoc approach can’t be counted on going forward. Every industry has its own version of a disruption story. For pharmaceuticals, the ongoing mass expiration of patents could mean the end for some companies, said David Ford, Sanofi’s North American vice president of HR. R&D isn’t going to work the same way going forward, in part because the battles against high-mortality diseases have largely been fought. “How do you make the next generation of pharmaceutical products?” he asked.

For Sanofi, a wider base through diversification and acquisitions has been a start, but that will also mean finding a new type of workforce. It won’t be possible to become a high-level executive anymore by specializing, Ford said; exposure to many ideas and areas and an integration of all of them will become the norm.

Millennials and others with mindsets, desires and expectations that differ from corporate norms will also drive how talent acquisition and workplace policy evolve. The “democratization of knowledge,” as dubbed by Business Talent Group CEO Jody Greenstone Miller, and changing demographics require these changes. Cochran described preparing for this panel by asking for feedback from younger employees, a request received with great enthusiasm. These workers are committed but don’t always need to be on site; Cochran noted that if teams collaborate effectively on site for four days, why not give them the choice of where to work for the fifth?

The idea of a workplace less location-driven is not just a U.S. or Western phenomenon: Sajan Pillai, CEO of UST Global, described how his company was able to train 30,000 Saudi Arabian women even though these women cannot drive to work. The adjustments were made to bring the work to them.

Pillai described the broader shift among employees and how they view their role vis a vis management as “leadership selection to leadership election.” On this topic, Miller was the most outspoken and detailed.

“What work needs to be done?

That’s the question Miller came back to repeatedly in different ways, with the emphasis that the way we structure work is part of the problem. The idea of flexibility is not the solution, either. Flexibility often addresses a default number of hours to be worked, only in different ways. The question “What work needs to be done?” is not concerned about hours, but about productivity, or more accurately, “absolute quantity of work.”

There are many people who are, and can be, productive workers that companies need to get but currently miss in their talent searches. This is in part because these employees cannot or do not wish to work the standard number of hours, but could produce a comparable “absolute quantity of work” if given the opportunity.” These workers may also have certain wishes for who they work with, or when and where they work, but in the end, they will be good hires as long as they know they will not be penalized for emphasizing productivity over hours worked, Miller said.

There are two groups who will especially benefit from such structural changes in how businesses operate, Miller argued. For HR departments oft-used to feeling neglected or disregarded by the C-suite, Miller argued, finding such workers — finding “alternative routes to great talent” — will have the side effect of making HR more important to the company and more important to the C-suite. And, for women, Miller argued, the structure of work does more to keep them out of senior leadership than, say, a lack of ambition.

Companies are making these shifts, if slowly and cautiously. And there’s wide agreement that talent acquisition will increasingly require ingenuity and new ways of thinking. Monday’s panel showed that executives at large companies in the U.S. and elsewhere are at least recognizing and mobilizing for this reality, even if more work is needed.

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