The Way We Were: Why the Future of Work Will Be So Different

May 25, 2015

Future Exit Sign 000018627375XSmallWe have just celebrated Memorial Day weekend in the United States. It has been an opportunity to reflect on our good fortune as a country, but more importantly to give thanks for the millions of servicemen and servicewomen who sacrificed their lives to protect us in way too many wars.

But this time of pausing and reflecting also got me thinking about how the working environments where most of us spend most of our waking hours have changed over the past twenty years – and will change even more going forward.

Those of us of a certain age can remember when our families sat down in front of the big box in our living rooms that brought us the 6 o’clock evening news. We shared that experience with our neighbors near and far; most of the country absorbed that information at the same time, and from one or the other of the three major networks that brought us all the television news and entertainment.

And most of us had one telephone somewhere in the front hall or living room; but we only used it for short, functional conversations with our neighbors and nearby relatives (calls were billed by the minute, after all). Once a year we might call a distant grandparent for a short “Happy Birthday” or “Happy Holidays” message; long distance calls were prohibitively expensive and the sound was often tinny and full of static.

In short, we didn’t have much choice in how we got our information or stayed in touch with out-of-town family and friends. Our world was relatively limited.

And the way we worked was very similar.

If you worked in an office you probably commuted to a downtown business district or a suburban office park. Most of us stayed with one company for many years (often an entire career). Both my father and my grandfather retired from the companies they joined right after college graduation; and both of those companies were large, stable, and relatively successful over many decades.

That world reflected the values and assumptions of the industrial era; that the goal of an organization was mass production (accompanied, of course, by mass consumption). Drive costs down by driving volume up; produce as many widgets as you could sell, at the lowest possible cost. Efficient, reliable, reproducible processes were the end goal.

And our social structures and community activities were just as stable. Most of us grew up in the same town where we were born: our friendships began in kindergarten and lasted at least through high school. Our neighborhoods were homogeneous, and our visions of career opportunities were determined largely by the socioeconomic classes and the communities we were born into.

There was strong sense of stability in that world. Yes, there was a sense of progress, and a desire to climb the economic ladder, but most change was linear and incremental. Our sense of what was possible was almost as limited as our choices of television stations.

Technology Changed All That

Today, of course, all that has changed (or most of it, anyway).

We now have access to incredibly powerful personal computing devices; most of us work in offices, not factories; and our basic social norms and values are profoundly different from what they were five or ten or twenty years ago.

There are at least three very profound ways that our information access and personal communications have changed in the last decade – three realities that most of the world takes for granted now, but are unprecedented in human history.

why_onlineFirst, with a relatively inexpensive computer and Internet access, anyone can access almost any information almost anywhere in the world – and at almost no incremental cost. You can find almost anything you want whenever you want it, with very little advance planning. Just type your question or topic into your favorite search engine, and start exploring.

Second, you can connect and converse with almost any other person, almost anywhere in the world, again at almost zero incremental cost. And we have an incredible array of ways of connect. Landline phones still work, and email is essentially free and easy. Cell phones are everywhere (though they do have a basic fixed cost, the incremental minutes are relatively cheap). And just look at all the other communication channels that are readily available, many of them essentially free: Skype, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Tumblr, Flickr, Facetime, Pinterest, and more.

And third, anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can publish almost anything on a global basis. While no one has an accurate count of how many blogs there are globally, the three major blogging platforms (Tumblr, WordPress, and Blogger) together had over 300 million accounts by the end of 2014.

But – and this is what keeps me going – the way we design and manage most organizations is still mired in 19th-century assumptions about people, technology, organizational efficiency, economic value, and social wellbeing.

Isn’t it time to embrace the 21st century and rebuild the way we work?


Contact me for a free consultation about how you can align your organization with the future. And ask me about how you can join my ongoing monthly “Talking About Tomorrow” open conversation program.


 

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Bary Sherman May 26, 2015 at 10:11 am

Thanks for the trip down memory lane! I agree completely with your assessment that the way we design and manage most organizations is still mired in 19th-century assumptions about people, technology, organizational efficiency, economic value, and social well being.”

Sadly, too often senior leadership is thinking in past centuries with little current or future vision.

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