We’ve Been Here Before

As I approach the 30th year of my career, I begin to wax nostalgic about the changes I see in the workplace. Available people, process and technology are in the process of redefining the space we call “the office.” Beyond the physical space, “the office” includes how we work together and define productivity. While today’s tools may be new, we’ve been through this process before—several times, in my case.

During the first three years of my career, I focused on transitioning from handwritten accounting schedules, forms and journal entries to electronic methods (13-column green pad to spreadsheets). Later, there were additional improvements in systems, access to data, and sharing of work (network shared drives and graphical charting capabilities).

The next phase was marked by a more complete transition from mainframe/mini technologies to server and personal computer technologies. Large ERP systems transitioned from green screens to client/server technology. Many new capabilities and features were enabled, including: scanning of receipts and shipments; electronic exchange of data and documents; and data importing and exporting.

Currently, we’re in the middle of transitioning from “behind the firewall” to “in the cloud.” This has dramatic implications, perhaps even more pronounced than in past phases. I believe that both the degree and speed of change are more dramatic and significantly faster than in the past. This is aided by the new low-cost, pay-as-you-go cloud options, a dramatic change in workforce demographics and global access to talent, markets and customers. No longer are large corporations at the forefront of the innovation, nor the adoption of new practices.

Transitions are endless and a natural part of life. What I find fascinating and important is looking at what have we learned from the past, evaluating what aspects are still relevant, and determining how lessons learned are applied in the current transition period.

Given my career, one of these keys learnings is around how we work. I believe we’re in a phase of “step-function” change, not “incremental” change. Put another way, we need to not look for little improvements in efficiency, but look at what is happening around us, create a shared vision of “what could be” and map a course toward this future state. As Michael Hammer noted in his seminal 1990 Harvard Business Review article Reengineering Work: Don’t Automate, Obliterate:

“It is time to stop paving the cow paths. Instead of embedding outdated processes in silicon and software, we should obliterate them and start over.”

Today’s key technologies—social, mobile, data/analytics and cloud—offer an opportunity to create new ways of working. We can leverage the same management disciplines: customer experience, quality principles, agile and responsive design, teaming and leadership principles, concepts of manufacturing efficiency and automation…and the list goes on. Outcomes must be relevant to the future environment and address the realities of competitive global economic talent, and resource challenges.

We’ve been here before. We need to stay future focused and use well-known disciplines to create the new future workplace. Incremental improvements in efficiency won’t be enough to be competitive in today’s and tomorrow’s marketplace.

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