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 Instead of embedding outdated processes in silicon and software, we should obliterate them and start over.”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.
- Benedict Evans provides and extensive history of office technology in Office, messaging and verbs.
- Microsoft: Productivity Future Vision video will stretch your imagination. In many ways, we’re not that far off from many of these technologies. The integration and access to the data / user interface…well…that might be further away.
- From the AT&T Archives: Seeing the Digital Future (1961) includes their ambition to provide: “Solutions to changing problems and pressures. Answers to every growing needs and complexities.”
My first job was at Amoco almost 30 years ago. Amazingly, I have had access to email since day one of my working career. Amoco was heavily invested in technology and had worked closely with IBM to develop the system. See The Networked Business Place for historical context.
Email as we know it has about three decades of longevity. This is practically a dinosaur in the IT era. And like other dinosaurs that once roamed the earth, many experts feel it is just a matter of time before it becomes extinct. As noted in Is it Time for Email to Go Away?, there are many better ways to manage our tasks, communicate and foster team collaboration.
Email is like junk food: cheap, abundant and familiar. As you work through your inbox and crank out responses to messages and instigate other conversation threads, it can make you feel full and satisfied. That doesn’t mean it is the best choice.
The primary challenge in breaking our steady diet of email is that behavior change requires a group effort that starts at an individual level with each of us. Like with any other diet, we need to sacrifice immediate gratification for a long-term payoff. The new tools hold promise for more efficient and effective communication. The amount of change necessary to reap the full benefits is definitely easier said than done, but will be worth it.
“The Way of the Essentialist isn’t about getting more done in less time. It’s not about getting less done. It’s about getting only the right things done. It’s about challenging the core assumption of ‘we can have it all’ and ‘I have to do everything’ and replacing it with the pursuit of ‘the right thing, in the right way, at the right time’. It’s about regaining control of our own choices about where to spend our time and energies instead of giving others implicit permission to choose for us.”
In an early 2015 Harvard Business Review article, McKeown argues that success is a catalyst for failure. The opportunities that we are bombarded with due to success causes us to lose the clarity that provided success in the first place.
His simple rules apply to both our personal and professional lives. To paraphrase:
- What am I absolutely passionate about? In the absence of passion, don’t waste time on what is simply average.
- What is absolutely essential? Once that is determined, eliminate the rest.
- Beware of the weight of “sunk costs.” Just because you own something, don’t feel you need to keep it. Just because you’ve always done something, that doesn’t sentence you to keep doing it indefinitely.
I’m sure there are things at both work and home where I am holding onto something that I’m not passionate about and/or is not essential. It must be valuable because why else would I hold onto it, right? Perhaps its time for a little soul searching and spring cleaning to purge some of the “more” to fully appreciate the value of “less.” The tough question is where to start?