by Charles Thrasher
I came of age in a time of riotous change when cities burned and soldiers confronted citizens in the streets. I watched Watts burn on television and from the sidewalk, looking south, saw the clouds over LA burn with reflected flame. I saw communities and generations sundered by dissension as old ideas surrendered—or were sacrificed—to new.
And now, at the other end of my life, I’m witness to another time of equally dramatic, if less violent, change. The very nature of work is being redefined by massive forces like the collision of tectonic plates creating new mountains and valleys, a new landscape, but in quick-time. When these forces have played out and reached equilibrium, our working lives will be far different from what they are now.
Like Shiva, technology is the creator and destroyer of worlds.
Dion Hinchcliffe, strategist for the Dachis Group, is a man who’s thinking I admire. His keynote at the Leadership Summit 2013 on Workplace 2020 provides a laundry list of trends effecting the future of work.
The life expectancy of powerful companies is declining at the same time human lifespans are increasing. Standard & Poor’s 500 is an index of what’s considered the best US stocks, the companies that represent a bellwether for the U.S. economy. In 1940 a company in the S&P 500 could expect to survive 75 years. Now 15 years is more typical. The future workplace will be even more volatile than today.
Technology continues to evolve exponentially. Like Shiva, technology is the creator and destroyer of worlds. New business opportunities appear like mushrooms after a rain while existing opportunities wither as suddenly. To thrive in this volatility companies will need to expand or collapse, pulsing with the rhythm of change and opportunity, rapidly scaling operations up or down. That includes their workforce. No company can achieve the agility required while anchored to a large number of full-time employees, especially middle management. Individual contributors—the productive workforce—will be required to manage themselves for the benefit of the company but even individual contributors are likely to coalesce around particular projects, particular outcomes, and then disperse.
Cloud technology will enable companies to scale in either direction and compete against much larger companies than themselves. The metaphor for the cloud is usually meteorological. Perhaps a better metaphor is a cloud of mayflies rising from a pond on a summer day. That is the level of competition I envision.
The new, liquid workforce required by such fierce competition is also enabled by technology, the ability to communicate and collaborate across vast distance without inhibition. Your competitor for a job no longer lives within driving distance of the office—or willing to relocate. They now live anywhere serviced by broadband. Competitive workers will need to be expert in the use of communications technology enabling a virtual workforce, collaborating with team members from different cultures, navigating complex networks and meta-networks, working in self-directed teams that produce end-to-end outcomes, and managing their digital reputation.
Managing your digital footprint can contribute value to your company and yourself.
This last bit—digital reputation—is a skill set previously expected only of marketers. Managing your digital reputation will be critically important in finding work and maximizing your contribution to an employer. Increasing your digital visibility for key concepts (keywords) involves marketing yourself, identifying your goals and desired outcomes, creating content optimized for search engines (SEO), and tracking results (web and social analytics). It means everyone is ultimately self-employed, an indivisible business of one.
And the relentless memory of the web doesn’t distinguish between your personal and professional life online. Eventually, perhaps, we’ll be able to buy personal software agents that will negotiate with content consumers what we’ll allow for publication. Eventually, but not now.
In Tours of Duty: The New Employer-Employee Compact, a seminal article that appeared in the Harvard Business Review, the authors explain “…how a workable new compact must recognize that jobs are unlikely to be permanent but encourage lasting alliances nonetheless. The key is that both the employer and the employee seek to add value to each other. Employees invest in the company’s adaptability; the company invests in employees’ employability.”