Way back in 1987, I was immersed in many of the early networking technologies which would one day form the Internet. I was convinced that we were at the edge of a transformative time, and that the emerging global network would have a profound impact on our world — politics, the structure of organizations and jobs.
I remember being stunned when I read an editorial in the New York Times that October, which forever shaped my view of the future.
The article essentially predicted a future in which organizations would become smaller, grow and contract as needs arise, and become something fundamentally different.
That one article forever shaped my view of the future, and has formed the basis of much of what I focus upon today in terms of the transformative trends that surround us.
Fast forward to today’s economy. With this recovery, as with all others before, organizations are increasingly reluctant to hire staff as they continue to shed even more staff. Organizations are going to go forward with a smaller employee footprint. They’re expanding and contracting as necessary. It’s all about contract work, part time relationships, and external partnerships.
This is not a new trend; indeed, back in the mid-90’s, I wrote a variety of articles and chapters in various of my books that touched on this theme in a variety of ways. I’ve put online a chapter from my 1997 book, Surviving the Information Age, which took a look at this trend. Read it now, and it was stunningly accurate. (The link is below).
For now, this editorial from 1987 makes for a great read.
“Tomorrow’s Company Won’t Have Walls”, New York Times, October 1987
The hub of the network organization will be small, centralized and
local. At the same time, it will be connected to an extended network
that is big, decentralized and global. People from the network and
from outside the company will join the group at the hub for periods
of time and then leave it.
But the network organization will also present its own set of
paradoxes. For instance, how will these new organizations be able to
manage the often conflicting interests of the centralized hub and the
decentralized network? And how can a system that is both centralized
and decentralized be unified and coordinated and quick to respond to
changes in the market place?
For the global organization of the future, the ability to acquire new
products, services, technologies and capital will not be the problem.
The marketplace is crowded with each of these as never before.
But for exactly this reason, the challenge for each company will be
to nurture its own unique culture and develop the quality of its
human resources. That is because competitive advantage will rest
increasingly in the way each network organization gathers and
assesses information, makes its decisions and then carries out those
The 21st-century will be full of organizational surprises. The
challenge of arranging cooperative efforts between companies to
achieve strategic gains is beginning to emerge. Changes in the
marketplace have given companies from around the world the
opportunity to develop these new linkages. Advances in
telecommunications technology also enable companies to bring people
together for competitive advantage. The time has now come to form
new global collections of companies, and to fully utilize human
12 years ago, in Surviving the Information Age, I wrote about what this 1987 New York Times article really meant. The predictions were pretty bang on.
Today? We’re in the midst of the jobless recovery – exactly what was predicted. Companies aren’t hiring back staff but they will be hiring back lots of people through contracts and partnerships!
Chapter 5: From Surviving the Information Age, Jim Carroll, 1997
The world of business is going to be changed by computer technology, not only as a result of the interlinking of business computer systems – but through the emergence of brand new forms of corporate organization that is fuelled by the connections that computers permit between companies and people.
My own career experiences are similar to what many people went through with the recession and business upheaval of the 1980s and 1990s. A lot of people found themselves in circumstances that forced them to re-examine their lives and make some decisions with regard to their careers. Some responded marvelously and others did not.
In my case, I’ve discovered new flexibility in my attitude toward work: I find that my attitude now is that I have to continually change myself and my skills in order to keep one step ahead in the game. Since I don’t have a job, I have to constantly invent one – and make myself available as a temporary worker to any business on the planet.
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By understanding in general terms what is going to happen in the future in terms of new forms of business organization, you can prepare yourself to maintain your career — and hence your income — through a period of unprecedented change.
One of the most significant changes that are occurring is that the emergence of the wired world will result in a significant change in the relationship between a business organization and its employees.
In the good old days, there was a simple rule that the world of business operated by: people lived close to the place where they worked. Having a job meant that you got up every morning, went to work, put in your seven or eight hours, and went back home.
With the wired world, of course, this is no longer true: the matter of location is quickly becoming irrelevant. With the explosion of telecommunication networks, fax machines, voice mail, e-mail, and other methods of communication, the fact is that the work that people do is increasingly becoming accessible to the world of business from anywhere. You can expect this trend to continue. For all the hype and hyperbole, business is truly going global and will come to rely on the skills of people wherever they might be on the planet.
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Back in June of 1989, I read an article in the New York Times entitled “Tomorrow’s Company Won’t Have Walls.” The author did a wonderful job of putting into perspective the fact that traditional forms of business were coming to an end, primarily because of the expansion of global communication capabilities. The author foresaw that the world was already becoming one in which companies were more likely to hire expertise on a part-time, as-needed basis.
His prediction? In the future, because of the increasing complexity in the business world, companies would find that they would need a lot of specialized expertise. And with ever-increasing sophistication in communication capabilities, they would find that they would be able to obtain this expertise not by hiring more employees, but by accessing that expertise from contract workers or consultants who happened to make their skills available through sophisticated telecommunications technologies wherever they might be.
Two years after I read that article, which caused me to begin to think about what was happening around me with the recession of 1990–1991, Fortune magazine ran a cover story called “The End of the Job.” The article predicted that we were entering an economy in which “jobs” are disappearing and in which people would make themselves available to companies for short-term assignments.
And by 1996, The End of Work, a book that focuses on the dramatic change occurring in our economy, rocketed to the top of the international best-seller lists. One of the key premises of the book? The economy of the temporary workforce is upon us.
In his book Job Shift, William Bridges (1994) coined the phrase “dejobbing” to describe this trend to non-standard employment. He says that workers are going to be more like independent business people (or one-person businesses) than conventional employees. They are likely to work for more than one client at a time and to move back and forth across organizational boundaries — being employed full-time for a period of time, then hired to do contract work, then hired to consult, and then brought back in-house (perhaps part-time this time) on a long-term assignment. He concludes that, although there will always be enormous amounts of work to do in our economy, the work will not be contained in that old familiar employment form of standard full-time, full-year jobs.
All these articles and books center on two themes: the ever-increasing reliance on the temporary “workforce for hire” and a reduction in the duplication of skills throughout an organization.
Over time, companies will become leaner and meaner than they are today. They will be built around a small, core group of staff responsible for keeping the business running and will obtain the rest of their needed expertise through an ongoing and ever-growing reliance on contract workers. And specialized expertise need not be duplicated. In the old days, companies may have had a human resource expert for every division and every office location. Today, they can rely on one expert, or perhaps two or three, and make that talent available to the rest of the organization through e-mail and other methods.
These changes are real and aren’t science fiction. Take a look around your world, and I’m sure you can see the signs that it is beginning to happen. Fortune 500 organizations continue to shed staff at alarming rates, as the era of downsizing and rationalization continues unabated. You’ve either been directly affected or will be in the future.
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If you think about it, the wired world is the grease that is fueling this new type of corporate organization. The reason? With the explosion of communication capabilities, organizations can go out and access the expertise and talent of any number of people around the planet. Why hire staff when you can hire a temp? If you spend a bit of time thinking about the implications of this change, you will see that through the next decade some rather remarkable changes are in store.
- The Number of Full-time Jobs Will Begin to Shrink Dramatically
The era of the job for life has clearly come to an end, and the concept of the job is becoming irrelevant as well. A new way of thinking is emerging in the corporate world, built upon a reluctance to increase staff levels, with the result that we are becoming an economy of consultants who sell their skills and talents to businesses on an as-needed basis.
It used to be that companies entered into an employer-employee relationship in order to obtain access to some type of specialized skill or knowledge. If the company needed a new marketing specialist, it went out and hired a marketing specialist. Then came the recession of the early 1990s. With the onslaught of restructuring that occurred, companies came to appreciate that it cost a heck of a lot of money to fire people since severance packages had become quite expensive.
A new way of thinking began to occur in the corporate world, built on this logic: if we hire staff, we might have to fire them someday, particularly if we have another recession. It costs a lot of money to fire people. So why not hire people, not as staff, but on a contract or as temporary workers? The role of the wired world? Guess what. A lot of those contract and temporary workers are found on the end of a telecommunications line.
- Companies Will Hire the Best Talent They Can, Regardless of Where That Person Might Be
In the wired world, the only thing that counts is knowledge. If the knowledge is accessible from anywhere in the world, then companies will find themselves in the position of being able to choose the best talent and expertise they need to do a particular job from a group of global, skilled consultants.
The impact? A new era of career competitiveness is about to unfold as a number of highly skilled workers sell their capabilities and talents to a global audience of business organizations. The result? Marginal performance is no longer going to be good enough: in the new dog-eat-dog world of networked business, the old rule that those with the best skills and capabilities will be in the greatest demand will be even more true than it is today.
- Lifestyle Choice Will Come to Dominate Career Decisions
Because they can supply their skills from anywhere through the tools of the wired world, this elite group of individuals will call the shots. They will make lifestyle decisions that will let them service their national and global client base from a rural electronic cottage, thus enjoying the fruits of the wired economy, at the same time watching their children grow up. A new era of career decisions based upon lifestyle choices is upon us. As we enter an economy in which location doesn’t matter, the natural result is that more people will choose to work from the places they want to, rather than where they have to.
- Our Actual Work Location Won’t Matter
You can enhance your future career and job opportunities by adapting your skills so that they are marketable and accessible via the wired world. That simple rule, people living close to the place where they worked, that I mentioned earlier is clearly and unequivocally changing as a result of the wired world since you don’t need to be near your job in order to do the work!
On the other hand, we might consider that the rule hasn’t changed: people who have mastered the technology that lets them provide their skills to others, wherever they might be, live close to the place where they work — online!
The matter of location is quickly becoming irrelevant, with the explosion of telecommunication networks, fax machines, voice mail, e-mail and other methods of communication. The office of the future will look like your bedroom — because it will be.
As companies begin to rely more and more on outside expertise, the number of core employees required will continue to decrease. The impact on downtown urban areas will be dramatic. There will be fewer people working in office towers. The real estate industry has a phrase for this: “see-through buildings.” That’s because they will be.
Guess what — the workforce of the twenty-first century wears sweatpants, not suits, since they shop at Walmart, not Hugo Boss, for their day-to-day work attire. And while downtown real estate will suffer, the home improvements industry will expand, as people build a more comfortable home office environment.
If you really want to know what is happening in the world around us, talk to your letter carrier. She will tell you that her pack is getting heavier, year after year, because of the number of people working at home. Visit a local photocopy or office supply store at 10 in the morning, and you’ll find a variety of semi-scruffy professionals loading up on supplies or getting some copies made.
Today, 41% of Canadians have home computers, according to Statistics Canada. Not all of them are used solely for games and homework; an increasing number sit in the home office, tools with which the new home-based workforce is meeting the challenge of the changing business world.
You can ensure you are a survivor by understanding what it takes to build, manage and work in a home office and by getting into the wired state of mind.
- A Generational Battle For Economic Control and Survival Is Upon Us
It won’t be easy. Our economic systems are increasingly characterized by baby boomers and the older generation, comfortable in their unchanging ways and who are now faced with a new, wired and technically sophisticated Generation X. Increasingly, economic survival is dependent upon mastery of technology, and it should be obvious who has the upper hand in this game!