• Ken Polotan

The Future of Work and Management

Updated: Apr 7, 2018

The Opportunity with the Present

It’s 2018. What does the digital future hold? Sales of mobile devices (e.g. smartphones and tablets) have passed that of desktop computers a few years ago. These devices have massive computing power. Coupled with access to a whole marketplace of personal and business apps, consumers now find themselves accessing the Internet from their mobile devices 80% to 90% of the time. It is certainly true for me as I’m on the road a lot. As a digital business practitioner, I am now able to run my business from my mobile phone.

And yet, in spite of the ubiquity of powerful and personal mobile devices, majority of workers still find themselves commuting to work. Whatever happened to telecommuting? I’m still disappointed – my secret hope is that flying cars come before driverless cars.

But I digress.

I used to live in New York City. All five boroughs combined have approximately 8 million residents. During the workweek, the population swells to 13 million because of people who travel by bridges and tunnels to work in Manhattan. I recall without fondness what it’s like: taking the subway for 45 minutes to cover a distance of four miles from Queens into Midtown. By the way, make than an hour if there’s a sick passenger on the subway or fire in the tracks. Can you see how tens of thousands of people overwhelm the physical infrastructure (e.g. roads, bridges, tunnels, train/bus stations) just so that these same tens of thousands of people can get to “work?” Now, imagine the anxiety and stress level of these commuters trying their darndest to make it to their work places. Really?

Why is it that in the age of digital do we still work this way? I was under the impression that in our digital future, work is no longer a place but a state of mind.

Disruption Is Everywhere

We’re living at a tipping point. The quiet before the storm. On the one hand, we continue to feel the earth rumbling with the oncoming digital tsunami. Digital has disrupted businesses, nay, entire industries. Industry verticals are getting blurred. Ford Motors is no longer just a car company; it's a mobility company. Amazon is not just an eCommerce company; it is now a content business.

Digital has already disrupted how consumers interact with brands, including how we transact business and engage with each other. Yet the breadth and depth of digital disruption has just begun. The next disruption will radically change how we as a society live and interact with each other. Digital has redefined the rules of human culture and engagement and will continue to do so.

And yet, we trudge on with the present. We choose to continue to breathe life into a business paradigm that served us well in the last fifty or hundred years. It is now outmoded and totally irrelevant. Business management, theory and practice no longer make sense. They are wasteful and inefficient at best. The current organizational management model is not optimized to promote trust and collaboration. Frankly, it gets in the way of work. It certainly does not produce the highest levels of productivity. But present day businesses require it. Current management thinking supports it. The corporation demands it.

Is this model sustainable? Or is the corporation as we know it on its way to demise? Should we start mourning the death of traditional business management as we know it? Alan Murray, writing for the Wall Street Journal (The End of Management) certainly thinks so. Perhaps the corporate model has served its purpose and is now passe.

Are We There Yet?

Presently, we have digital technologies that can dramatically alter the workplace. I also submit that if we are to truly tap the renewable power of digital, we just may be able to radically transform society as a whole. And yet, we sit here and discuss change instead of truly making authentic change. According to a McKinsey report, we only operate at 18% of our digital potential.

The Creative Class

In 2002, Richard Florida predicted the “Rise of the Creative Class.” According to Mr. Florida, this class is composed of 38 million members whose sole function is to create new ideas and promote creativity. In short, this group’s objective is to expand intellectual property as they profoundly impact our work and lifestyle. With all due respect to Mr. Florida, I feel I have yet to meet a member of this class. In fairness, perhaps we should consider Steve Jobs, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos as founding members of this class. Certainly, the number is way below 38 million.

We think digital and yet continue to live and behave in an analog world that served a past – a past we’re trying to leave behind. The current state we live in was designed as a template from the past. The Industrial Revolution. The Control and Command organization. It was a militaristic model handed down to management. It made sense then because we were a manufacturing economy. We built cars, highways and railroads. Each worker only had to interact with widgets during production; not with each other.

This is the reason there is a glaring disconnect. Our organizational design, rationale and reporting structure were all borrowed from the military. It was absolutely the best model for mass production. However, our economy is no longer driven by manufacturing; it is now aligned with financial services. We are also in the business of information. Welcome to the information economy. And yet, we still go to “work” as if the assembly line still exists. We adhere to our widget mentality in the form of hierarchical business structures, job descriptions and reporting mechanisms do not necessarily support and engage the knowledge worker.

The result? Disengagement. According to a Gallup study (The State of American Workplace) in June 2013, only 30% of American workers are engaged in their jobs. This is serious: it means 7 out of 10 people mostly only show up for work minus their heart. Worst, growth in employee engagement has remained flat in 2015, with only a two-point increase in the past two and a half years.

Now, let me submit an alternative. The near and immediate future.

The Digital Future Is Now

It’s 2020. Municipal broadband access blankets most cities. Driverless electric cars abound. Efficient mass transit (including driverless buses) ply roads and bridges equipped with sensors. These sensors monitor traffic by utilizing load balancing to increase utilization. There’s no traffic – information workers have options to work virtually. Some days they work onsite to engage in face-to-face meetings with co-workers. Those days that they do report to work, the commute is vastly different. Workers can digitally hail private or public cars. For some who can afford it, they can also hail a flying taxi. If they do decide to take mass transit, the “mass” part is no longer true. Subways and buses are not overwhelmed by high anxiety and stressed out worker bees packed like sardines during rush hours. In fact, it’s almost a pleasant experience. And by the way, the 9:00AM – 5:00PM shift is also gone - another artifact of our industrial history. In fact, the word “shift” disappears from the vernacular. Personally, “shift” just reeks of manufacturing.

The typical shift has moved on to be moments in time when we’re truly engaged with our work. At home, knowledge workers have flexibility to define their work day – for some, it’s during the day. And for others, it may be in the middle of the night when it’s all quiet and they have laser focus. Either way, there’s more time for building relationships and communities. We now have made a conscious decision to invest our time in building and strengthening our social fabric.

Let’s face it: it’s 2018 and we have outgrown our industrial clothes. It’s time to go shopping for some serious digital makeover.

© 2023 by Ken Polotan