Now that I’m out of the corporate world and back to consulting again, I spend a lot more time hustling for work. That means talking with people I haven’t in a while, keeping up with the news and what’s being shared on LinkedIn, and trying to contribute my own two cents without sounding overly self-promotional.
Since my background is marketing for tech and tech-enabled companies, a lot of conversations tend to have a question that’s something along the line of “so, what do you think has changed the most in the past few years?”
The first couple of times I answered I basically said “not much.” Smartphones, laptops, the internet, email, social networks — it was all there back in 2011. Sure, stuff’s faster and some of it’s easier to use, but it’s all pretty much the same stuff at the beginning of this decade as it was at the beginning of the last.
Later on (perhaps thanks to the mental lubricating power of responsible malt beverage consumption) I realized that the tech may be more or less the same, but its ubiquity — it’s “everywhereness” — had radically changed how people and organizations operate. As a marketing executive at four different tech companies between 2011 and 2019, I was right in the middle of it, but I didn’t really notice until a short time ago. Here are the biggest changes I saw (feel free to tell me if I missed any):
The “edge” of the Internet disappeared
Not too long ago, you used to have to “go to” the Internet. Then some time in 2013 or 2014 the last known barrier to the Internet’s reach fell when it became possible to join a web conference from the restroom of a 737 cruising at 33,000 feet. Now we, and a good many of our gadgets, are almost never beyond its limits.
Why this was a game-changer
Once the Internet was everywhere so too were all the things you could do with it. The last half of the decade is when people stopped “going to” things (office, store, library, theater, arcade, restaurant, taxi, TV channel, etc.) and started making those things come to them.
The “on-demand” nature of our current society is a great convenience because it eliminates a lot of those equipment and infrastructure costs and it frees us to do other things. But it also increases dependence on things beyond our control. For example, not too long ago, if the Internet went out at the office, you just plugged along until it came back up and could send email again or whatever. Lose the Internet now, and you don’t just have an email outage, you have a collective meltdown as access to your business systems, cloud storage, communications comes to a sudden halt. Fortunately, people can still turn to their smartphones, which brings me to the second big change…
The mobile device replaced just about everything
Call it a “smartphone”, call it a “device”, call it whatever you want, just know It’s gone full Roman “veni vidi vici” on everything it ever encountered and will continue to do so. The landline, the desktop computer, the scanner, the camera, the camcorder, the TV and the remote, the radio, the GPS, CDs, DVDs, books, magazines, newspapers, ATMs and credit cards, the list of things dead and dying at the hands of the mobile is long and getting longer.
Why this was a game-changer
Unlike gadgets of the past, the mobile device is no pricy one trick pony, it’s a whole circus of ponies that just about anyone can afford. And software developers keep adding to the stable.
Beyond entertainment or communications, mobile devices bring the benefits and convenience of technology and automation to occupations that were until recently pretty much unchanged since the last century. Formerly “low tech” jobs like building maintenance, construction, appliance repair, package delivery, food vending, private security and more have all been transformed by apps and technologies that let people accomplish work in the field faster and with fewer mistakes. One estimate by a national HVAC repair company says they saved 30% — roughly $7 million(!) — in the first month simply by giving their field techs access to a mobile work order app.
The benefits mobile devices bring are limited to productivity and profitability either. It’s also re-shaped the landscape of what we consider “the office” to be. Which brings me to the third big change of the past decade…
Dispersal of talent
Back in the early 2010s pretty much everybody went to the office. Much of the reason for this is that’s where the business infrastructure was — conference phones, computers, high speed Internet, etc. (There was also a fair amount of old-school mindset of “if you’re not in the office, you can’t be working.”) If your company grew in a region that wasn’t homebase, you would open another office there so your people had a place to go. But now that old business infrastructure has been obsoleted or replaced, it’s just not necessary to go into an office every day. For a lot of workers, it’s not uncommon for people to work remotely most of the time (even if they’re only a few miles from the office) and simply “hot desk” it when an appearance is required.
Why this is a game changer
Talent used to accumulate where the jobs were. But now that we’ve de-coupled “work” from “place,” it’s pretty much free to go anywhere, which is what younger workers are doing in droves. Rather than concentrating in a few large metropolitan areas, these people are heading to second tier metros where the cost of living is lower and the lifestyle more appealing, without fear that they are losing out on job opportunities. This, in turn, means that businesses can no longer limit their searches for the best qualified to their own backyard. Now it can be anywhere.
Some argue that this type of work structure isn’t effective or efficient over the long term because it doesn’t foster the collaboration and innovation that results from people working together in an office. I disagree. Video-conferencing, web chat, shared document editing, and other technologies make it as easy to talk, share ideas and collaborate as sharing office space does, but with none of the downsides like high office costs, time-wasting gossip and the flu that wipes out half the staff every winter.
Moreover, a dispersed workforce allows you to hire the best people for the job rather than the best people nearby. Companies who embrace remote talent can build world-class teams on the caliber of a World Cup or Olympic team. Companies stuck with the “geographically undesirable” mindset when it comes to remote workers end up with something on the scale of the local recreational softball club.
What the future may hold
Without speculating on specific technologies, I think we can safely assume that pervasive interconnectedness between people and technology will continue to drive the changes in our business and personal lives. Younger people will grow up not knowing there was a time when most things weren’t connected to the Internet and you simply couldn’t get anything you want anytime and anywhere you wanted it.
How that manifests itself is anyone’s guess, but I’m willing to bet that the next 10 years will bring more fundamental changes than the previous 50 did.