Davenport On... Y2 Que Sera, Sera

FRAMINGHAM (05/01/2000) - By now we are all a bit tired of millennial predictions about the future. So far, the 21st century feels remarkably like the 20th, beginning with the rather widespread survival of computers through the Y2K changeover. I've got a sneaking suspicion that it will continue to do so. In fact, I've decided to devote this entire column to bold predictions about what won't change.

Hierarchy, for starters, will always be with us. Despite all the trees that have died for the paper on which "the decline of hierarchy" was printed, it's still there, even in the hottest internet startups. It may be harder today for outsiders to figure out who's really in charge, but rest assured, somebody is.

I loved the comment by E.O. Wilson, the Harvard biologist who has studied social life in ants, humans and lots of species in between. A Wall Street Journal writer asked him, "Is it silly to think we can eliminate reporting and power structures within companies?" Wilson's answer: "Oh, yes." He went on to say that a tendency toward hierarchy and concern about recognition are unlikely to change. I'll side with E.O. on this one.

Time is another overhyped dimension of business life. The business press would have it that if you're not living and working on "internet time," you'll be left behind and can never catch up. Sure, the pace of business life is faster these days; five-year plans probably won't make much of a comeback. But it still takes plenty of time to create a great company or organization. Building a revenue base, establishing customer and employee loyalty, renewing the product and service development stream, and designing effective process and information flows are all still necessary for long-term success, and they all still take years to master. We are already seeing many "new economy" companies seeking to develop some of these "old economy" virtues.

And don't worry. There will still be an important place for humans in the worlds of business and work. If for nothing else, we'll be needed to make new technologies function and fit together. Perhaps the predictions about the 21st century that were most wrong were those suggesting that by 2000 we'd have little to do because of widespread automation. Instead of the 20- or 30-hour workweeks that many futurists predicted, white-collar workers are clocking in more hours than ever before, and unemployment is at historically low levels.

Indeed, the continuing challenge of the 21st century will be balancing work and life. We'll probably continue to find that work is more like life (with day care, cappuccino bars, nap rooms and pets in the office) as life becomes more like work.

So real face-to-face contact between humans will continue to take place. We're a social species, and electron-based socialization doesn't quite cut it. Yes, I've been in on many an audio, video and web conference, but thankfully some people still want to see me in person. Even if global warming limits our carbon dioxide production, I'll bet we'll still be riding bikes to our (perhaps more conveniently located) offices.

POWERFUL EXPERIENCES Other experiences, including shopping, will still be popular in the coming century. We'll continue to want to get out, just as we still go to movies in the age of the VCR. In fact, I believe that physical business experiences will be greatly enhanced over the next few decades. It will be easier to buy books and records online, so we'll go only to those physical stores that offer good food and performances by artists. It won't be appealing to attend a conference to hear a boring talking head give a PowerPoint presentation because it can be easily downloaded and played at will.

Instead you'll attend a conference to play games, hear and tell powerful stories, and participate in experiences that truly reshape your consciousness.

Experience design will have to become a core capability of many companies.

Technology will continue to be hard to use. Computer scientists have been arguing for decades that the increased processing power will make computers easier to use, but it hasn't happened much yet. As a corollary to this particular constant, don't tell Johnny to throw away his "Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing" program yet; I predict that keyboards will be around for a while. If nothing else, we'll use them on airplanes or when composing intimate e-mails from our cubicles--situations in which you won't want to chat with your computer.

In addition, people will continue to be disappointed with the IT function in companies. If technology change continues, and marketers continue to promise that the technology will be easier to use than it actually is, users of technology will continue to wonder why those guys in IS can't get it right. In fact, I'm sorry to say that this situation may even worsen, as a higher percentage of the economy is composed of organizations providing IT products and services. I've always found that the toughest place to be in the IT function is in an IT company, because everybody there thinks they can do your job better than you can. It may be time to consider the IT function as a transitory destination, rather than a permanent one, in your career.

I will go out on a limb and predict that the internet and e-commerce are here to stay. It seems clear now that we will continue to have intermediaries of all sorts in the future. Many internet startups, particularly in the B-to-B sector, have been intermediaries, and they are thriving. Even when companies decide that they want to take back control of such functions (as GM, Ford and Chrysler are doing with their online purchasing marketplaces), they'll spin them out as separate companies. There is a perennial appeal to dealing with organizations that can represent multiple buyers or sellers in a seemingly impartial manner.

Some intermediaries will certainly wither away (I personally am pulling for the demise of residential real estate brokers), but just as many others will arise and prosper.

Similarly, some other much-hyped aspects of e-commerce won't really come to pass. After the initial flurry of the internet land grab, physical products will return to being worth something. We can't eat information; in fact, there is only so much of it that we can read, hear, watch or otherwise consume.

Business-to-business e-commerce networks will continue to prosper, but dynamic pricing and spot markets will not take the place of long-term business relationships. Ensuring supply, high quality and integrated interorganizational processes will be worth more than saving a few cents per transaction. Many of these networks will offer transactions on the margin to meet unanticipated demand or to sell surplus.

The internet will make it easier for "e-lancers" to be free agents and work with multiple companies. But hardly everyone will want to be one. Job security will still matter to many workers. Further, someone will be needed to provide continuity and manage e-lancers. If it takes time to build a business, it also takes some employee tenure.

We live in exciting times, and lots of things are changing. However, we need to know what we can count on in a world of variation and flux.

Thomas H. Davenport is a professor at Boston University School of Management, director of the Andersen Consulting Institute for Strategic Change and in residence at Babson College. He welcomes reader comments at davenport@cio.com.

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