A Crystal Ball Moment: The Challenge in Predicting the Future of Employment

Several years ago, I spent a lot of time doing predictions about the future of employment in my blog at the end of the calendar year.

In retrospect, the predictions were embarrassingly bad for the amount of time I put into them. And it isn’t like I didn’t pay attention to the space and just threw random ideas out there. I’ve spent quite a bit of time with the top thinkers about the evolution of HR, business, and employees in the last few years.

I was reminded of it because I saw an amazing video that pretty much nailed the idea of the iPad before it came out. The reason that it is amazing is because the video was made in 1994, 16 years before the iPad appeared on the scene. And it makes me grapple with the idea: why can’t our projections and predictions of the future be better?

Imagining the iPad

When Knight Ridder originally sat down and started thinking about the future of newspapers back in 1994, it was in an enviable position. The Internet was still in its infancy, newspapers still dominated local media, and Knight Ridder was one of the largest media companies in the country (operating such papers as The Philadelphia Inquirer, Miami Herald and San Jose Mercury News). The fact that they thought about a possible predecessor to the printed newspaper (and got so close) means they had to go through two logical leaps, none of which were easy:

  1. That newspapers, which had been around for over 100 years by that time, would eventually decrease in demand. That’s hard to imagine, given their dominant run up to that point and no real indication that any emerging technologies could take their place.
  2. That technology would progress that much. At the time, big screen TV’s needed four people to move and computers weighed double digit pounds (not ounces like the iPad).

And really, that’s the issue with many companies that try to project into the future — not only that the environment will change fairly significantly in some ways, but that it won’t change in others. It is hard to imagine that Knight Ridder was absolutely certain that this was the future, but if you watch the entire video, you can see they felt confident enough to put that much work into it.

They may have taken their inspiration from another source, though.

A year earlier, AT&T did a fairly memorable and comprehensive set of commercials called “You Will” where they describe some of the technology innovations they saw (and of course, they thought they were going to produce). While some of the innovations aren’t so logic-leaping for 1993 (sending a fax from the beach or doing a video call from a pay phone are two that pop to mind), others like GPS navigation, telecommuting, and on-demand TV shows were definitely ahead of their time.

Predictions and the employment relationship

Of course, with all of the amazement with which we watch those videos now, how many predictions fall flat? For every accurate prediction, could there be one wrong one? Ten wrong ones? A hundred wrong ones?

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If Knight Ridder and AT&T had a great amount of confidence in these technologies, why not work on planning for and developing themselves (neither company had a significant hand in making any of the technologies they successfully predicted)? And if newspapers had heeded Knight Ridder’s prediction about the future of publishing back in 1994, wouldn’t they have been better equipped in dealing with that change?

In the employment realm, it’s the same story. Certainly things have changed, but what’s been really interesting (and difficult to predict) is the amount of things that continue to stay the same.

Sure, some things have come through. Workplace flexibility is generally better, there are more people who freelance or contract out their work, and manufacturing has continued to decline. But who would have guessed that CEO pay would continue to grow in relation to median salaries? Or that major health reform would leave health insurance generally tied to employment? Or that we still have fairly primitive laws when it comes to time off (especially medical and child-related leaves) as compared to other First World countries?

Or perhaps the biggest one of all: that the types of things we work on and the way we relate to our work is as traditional as it was 50 years ago?

4 lessons for seeing the future better

Some considerations and lessons from the Knight Ridder and AT&T examples can help us make better decisions as we look to the future:

  • Looking at other industries and how they were seeing innovation helped Knight Ridder make better predictions. It’s certainly true for those in HR to look beyond your industry.
  • Investment isn’t the only thing that drives innovation forward. AT&T’s recent gains have been in the mobile phone industry (something they invested heavily in later) yet many of the innovation suggested by AT&T were worked on by others and still came to fruition.
  • Thinking outside of the box is very difficult. Having an employment relationship that is different than your traditional W2 billed employee is one thing, but imagining how far that could come (where work can be contracted out to anyone on a piecemeal basis these days) is quite another.
  • Timing is critical. I’m sure flying cars will come around one day, but figuring out when exactly that would happen is another story. So much other infrastructure is critical in order for major disruptive technologies to come around that it is more difficult to put a time to it. Re-imagining supporting infrastructure is a big logical leap.

Maybe I won’t get much better at predicting the future of employment (I didn’t do any predictions for 2011), but Knight Ridder and AT&T show me that it can be done better and a bit more systematically than I was evaluating it.

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