When I started working, typewriters, Tipp-Ex and carbon paper were the norm, internal mail was delivered twice a day by a young man with a trolley full of post, the fax machine was the height of modern technology and you had to wait until you got home to check your answerphone messages.
I’m not ancient. It’s just that the world has changed really fast in the last 25 years. Socially, politically, culturally, technologically we live in an age most of us could not have imagined when we embarked on our careers.
But in the last five years something has switched.
The technology we carry around with us has done more than make phone calls easier. We have information at our fingertips all the time and it comes from sources that didn’t exist a couple of years ago. We can connect with anyone we want – follow them on twitter, message them on Facebook, stalk them on LinkedIn.
We have a megaphone and can broadcast our opinions to the world. Unhappy about something? Tweet it. Want to lobby your MP? Email her direct and cc everyone you know.
Simultaneously, a new generation has entered the workforce. I wouldn’t want to over-emphasise the Generation Y phenomenon. This alone isn’t as dramatic as we are led to believe. But these are individuals who don’t remember playing games on Teletext. I’m just saying. Their life experience is different.
We can Skype, pause live TV and never have to go to a video store again. Forget hot and cold running water and an indoor loo. Life is, for the majority of us in our relatively rich Western world, pretty comfortable compared with previous generations.
Our expectations as customers are significantly more complex too. We either want a one-click relationship with the companies we buy from (we often don’t even know who they are) or we want a true partnership, a heart-connection. When you buy from Apple, Starbucks, Honda or pick something up from Freecycle you aren’t just making a purchase. You are expressing something about who you are.
And the world seems a more dangerous place. The environment, ISIS, immigration, austerity, identity fraud, chemicals in our food, the radiation coming off our phone. The Cold War Era was a simpler time.
Why am I going on about this? Because the Industrial Age is over.
About five years ago we transitioned in to a new economic age. Of course, heavy industry had been declining for a long time before that but the decline of traditional industry didn’t mean the end of the industrial age - we still operated our service-based businesses along industrial lines.
Companies remained hierarchical. People worked in stable teams. They turned up to work and sat at a desk for a specific number of hours. They got in their car, boarded a train, booked a flight and went to see their customers.
We measured inputs – number of hours done, number of calls made, number of rings before the phone was answered. Even as we moved from making things to providing services we continued to treat people as part of a machine.
The more process we could put in place the more predictable the results we would get. Industries remained relatively stable and defined – you were a manufacturer, a retailer, a publisher.
But today, companies are cutting across sectors.
What is Apple? What is Google? What is Amazon? People don’t need to leave their homes to work. We are self-actualised – we want to partner, to collaborate, to co-create. We aren’t impressed by authority. In fact we distrust it. And we are seeking meaning and purpose in our lives - working in the same job for 35 or 40 years just to collect our gold watch and retire isn’t the dream any more.
Yet, we still operate our companies as if none of this is going on.
Most companies retain a hierarchy, even if they’ve flattened it a little. People are put in to functional teams with a line manager even though we know they will spend most of their time on projects and partnerships that take them away from that team and that manager.
People add value to their organization by the ideas they generate and the results they produce not by the number of hours they sit at their desk tapping away yet we still purse our lips when they turn up “10 minutes late” for work.
I’ve spent the last 15 years working as a coach, confidante and, these days, an Agent Provocateur for leaders and their teams. And I’m worried.
I’m worried that too many business leaders are sticking their heads in the sand, tweaking their businesses in attempt to adapt to new technology, changing employee demands and new ideas about customer relationships. They rely on a style of leadership and communication that reeks of the 20th Century (or before).
They grudgingly accept that maybe they should ask a question or listen a little, maybe get feedback or take some time offsite to think bigger thoughts with their team. But all that is really a distraction from cranking the handle and keeping the machine running.
But tweaking won’t do it. This is a revolution as significant as the Industrial Revolution.
The companies that are disrupting whole industries are those who don’t have baggage. They weren’t around 5 or 10 years ago. They don’t want to be like you. They aren’t trying to beat you at your game. They are changing the game. They are questioning everything – the need for managers, the need for working hours, the need for offices, the need for scale.
It’s important that you know this is what I see going on because in future columns this is gong to be my starting point. I won’t be giving you “5 top tips for giving feedback” or “Email Dos and Don'ts”. That’s all tweaking. The problems are far deeper and the solutions are going to be too.
I’m not going to tell you what your company will look like in this new economic age. No one knows that.
No one knew at the start of the Industrial Age what companies were going to look like 50 years down the line. They just started breaking rules, seeing what worked and what didn’t. It was pretty ugly at times. This could get ugly too.
But I will be pointing out the Industrial Age habits that we’re taking for granted as if they are sacred, all of which are due for a major overhaul if your company is going to survive.
And people are at the heart of that. Your company doesn’t have anything else, in fact.
It’s only going to be as good as your people. And most of the time your people aren’t giving anywhere near as much as they could do, as they want to, as they need to. Your company is suffocating their creativity, their passion and their confidence. It’s not trying to do that. But it is.
If it’s your responsibility to look after the talent and well-being of the people working in your company, then the tough messages about how your business is wasting its only differentiator – its people – need to come from you.
The Industrial Revolution was spearheaded by the great engineers of the time – James Watt, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, George Stephenson. But if this new revolution isn’t about the power of machines but the power of people, then maybe you shouldn’t be looking at your CEO or your FD for the next big idea.
Maybe it’s not the R&D department or marketing who are going to transform your business.
Maybe it’s you.
Blaire Palmer is CEO of That People Thing, a consultancy dedicated to inspiring leaders in fast-paced, ambitious businesses to drive change in their organisations in partnership with their people. Blaire has been described as a 'secret weapon', a 'business muse' and 'that lady who does the leadership and team stuff'. She is a regular guest expert on BBC Radio 2's Jeremy Vine show and has appeared on BBC Breakfast News and BBC Working Lunch.
About Blaire Palmer
“Agent provocateur”, Blaire Palmer, is a former BBC Today programme journalist who, for the last 15 years, has been coaching and provoking CEOs and leadership teams to step up and drive change in their organisations.
The author of 3 books on leadership and success, Blaire was one of the first accredited executive coaches in Europe. Blaire founded That People Thing in 2012 and now works with clients including Roche, Airbus, Mattel, DX and Manchester United, designing and delivering programmes that bring about sustainable change in leadership and culture with measureable commercial benefit.
Direct, challenging, warm and funny, Blaire is also is a keynote conference speaker, addressing audiences around the world about how leadership is changing in the 21st century.