From Where I Sit: The Trouble With Forecasting

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By Tim Springer
Published in the October 2009 issue of
Today’s Facility Manager

“Trying to predict the future is like trying to drive down a countryroad at night with no lights while looking out the back window.”

—Peter F. Drucker

One of the benefits of longevity is every now and then someone asks you to comment on trends and prognosticate about the future of facilities and workplaces. So when I was asked to write about trends in the workplace, I took time to look at predictions from years ago as well as current opinions. What I found was quite interesting.

First, it’s easy to mistake something trendy (i.e., superficial, short lived, faddish) for a trend (i.e., a development that becomes widely accepted over time). Some workplace issues generate a lot of heat yet are merely trendy; meanwhile, others may be driving forces but attract little notice.

For example, the media devotes significant coverage to four generations in the workplace. Many argue different generations need different workspaces. But when you adjust for things like experience, position, and other elements, the generation factor is not so strong. Young people have always believed they’re smarter than their bosses and want to set the world on fire. So is multi-generations in the workplace a legitimate trend? Or is it merely trendy?

Consider this: more than 25% of the workforce will reach retirement age next year (2010). That number will steadily increase through 2014, resulting in a projected skilled workforce shortage of 10 million people. [Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Labor force projections to 2014: retiring boomers,” 2005.] A rarely noted consequence of this fact is the pending vacancy of billions of square feet of workspace currently occupied by aging Boomers. Now that’s a trend.

Why is it so hard to identify trends and predict the future? Considering past prognostications, the following appear to be true:

  1. The future isn’t what it used to be. In years past, people enjoyed the Jetsons and Jules Verne and were awed by the space program and energized by the challenge of putting a human on the moon. Facing worrying concerns about what’s next (e.g., cloning, climate change, population shifts, etc.), excitement about the future seems old-fashioned.
  2. The future never arrives as quickly or in the form one hopes. Those of us who are Baby Boomers may remember predictions of flying cars and nuclear powered underwater cities as shown in Tomorrow Land by Disney. Forty-five years later, these seem quaintly impractical. At the 1964 World’s Fair, Bell Labs introduced the picture phone, the practical application of which is finally occurring today (e.g., Skype and iChat).
  3. 3. People expect the best they’ve ever experienced. Think about it. After using high-speed broadband, will people accept dial-up Internet? Or be satisfied with analog TV when they’ve seen digital HD? A corollary is that people have trouble projecting beyond their experience. Ask someone to envision the best future workplace, and they will likely describe something they’ve seen or experienced—or describe ways to fix what they have.
  4. It’s much more fun to imagine new technologies than to use them. Weren’t computers supposed to make our lives easier? Wireless technologies should free us to work anywhere—provided there is a strong enough signal and the infrastructure has been wired properly. Ease of use is largely an ergonomics problem. It is often left out or considered as an afterthought. Have you ever rented a car, at night, in the rain and spent several minutes trying to locate and operate the lights and wipers (never mind the included GPS)?
  5. “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This favorite quote of mine (at least one of them) comes from Arthur C. Clarke; it’s a corollary to #3. Put another way, if the state of the art doesn’t seem magical, it’s probably close to obsolete. New materials and technologies are constantly pushing the frontier of what’s possible. For example, consider data glasses that read from the engineer’s eyes and detail what he needs to see on the building plans. A CMOS chip with an eye tracker in the microdisplay makes this possible. The eyeglasses are connected to a PDA, display information, and respond to commands. [Source: Physics.org, June 2, 2009.]
  6. Too many choices can be just as paralyzing as too few. The classic example is modern television: 500 channels and nothing to watch. Consider choosing a paint color. It seems there are hundreds of similar shades of any color you can name.
  7. Just because something can be designed, built, or done doesn’t mean it should be. Science fiction deals with this issue all the time. Even if we can clone people, should we? Shopped for a cell phone lately? Or a task chair? It seems some standard features are unnecessary. (I already own a great digital camera, so why do I need a poor quality one on my cell phone?) Conversely, some critical features are missing or not available in combinations that make sense.
  8. Trying to be all things to all people usually results in doing nothing well. Multi-function machines combine several devices into one. A printer, copier, and fax is a common example. While the device may be more cost and space efficient, in my experience, the quality is always inferior to purpose specific individual devices. The same thing is true of office workplaces. Some furniture products try to be complete interior solutions and do nothing as well as purpose specific alternatives.
  9. Those who succeed by a paradigm have little incentive to change it. This phenomenon amplifies natural resistance to change. For example, moving people out of private offices into more open workplaces is very often widely resisted and even sabotaged by those affected, since they have little incentive to change the private office paradigm.
  10. Most people inventing the future won’t be living in it. Not to be morbid, but for all the discussion of the future of workplaces, most people engaged in studying, writing, speaking, and designing the future will be out of the workforce in 10 to 15 years (with a little luck, myself included). This may not be a bad thing.

So the next time you read or hear about a future trend, remember the words of Peter Drucker: the only thing certain about the future is it will be different. That’s the way I see it from where I sit. Of course I could be wrong.  

Springer ispresident and founder of Geneva, IL-based HERO, inc. andfrequently writes and speaks on a wide variety of issues affectingorganizations, work, and workplaces. For past columns from Springer, go to From Where I Sit and for future musings from Springer, visit his Web site.

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