We have seen the future, and it's downsized


Thirty years ago, there were a number of experts who were supposedly good at predicting the future. They liked to call themselves futurists. They wrote books, spoke at seminars and advised businesses on how to get ready for the future. Technological advances and their predicted effects were the major discussion topics, and it was generally accepted the work week would shrink dramatically.For instance, the installation of material resource planning or enterprise resource planning software on increasingly more powerful computer systems dramatically reduced the time and effort required to run a manufacturing operation. The logical extension, which these futurists predicted, was that we would only have to work four days a week, then possibly just three or even less, and this sounded great to everyone.What happened? Somehow these futurists forgot to factor in a human characteristic technology failed to address - greed.As businesses invested in technology to improve operations, the projected savings in labor became part of the justification. Instead of giving people time off, it was far more expedient to simply lay them off.Competitive pressure simultaneously forced organizations to improve the quality of their products and services while also streamlining operations. "Eliminating waste" became the rallying cry, which led to further head count reductions.The signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994 and shortly thereafter, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Taxes, now forced us to compete with workers all over the world. Giving "most favored nation" trading status to China turned the jobs exodus into an eventual stampede and the race to the bottom was on.Empty pots and cubiclesSomehow the idea of simply reducing head count became insufficient, and pay cuts followed. Then pensions became an endangered species. The hunt was on to eliminate all frivolous unnecessaries.I know of the lobby at an enormous high-tech company that no longer has potted plants. The pots and plant receptacles are still there, but the plants are long gone. I don't know if it's for the message the empty pots send or the probable cost to remove them (as they're built in), but you can't walk through without being reminded of how nice things used to be.The managers may think the dressed-down lobby sends a message of austerity. I think it sends a message of sheer desperation. What will they do next to make their numbers?It reminds of a line from the movie "Ben Hur" given to the galley slaves: "We keep you alive to serve this ship. Row well and live!"I guess we can call that motivation, but is that really where we're heading?You see, even in this economy, many companies understand they won't get good performance from employees treated like slaves.Google is often considered the Disneyland of the workplace. There have been numerous articles about the free gourmet meals in the cafeteria, the pool tables, on-site massages and other features that make their campus competitive with some pretty nice resorts.Google needs the creativity of their employees, so filling a room with exotic tropical fish tanks where people can relax and think seems like a small price to pay for some of the profitable ideas generated there.We don't have to necessarily match Google, but treating our employees like champions just might render championship performances.I wonder what a futurist would say today?Ronald J. Bourque is a consultant and speaker from Windham who has had engagements throughout the U.S. and in Europe and Asia. He can be reached at 603-898-1871; RonBourque@myfairpoint.net; orbourqueai.com.