August 2016

Business in the 21st Century - Two decades riding waves of change

Author: Kitty Bartell

Change is one thing that business does very well. It is, in fact, inevitable. Like tracking ocean waves, change is mercurial and may be hard to notice unless you are paying close attention. While some things inevitably remain constant, the speed at which change has happened in business in the past two decades, from technology to office space to fashion, is worth noticing.

How businesses evolve, succeed or fail is impacted first by the economy, which ebbs and flows in waves from prosperity to scarcity. Twenty years ago, business was roaring. The National Bureau of Economic Research identifies the 1990s as the longest economic expansion in the history of the United States. During this period, business owners grew confident, made more risky decisions related to inventories and maintained fewer capital reserves. Americans were spending, spending, spending.

In 1996, the economy was riding high on a wave of good news and prosperity. It ebbed to an extremely low point around 2008 due to the housing crisis, and is currently on a slow, cautious upswing. Attracting and retaining today’s skittish consumer is more challenging than ever. Business owners are shoring up their reserves like never before and making conservative buying decisions, ensuring that they are prepared to weather any future economic storms.

The actual process of how a business goes about doing business has changed greatly since 1996; however, successful companies have one thing in common that has not. According to Lou Gerstner, former chairman and CEO of IBM, whether the economy is flush or floundering, it doesn’t matter what your strategy is, as long as you actually have one.

Twenty years ago, companies had annual strategy meetings; now they are held on a weekly or biweekly basis. Planning was typically done eight to 10 years out; now businesses view progress and goal assessment in terms of 18 months to two years. Everything is getting faster.

Computers and the Internet are the primary reason why everything is getting faster. Twenty years ago, Windows95 was the preferred computer operating system. In order to keep up and remain relevant, Windows users have transitioned from Windows95 to Windows98, Windows98 Second Edition, Windows2000, the Millennium Edition, WindowsXP, Windows2003, then Windows7, 8, 9, and Windows10. That’s an update nearly every 21 months.

In the same 240 months, Apple has given change a whole new meaning, averaging slightly more than one new product or update every month. In 1996, state-of-the-art meant having an Apple PowerBook laptop computer. Today, touch-screen technology is second nature, and daily life is programmed with iPhones, iPads, MacBooks, Apple TV, and the Apple Watch. The speed at which companies and individuals can expect to do business is the direct result of the speed at which information can be gathered and processed, thanks to these systems.

Where business is happening has changed dramatically. In 1996 approximately 40 million Americans were working in cubicles—those gray, soft-sided, flexible work spaces invented in the 1960s by Robert Propst—designed in response to the Mad Men era of wide open office spaces where desks were lined up like soldiers and worker bees executed the business of corporate America in noisy, smoky environments. The relative peace and improved privacy of the cubicle hasn’t gone completely away; however, the most forward-thinking companies now have open-planned office space where collaboration and creativity are encouraged. Today, offices are often called studios, and work spaces have morphed into community tables in large, open spaces.

The real game-changer in where the work is done is, again, thanks to computer technology. In 1996, if the job called for work on a computer, that work was done on a desktop model at an office. Today, personal computers are no longer just personal; combined with Wi-Fi and the all-present nature of the Internet, work follows the worker. Also, with nearly 70 percent of all households producing two-incomes (up from 55 percent in 1996), flex-time, part-time, and remote work have helped companies retain quality employees by allowing them to job-share or work from home.

The saturation of the cell phone culture has perpetuated the “always on” mentality of doing business in the twenty-first century; the boss is calling, texting, and e-mailing at any time of the day or night. The pressure to keep up and close the deal requires attentiveness 24/7, even if that means using the company’s “nap” room to stay on-call beyond the eight-hour work day. Going off the grid, disconnecting from all things electronic, rarely happens due to the universal fear of missing out (FOMO).

In 1996, paper was king. Office filing cabinets were filled with paper trails, and fax machines were spitting out mountains of paper transmissions. Today, electronic files are standard practice and fax machines are nearly obsolete. We e-mail PDFs and JPEGS and CAD files. The United States Postal Service, the local blueprint shops and photo businesses have struggled to stay afloat because paper use is no longer standard. The creation of e-signatures to execute contracts and the sharing of information electronically has nearly eliminated the need for paper.

Searching for a job has also changed dramatically since 1996, when a traditional résumé and some excellent recommendations got candidates in the door. Today’s job seekers treat a job search like they are making a major purchase; viewed as a time to gather information using vehicles like Facebook and LinkedIn, evaluate, engage with, and ultimately decide whether or not to make a purchase, i.e. accept the job. Workers are no longer waiting for a layoff or a termination to search for new opportunities. As a rule, they are always searching for openings, perpetually building their résumés—something that was only addressed on an as-needed basis 20 years ago.

Nothing trends faster than fashion, and business fashion has seen its share of evolution over the past 20 years. Casual Fridays were all the rage in 1996. Initiated to boost end-of-the-week morale, they are now trending every day of the week. Of course, some businesses still require more professional attire, particularly in bigger cities; however, the creative, youthful, studio culture of this century has established a much more casual approach to dressing for work everywhere. Now runway fashion, jeans are frequently considered an office staple. Colorful and comfortable fabrics including all manner of statement T-shirts are integral in both men’s and women’s work attire. The term “dress for success” was coined in the late 1990s, which today takes on as many interpretations as there are businesses.

In the big picture, 20 years is a tiny drop in a deep ocean. In terms of business, change happens fast, change is inevitable, and sometimes change is hard. Now, go pick up your long board and ride the waves of change. 

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