“Every once in a while, a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything.” These are the words Steve Jobs used to announce the Apple iPhone on January 9th, 2007 at the MacWorld Conference in San Francisco. I am not sure even Jobs, at the time, understood how prescient that statement would become.
The smartphone has transformed everything about modern day life. Consider how many times a day you pick up your phone and check it. How much of your daily endeavors are conducted using the device in your pocket? Do you get a little itchy when it is not within reach? When a technology comes along that changes everything, it really can change everything.
The automobile gave us the road trip and the suburbs. Airplanes allowed us to travel the globe and experience other countries and cultures. Transistors were integral in making computers effective and helping us go from room sized mainframes to desktop sized PCs to computers we can now fit in the palms of our hands. Meanwhile, the cloud has connected all things and made everything, from teddy bears to curling irons, a computer.
Technology is transforming all facets of life: how we interact with the world and each other, work, and are entertained. The digital transformation will alter your organization and maybe even yourself, and so you must learn how to manage it.
Below are four areas that will lead to enormous changes in how we conduct business and our personal lives.
Hyper-Connection: We now live in a hyper-connected world, where every person on the planet can instantly connect with anyone else, without the traditional barriers of distance or devices. According to a 2019 study by Pew Research, five billion people now own a mobile device and over half of these devices are smartphones. While much of this smartphone ownership is contained in advanced economies, in emerging economies the rate of smartphone adoption is growing, especially among younger users.
Meanwhile, the internet of things is exploding. 22 billion devices were connected to the internet at the end of 2018, according to a report by Strategy Analytics. This number is expected to rise to 38.6 billion by 2025 and to 50 billion by 2030. Whether we’re driving, working out at the gym, watching television, hiking, or camping, we will be connected to the internet. And we will be spewing our digital exhaust, which means data….lots and lots of data.
This data gives you an opportunity to learn about your consumers in an extremely deep way. You will be able to serve them in ways that today seem fantastical. This will be somewhat dependent on how legislation develops. There is a growing call, worldwide, to rein in a company’s ability to use data to hyper-personalize services while also giving individuals more privacy and control over their data.
In the European Union, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) has begun to transform the way organizations across the globe collect and hold customer data. The soon to be enacted California Consumer Protection Act (CCPA) is another example how governments are becoming more aware of consumer privacy. U.S presidential candidate Andrew Yang recently called for personal data to become a property right. It is safe to say data privacy will continue to evolve and organizations will need to learn to balance their desire to serve their consumers most effectively with their consumers rights to privacy.
Additionally, as the amount of data we generate goes from petabytes to exabytes to zettabytes to yottabytes, our independent abilities to analyze this data will greatly diminish. Humans are not capable of parsing such titanic amounts of data. Therefore, our reliance on machine intelligence will grow. Data intelligence is only one of the innumerable areas artificial and machine intelligence will dramatically impact our lives and our work.
Machine Intelligence: In the future, your co-worker will be an intelligent machine, or even an intelligent robot. Intelligent machines are already playing critical roles in manufacturing, medicine, technology, and aviation. Currently, artificial intelligence (AI) is playing a big part of your life. The technology is probably to helping you select a new show to binge-watch, verbally alerting you every morning to the upcoming day’s weather, protecting your email inbox from spam, and helping monitor your home energy usage. Soon, a self-driving car may carry you to work, a robot may cook your fast food hamburgers, and an autonomous drone may patrol your campus and alert you to any abnormal behavior.
As a leader, you will need to incorporate machine intelligence into your organization. This will be mandatory. These technologies will transform your organization, augmenting your ability to make wise decisions, maximize efficiency, and serve your consumers most effectively. To not do so, would be, at the risk of hyperbole, treasonous.
This will have huge implications for your team. Many of the jobs historically done by humans will soon be done by machines. This will require your human team members to adjust to the changing work environment. As scary as this inevitability appears to be, it can be a benefit for the team as well. Machines can focus on process-driven tasks, leaving human team members to focus on cerebral tasks that are more are more valuable to the organization and more valuable to the team member as well. It will require these team members to learn new skills that will ultimately benefit them and their careers.
Training and upskilling will be important. As your organization invests in technology, it must also invest in reskilling the team members that will be displaced by this technology.
The inevitable rise of machines in the workforce may also change how we think about work and what it means to be employed.
Gig Economy / Remote Work: Technology-driven companies like Uber and Lyft as well as technology platforms like Etsy and TaskRabbit have driven the rise of independent workers in the gig economy. These workers do not receive a salary or hourly wage, but instead are paid by the “gig.” Technology has made it more efficient for consumers who need a specific service completed or a particular item created or delivered to connect with a worker, using these technology platforms as a medium. The phenomenal success of Uber and Airbnb have dramatically altered the transportation and lodging industries as Netflix has upended the entertainment industry and Amazon has retail.
A report by Statista says that there are currently over 57 million workers in the gig economy, or freelance workers, and that number is expected to rise to over 90 million by 2028. People are currently entering the gig economy in as diverse of fields as finance, agriculture and forestry, healthcare, and education.
This freelance economy offers workers flexibility in the hours they can work and where they can live. In fact, often people choose to be freelance workers because of this freedom. A report by BCG Henderson [PDF] found that only 20% of US freelance workers would choose to find full time salaried employment.
According to the EY Contingent Workforce Study, on average, by 2020 almost one in five US workers will be “contingent” and as much as 40%-50% of the workforce could be in non-permanent employment by 2020.
The rise of the gig economy will mean dramatic shifts in what it means to be employed and what an employee looks like. Technology will allow you to find and harness talent who do not live close to your campus. As an example, Tulsa, Oklahoma is offering $10,000 to people who move to the city. The caveat is that to receive the money you have to work remotely. It is a novel attempt to attract tech workers.
As an organization, you too can attract younger and skilled workers by offering these people what they desire, the freedom to live and travel as they please while still being a benefit to the organization. This is evident in a Marketplace-Edison Research poll which found workers age 18 to 34 were more likely to rank flexible schedule and remote work opportunities as important in a job than workers 35 and older. The gig economy will grow, and as a leader this trend can help you attract talent wherever you are located, whether it be New York or Nebraska.
Virtual / Augmented Reality: In 2013, Google released Glass, its heads-up display that could be worn like a pair of eyeglasses. Glass initially was a failure because it was too bleeding edge. However, in the last half decade, it has found a niche in industries like medicine and manufacturing.
In the future, wearing an augmented reality device will likely be as common as wearing a smartwatch. Much of the content currently contained in our smartphones will migrate to such a device. We will be able to share emails, check social media, make calls, and read the day’s news, all from these devices. In a meeting with a prospect? You could now have a detailed dossier of the client in front of your eyes as you work to close the sale.
Meanwhile, virtual reality (VR) is already being used to help patients deal with medical issues like post traumatic stress disorder. It’s being harnessed by companies in workplace training; it is utilized in marketing, allowing customers to experience a product before they purchase it. Relators are employing VR to allow prospective buyers to tour a home, even if they cannot physically be at the house.
Perhaps you might one day want to take a virtual vacation? Maybe a trip to the pyramids? This opportunity will be available to you without leaving your home. Meanwhile, blueprints will no longer just be lines on a piece of paper, but a potential new building will come alive so that you may see every nook and cranny of it before ground has even been broken.
Classrooms will be able to be transformed into an Amazon jungle, the Great Barrier Reef, or the moon. Education will become way more engaging, helping students learn more effectively and broaden their horizons. Yet I wonder, as I wrote a few years ago, when the stars will come to us, will we still effort to go to the stars?
Why would we physically travel, when we can virtually travel? Why would one struggle through the trials of a real relationship when there is an intelligent robot available who never tells you to take out the trash?
We’ve already traded shopping malls for online stores, movie theaters for Netflix, and after-school pickup basketball for epic Fortnite battles. As we increase our connectedness and our ability to experience things from the comfort of our living rooms, we have begun to isolate ourselves behind our technology, and this may be making us more depressed.
The Digital Generations: In September of 2017, The Atlantic published a feature titled “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation.” In the article, the author highlights some trends she found in what she called “iGen” which are those born between 1995 and 2012. She found people of this generation were less likely to drink, date, and spend time away from home. Yet they were more likely to spend time in front of screens, leading to less happiness. She found that while homicide rates among teens is decreasing, suicide rates are increasing. The article echoes other studies that have come to similar conclusions. Although, there are those who say all of this is overblown.
Meanwhile, even younger workers are showing increasing signs of mental health issues. A study by Happify Health found spiking symptoms of depression in both Generation Z workers (ages 18-24) and in millennial workers (ages 25-34). This cannot and should not be totally attributed to technology. There is a myriad of factors (societal and economical) that could play a role in this. Younger generations are also more open about their mental well-being, and this is certainly a good thing.
Generation Z is entering the workforce. It will be the most diverse generation yet. It highly values inclusion and diversity in many areas including gender, age, disability, and education.
Generation Z is the most highly educated generation, yet it is arriving with less job experience than previous generations. It will rely heavily on technology. Gen Z workers will prove invaluable to companies in onboarding and implementing new digital tools. This considering that nearly one third of millennial managers say Gen Z’ers are more tech savvy than they themselves.
In a world of transformation, we will need all the help we can get. Because of this, I say, “hello, Gen Z! Welcome to the workforce. By the way, could you help me? I can’t seem to get email on my phone.”
While stereotyping any broad group can be dangerous, indulge me if you will.
Gen Z workers have high expectations when it comes to salary and promotion. Therefore, transparency around this will be important. So too will freedom. They will find micro-management stifling.
They want to care about the work that they do, so it can be valuable to define and highlight your organizational mission.
They have grown up in a world where boredom can be ended with a swipe and where all problems can be solved by a Google search. Therefore, they demand to be challenged.
They will be technology-first in all that they do: in the way they communicate, how they perform their day-to-day tasks, and how they consume content. In short, as Scott Klososky would say, “They won’t work for the Flintstones.” Organizations that fall behind when it comes to technology, will find themselves falling behind in hiring and retaining talented Gen Zers.
Finally, they will play an outsized role in your organization’s digital transformation. Therefore, their value cannot be overstated.
Digital tools are currently transforming every part of modern life. They will transform every part of your organization as well. Understanding this and harnessing digital tools effectively will make your organization stronger and more resilient. Through this transformation, you can either flourish or flounder. As a leader, the choice is up to you.