Future of Work : Business Opportunities of the 21st Century

Daniel Burrus is a leading technology forecaster and business strategist, and is the author of six books, including the highly acclaimed Technotrends, which has been translated into over a dozen languages. The New York Times has referred to him as one of America's top three business "gurus" in the highest demand as a speaker. He produces a number of audio and video learning systems and is the publisher of the Technotrends® Newsletter.

Contact Daniel at Office@burrus.com or visit Burrus Research Associates

THERE'S A LOT WE DON'T KNOW ABOUT THE FUTURE. We don't know when the next corporate megasuccess will take off, or who will win the gold in the next Olympics, or what turn world politics will take.

But there's plenty we do know because the technological toolbox of the 21st century is already invented. We use many of these tools in our everyday lives as we phone mom from our cars and send e-mail to colleagues from airplanes, as we use computers to train employees and remind us of dental appointments, as we store unheard of amounts of information on thin, silver platters less than 5 inches in diameter. Indeed, much of the future can be seen with clarity today.

Currently, many Fortune 500 companies are using the new tools unimaginatively, doing only what they did before faster and with fewer people. This may show a temporary and seemingly impressive effect on the balance sheet, but it's really only another form of crisis management, a shortsighted attempt to heighten profits in the present while ignoring future opportunities. What's needed is preactive management, the vision and initiative to take action in anticipation of future known events. This is what Opportunity Managers do, thereby distancing themselves from the competition and others who are bogged down in the Crisis Manager mind-set.

Opportunity Managers see the possibilities inherent in the new tools. They figure that if you're going to pay cutting-edge prices for cutting-edge technology, you need cutting-edge applications to gain a true advantage. They don't buy all the latest gadgets and gizmos in an attempt to keep up; instead, they make a considered investment in the creative potential of a technology. They are 21st-century thinkers.

Every one of us has the ability to do the same. In essence, we're all 20th century artisans who've been offered the toolbox of the 21st century. But we must break away from old ways of thinking about and doing business. Suppose you were living in the 18th century roughing it in a sturdy, no-frills log cabin, and you and your neighbors had just been handed the toolbox of the 20th century. The toolbox is just like the one you keep in your garage or basement today, complete with power drills, saws, and nail guns. What would your reaction be ? Excitement ? Perhaps not.

Wouldn't it be frightening to some of your neighbors, utterly uninteresting to others ? Wouldn't some scoff that the tools they had already -- their trusty saw and ax -- were sufficient ? Wouldn't some argue that such high-powered machinery would make them lazy, unimaginative, and less human ? Even if you were adventuresome enough to overcome these objections, then somehow learned to use these new tools, you probably wouldn't rush out to build a modern home like those we live in today. More than likely, you would corral a few of your friends (only those who were as eager as you to try the unfamiliar tools or else afraid of being left out) and build yourself . . . another log cabin. It wouldn't have a modern design, electricity, indoor plumbing, or air conditioning, but you would build it faster and with fewer people.

Unless you were able to see the true potential of what you could create with these tools, you'd just keep on doing what you'd always done more efficiently. Now, as then, the real opportunity lies in using the tools to build new products, services, and markets -- ones that will create careers and cause us to flourish rather than merely survive. This is the potential for our future that all of us need to see today.Consider the accomplishments of Henry Ford, a man who was certainly handed the toolbox of the 20th century while living in the 19th. Did he downsize ? Did he continue to do his work as a machinist, only faster ? No, he helped to create a new industry. He created many jobs and set a new standard in wages as he used new tools to implement his innovative vision of the moving assembly line. Ford was an Opportunity Master.

It's interesting to note that Ford's greatest achievements were not solely founded in his genius with machine design, but more so in his ability to look beyond how technology was then being used and see how it could be innovatively applied to bring about a much better future. He proved that you don't have to create the technology to profit from it; you just have to use it creatively.

Today, who owns the toolbox of the 21st century ? Toshiba ? Sony ? Apple ? IBM ? Is it the Japanese ? the Germans ? None of the tools are "owned" by anyone -- no one has an exclusive right to exploit the incredible opportunities they offer. All of the tools can be used to create by anybody. Here are just a few new tools and a few simple ideas to spark your creativity.

--- Anti-Noise Technology offers us the ability to cancel sound electronically by sampling an unwanted sound then producing its opposite wave form. Anti-noise could be used by airlines to make their cabins more pleasant: With overhead speakers already installed above passengers' seats, noise cancellation electronics could send the opposite sound of the drone of jet engines through the overhead speakers, thus creating a quiet cabin. Because Anti-Noise Technology is perfect for eliminating constant, predictable sound (as opposed to intermittent noises like a baby crying or a hammer pounding), lawn mower and air conditioning manufacturers could take advantage, too, to improve their customers' experience with their products.

--- Advanced Simulations are already revolutionizing several design industries. In Detroit, automobile engineers are free to be more creative because they have shortened new vehicle development schedules. Whereas they used to work with drawings, clay models, then full-scale prototypes that demanded precious time and energy to develop and change, now they depend primarily upon computer-generated two-dimensional and three-dimensional simulations that can be altered in an instant.

Likewise, when you remodel your home, your interior designer can show you a full-color, two- or three-dimensional, completely realistic simulation of every room. Your landscaper can show you how your house and yard will look with newly planted shrubbery and trees, then show you the growth over the next several decades. This type of simulation overcame organizers' concerns about the San Diego Convention Center's size and seating arrangements and landed the 1998 Republican Convention there. Think of the applications this has for product showrooms or for presentations to a board of directors.

--- Neural Networks will give birth to more and more smart products. Your smart VCR will learn what type of TV programs you like and will tape them for you -- even if you don't set the VCR to record a specific show. Your smart tires will notify a console in your dashboard that they will go flat soon if not inflated or repaired. Your smart computer will learn how you like to work and modify itself accordingly.

What many of the new tools have in common is that they give us the ability to translate raw data into wisdom. In a world flooded with endless and potentially valuable information, our greatest challenge is not access to it, but how to translate it into knowledge and use it to our advantage -- how to have it find us when we need it. Ideally, all of this happens transparently, as with the VCR that knows without being told what you want it to record. Electronic Data Interchange (EDI), a technological club sandwich that layers several information/communication technologies, lets the cotton thread manufacturer in Taiwan know that two more spools will be needed by the denim mill in Georgia because a sales clerk at The Gap in Washington, DC, just rang up three pairs of extra-large Levi's 501 jeans.

At the heart of these technologies is an underlying principle: Update and eliminate or you will accumulate. Excessive inventory can be murder to a retail chain, just as excessive paperwork can bury an executive. In fact, where are your notes from the last meeting you attended ? Not stuffed in the old Important Notes folder, I hope. (If so, maybe you're afraid that if you lose your notes, you'll lose your mind !) Digital Imaging allows you to use a hand-held or desk-top scanner to copy articles, reports, and other text into your computer, then link it to other tasks and events so that it finds you when you need it. Common software even allows you to manipulate the text -- to delete from or add to it -- with the flick of a finger.

With all of the tools that are now available to us, it can seem a daunting task to stay educated, much less sophisticated, about them. The key is to avoid getting bogged down in the technical aspects of your tools. Concentrate on the creative application of the tool instead of the tool itself. Ask yourself how to use the new tools of technology to achieve solutions, remove obstacles, and meet challenges. Focus on the knowledge you already have about your marketplace, find out what technology exists, then creatively use it to anticipate and fulfill the needs of your customer.

All you need to do is acquire a basic understanding of what's available. By doing so, you will be acquainted with the ingredients -- the flint and steel -- that will be sparking technological revolutions well into the next century.

©1995-2003, Burrus Research Associates, Inc.

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