Before reading this column, complete the following sentence with the very first thing that comes to your mind: I never dreamed I’d see the day that …
Over the past 20 years or more I have opened many a presentation with that little exercise. It is fascinating to see how the responses have changed. When I first began asking the question the answers seem to most have to do with societal changes. Then a few years later it was the subject of technology that ruled the majority of the responses. Nowadays, it seems that the answers are all over the place. If I had to categorize them I would say that more answers now are based on personal situations. Things like, “I never dreamed I would see the day that I would be leading my organization,” or that “I would be going back to school.”
The point of the exercise is to get people to begin thinking about change and how it affects our businesses, our non-business organizations and even our personal lives. Indeed, it is difficult to read a business magazine these days without there be an article or two on the subject of change and how to deal with it. The exercise is also a way to begin a discussion about perspective, that emotional, historical and environmental thing that influences each of us so much.
My own perspective is a good example. I graduated from high school in the days when cars were a big deal. Mustangs, Camaros and GTO’s were the subject of discussion and of dreams. I also graduated in a year when social issues were a bit different than they are today. In my senior year of high school a girl in our school became pregnant. In the late 1960’s when a female student became pregnant she sort of just disappeared one day. There was someplace known as the Home for Unwed Mothers. So from that perspective I never dreamed I would see the day that there would be middle schools that furnished day care to their students who brought their children to school. And of course, being a car guy I never dreamed that in my community I would see a Japanese auto manufacturing company headed by a CEO from Brazil who lives in Paris.
Thinking back on my high school days brings to mind the subject of shop. It was that place where the guys who were not going to go to college or did not know what they wanted to do in life learned to weld, carpenter and repair automobiles. Today it is not easy to find a high school with a shop class. One reason shop classes lost their appeal was the steep drop in factory jobs. The U.S. lost 6.1 million such jobs from 1997 to 2009. Only 644,000 have been added since, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It seems we are coming full circle. Instead of everyone needing to going to college we have workforce needs similar to those once taught in shop. Shipbuilders on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, for example, are paying over $20 per hour plus benefits for welders and related skills. I had a big internal smile recently when I was in the bookstore at Southwest Community College not long ago and saw a t-shirt that had “Southwest Welding” on the front. “Harvard Law” eat your heart out. By the way, Southwest has 18 training programs listed in the Career and Technical Education program. They range from residential carpentry to health information technology to Process Information Technology. “Shop Class Makes A Comeback” is the title of an article in the August 28, 2014 edition of BloombergBusinessWeek magazine. It points out that there are 23 million “middle education” jobs that require only a high school education and that pay more than $35,000 per year. Also, there is $1.1 billion in federal funding for high school and college vocational education.
Technology has been, and is, one of the biggest drivers of change. Many experts say that technology took more people off the factory floor than China and Mexico. It would be hard to find a business that has not been affected by technology.
Even as I write this there are workers in my neighborhood replacing water meters with new ones that will communicate with receivers on telephone poles, etc. to provide remote meter reading. Many utility companies are replacing meters that were once read by hand to those that are read remotely. Changes in technology also allow my electric company to communicate with my mobile phone to let me know when there is an outage in my area and when service is expected to be restored.
It is estimated that the amount of technical information is doubling every two years. For student starting a four-year technical degree that means that some of what they learned the first year may be out-of-date by the third year.
And then there are the changes in culture and society. In 1966, Mississippi became the last state to legalize the sale of liquor. But it was done on a so-called local option basis so that cities could choose to allow sales of liquor. Most chose not to. Today many cities are changing laws to allow sale of liquor in order to lure restaurants and certain wine stores. Speaking of changing laws, the Defense of Marriage Act and similar laws are being challenged. Likewise, consider the change in LGBT issues. To really see the impact of change in the world go online to YouTube.com and enter “Shift Happens” in the search box. There are several editions of this popular change presentation that will astound you.
Finally, Joel Barker says that in order for there to be fundamental change in an organization there must be chaos. Consider the above and other changes. Was there chaos? In many, if not most cases, the answer is yes.
In short, if you are in business, you must embrace change and learn to manage it.
» Phil Hardwick is a regular Mississippi Business Journal columnist and CEO of The Hardwick Company LLC, which provides strategic planning facilitation and leadership training services. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org and he’s on the web at www.philhardwick.com.