Sunday, August 1, 2004

Anticipating and Integrating Change

My great grandfather traveled from Germany to Galveston, Texas as a teenager. Alone, but with the skills of a carpenter, he found his niche in Galveston. As you know, Galveston is an island and any water wells driven into the island always produce at best, brackish water. In the late 1800's Galveston was growing fast. People needed water. He used his skills and applied them to the production of cisterns. Cisterns are like large barrels, in this case made out of cypress wood. Residents collected rainwater in them from their roofs. Making cisterns was a growth business. My grandfather also made cisterns. But eventually technology developed that allowed a water well to be drilled inland and a pipe laid under the bay that brought fresh water to homes. No longer any need for cisterns. However, I still remember as a kid that cistern water was preferred and my grandfather's house had a cistern until it finally rotted out.

The business created by my great grandfather and carried on by my grandfather died. Change forced him to change himself and he joined a fast growing industry - trains. He became an engineer for the Santa Fe and drove passenger trains for awhile. When I knew him, he was working only in the switch yards, no longer on the long runs.

My father entered the railroad industry as well. He went to work for the Pullman Company as an electrician and mechanic. The Pullman car was the premier way to travel during the golden age of the railroads. It was high quality, first class all the way. We moved to Houston and he climbed up in the company as far as an uneducated man could in those days.

He had a midlife crisis, one brought on by technological change. Airplanes starting substituting for trains. The decline was relentless. He was out of work and no longer had a career. It crushed him and he started a gradual decline until illness disabled him for the rest of his life.

As a teenager, I was aware of this history and cognizant of what was happening to my father. I vowed that I would never let anything like that happen to me. So I joined IBM and went into the semiconductor industry. Guess what happened?

Well, I anticipated that change and after spending about ten years in the field I moved off into another field - the integration of computers, instrumentation, application knowledge and software to create the first independent business unit in IBM. But after about ten years in this field, I anticipated change again and moved to another field. Actually, it wasn't change I anticipated but the lack thereof within IBM. We were trying to do things differently in our innovative endeavor. I could see that the types of changes we were promoting were actually needed by the whole company. However, the culture was too strong and the changes weren't sticking, much less diffusing.

So I spent the next ten years working on cultural change. I had a successful cultural change program, but the change process was too slow. The world was changing faster than the change inside IBM. So I took retirement to try another path. I became a consultant.

Many others, as well as I, anticipated the profound change we're experiencing now some ten to fifteen years ago. It was called the "post (or trans-) industrial" age by many, the "information age" by some and we called it the "interactive age".

However, it is one thing to anticipate the change and quite another thing to integrate that change into the way one lives and works. This change is seismic. It is rattling the foundations of everything and it is affecting everything and will affect everyone.

Some jobs are gone forever - no longer needed or outsourced to other countries. Many skills are obsolete (some would say most). Knowledge is transitory. Social contracts have changed. The very nature of work is changing. The calculus of "pay" and "work" is shifting beneath our feet.

Change can be ignored, but it's not a pleasant path to follow. It's a path of decline and obsolescence. There are three ways to integrate change into our lives and work - adapt, exploit or deflect. To adapt to change is to go with the flow. To exploit change is to search for the undiscovered opportunities that are always present in change and find ways to take advantage of them through innovation. To deflect change means to not like the future you see and to try to stop that future from happening. This is not advised and will be unsuccessful unless you are sure that the driving forces for change support your preferred future. Present day fundamentalists are tying to prevent the change that is occurring through a wide array of political, military, religious and violent tools.

Ah love, could you and I with fate conspire and remake the future nearer to the hearts desire, might be the modern lament of Omar Khayyam

"When you come to a fork in the road, take it." This advice has been attributed to Yogi Berra, but I'm not sure he actually said that. Regardless, it is good advice. We are at a fork in the road, and we must take it.

Paul Schumann

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