Back to the Future … of the Workplace!

As you may have known, or heard, “Back to the Future” day was this past Wednesday.  October 21, 2015 was the infamous day in which Doc and Marty McFly travel to in the future, all the way from 1985.  Well, as of Wednesday we are now in the so-called “future.”  So in honor of Back to the Future day, let’s take a look back at 1985 to see how the workplace has evolved since then!

1985 was a happening time.  Michael Jordan was named “Rookie of the Year” during his inaugural season in the NBA.  A gallon of gas cost a mere $1.09.  The average cost of a new house was $89,330, and Microsoft Corporation released the first version of Windows (1.0). 

Needless to say, a lot has changed. 

In the 1985 Harvard Business Review, Richard Walton writes:

“A significant change is under way in long-established approaches to the organization and management of work.  Although this shift in attitude and practice takes a wide variety of company-specific forms, its larger shape—its overall pattern—is already visible if one knows where and how to look.”

The article from the 1985 rag, is closely referring to the transition from control to commitment in the workplace itself.  Walton defines the the traditional, or “control” strategy, as “a control-oriented approach to work-force management which took shape during the early part of this century in response to the division of work into small, fixed jobs for which individuals could be held accountable” ... Where acceptable standards of performance rested simply on “lowest common denominator” assumptions about workers’ skill and motivation. 

In turn, he explains how the “commitment strategy” is a swiftly evolving “approach to the work force, [in which jobs] are designed to be broader than before, to combine planning and implementation, and to include efforts to upgrade operations, ... not just maintain them.  Individual responsibilities are thus expected to change as conditions change, and teams, not individuals, often are the organizational units accountable for performance. 

Then came technology …

According to Walton, “Computer-based technology can [and will, either] reinforce the control model, or facilitate movement to the commitment model.”  It’s unbelievable to imagine this being written in 1985 … 

“To date, computer-based technology may be the least deterministic, most flexible technology to enter the work-place since the industrial revolution.  As it becomes less hardware-dependent and more software-intensive and as the cost of computer power declines, the variety of ways to meet business requirements expands, each with a different set of human implications. Management has yet to identify the potential role of technology policy in the commitment strategy, and it has yet to invent concepts and methods to realize that potential."

And what was once a challenge, remains a challenge.  We just have a better handle on it now … 

“Equally important to the commitment strategy is the challenge of giving employees some assurance of security, perhaps by offering them priority in training and retraining as old jobs are eliminated and new ones created.  Guaranteeing employees access to due process and providing them the means to be heard on such issues as production methods, problem solving, and human resource policies and practices is also a challenge.”

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