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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Past Through Tomorrow

(With apologies to Robert A. Heinlein)

Strictly speaking, predicting the future isn't just hard -- it is impossible.

Yet predicting the future is something testers are called on to every day, with so simple a question as "will the customer be happy with this version of the product?"

For that matter, is something project managers do every time they create a product plan, something management does every time it produces an annual plan.

We could joke around all day about the impossibility of fortune-telling or the fantasyland that many project plans reside in, but the reality is that we do have to plan for tomorrow.

Likewise, I can't say for certain if you'll get up next monday and go to work; with a few thousand readers, it's likely that some will be sick or on vacation or something ... but I might be certain enough to bet on it.

I don't have a problem with this sort of analysis and educating guessing. We have to do it, and, if you do it well, over time, you can have better results than your peers.

That takes me to the annual futures study produced by the American Society for Quality.

As some of you readers know, I was invited to be a member in the ASQ "influential voices" program, which involves writing blog responses to their own monthly blog post. This month's entry is about that annual futures study.

The ideas behind the study make sense -- to observe the changing landscape of industry that impacts the quality professional, and provide you information about those changes so you can react. This year the study identified eight issues, which I will (briefly) summarize below:

1) Social Responsibility. Government and popular pressures are causing companies to take the environment, sustainability of the business, and how they treat everyone in their supply chain a lot more seriously. The ASQ analysis indicates this is not about philanthropy, but about better business and profit.

2) Consumer Awareness. This blends with #1; people are using new tools to do more research on the companies they purchase from. Get on the bus, or people will purchase around you.

3) Globalization. Not a whole lot of meat here. The study says globalization is coming (check it out; I wrote that in 2003!), which will bring new opportunities, new markets, and new potential suppliers, but also transportation and oversight challenges. They do point out that consumers (I really dislike that term) are more and more interested in locally-sourced products. That's a fancy term to say "I'd like to buy vegetables grown by a neighbor, not ones shipped from a different continent."

4) Increased pace of change. Nanotechnology, reduced product cycles, and within our grasp is the potential to solve some of these enduring problems of our age like HIV, hunger, etc. It's a truism, but I'm not sure what to do with it. In his book, The Management Myth, author Matthew Stewart points out that the management literature has been talking about these problems for at least the past thirty years, going back to "In Search of Excellence" in 1982.

5) The Workforce of the future. Okay, I have real concerns over this one. Here's what they wrote:

The Workforce of the Future will challenge our notions of talent, work, workplace, and learning. While hard to fathom we’re being told unemployment, as we think of it, will become a thing of the past. The number of jobs will soon exceed the number of people available to fill them. Demographers predict organizations will find themselves competing for talent and that competition will move jobs around the globe. High tech companies already report this reality. This search for talent, along with technological advances will change the nature and place where work is done and organizations will grow increasingly flexible in their definitions of work engagements. Those who of retirement age will be re‐attracted to work with flexible hour arrangements and work that can be done without commuting.

I'm not sure if these authors are incompetent and full of happy-talk, or scarily competent and using very specific words for a specific reason, to convey one feeling but actually mean another.

Take for example the term "While hard to fathom we're being told unemployment, as we think of it, will become a thing of the past." On it's face, that's crazy. This is a guide written for members of an America Society with historical roots in manufacturing. They've seen their jobs systematically outsourced, offshored, and just plain eliminated for the past three decades. The trend is exactly in the opposite direction of the implications here!

Or is it? One trend I see with employment in the USA is a move away from lifetime employment with pension, toward project-at-a-time contract work. If that's the case, "unemployment" stops being a safety net for people temporarily out of work, and becomes a regular part of the freelance/contract lifestyle. If that is the case, well, I guess unemployment doesn't mean what it used to -- but that's certainly not what I got from a cursory reading of the study!

Yet the next claim is that the number of jobs will exceed the number of people. Yes, we do have an aging population (more about that below), and yes, certain high-skilled folks may be called back from retirement to keep the machine running. What I haven't seen yet are any statistics or data to back up this happy-talk.

This is a public study, done on behalf of the members of a professional society for the benefit of it's members. I originally wrote "somebody should get fired over this one." Perhaps that's a bit harsh. I understand the demographic data the team pulled to come to those conclusions ... but I wonder if the authors of the study would care to make it interesting ...

6) An Aging Population. The baby boomers are going to retire, and that will create both a crunch in the workforce (#5) and a need for elder-care services. From healthcare to in-home nursing to that cell phone with the big buttons, demand for services will increase. (One trend the study didn't note is that when these people retire, they will start to sell off their 401(K) and stocks, instead of accruing them. That will change the supply/demand ratio for the entire stock market. Now that is a trend to consider.)

7) 21st Century Quality. I read it twice. I still don't really know what this section is trying to say. My best guesses are that how people look at Quality will change, that Quality will be more important in the next century, and that global companies will increasingly need to look to quality across the entire value chain -- from raw supplier to retail sales.

8) Innovation has become a buzzword. (No, really, the study actually says that.) The basic idea here is that innovation is increasingly important to stay competitive, which, yes, reminds me of Matthew Stewart and his argument that we've had some crisis or another in business for thirty years, which sure seems to be a good way to sell books on excellence.

What do we have here?

It seems to be me that the study isn't pointing out trends as much as making predictions. Due to the nature of fortune-telling, I guess the predictions are okay ... as far as they go. I'm still not sure what to make of number seven or number eight; you can read the study yourself and perhaps chime in with your two cents.

As for me, I'm left with mixed emotions. On one hand, change is inevitable and I think it is good to think about what the future might bring. The eight bullet can be a sort of roadmap -- they can tell people what kinds of change might be helpful to think about.

Still, it would have been nice if the study had connected the dots. For example, the stock market predictions I mentioned earlier, and, in the United States, the increasingly precarious position of our Social Security Administration. This means retirement will be increasingly uncomfortable for people; they'll be retiring later and later, and, most likely, more cost-conscious than in the past. That means those products and services for that market had either better help you save money (generic drugs) or else face stiff price competition.

Another example: According to the study, innovation is important. Yet fifteen years ago, ASQ stood up and gave it's complete support to international standards on process, things like ISO 9001, and the whole idea of registrars and certifications for process compliance.

These process standards codify process into procedures. By doing this you create a defined process and defined process actively resists continuous improvement.

Thus we if we split innovation in half: Product Innovation and Process Innovation, we find a significant constituency within ASQ has been actively fighting the second, and not much discussion of the first.

I don't have any easy answer for that, but raising that issue would have been a fascinating outcome for the study.

My bottom line here: These ideas are okay. They are some food for thought; they have some potential. To see real value out of the study, though, we need to move the ideas from theory to action -- to get to practical application for the membership, or at least heated discourse.

How we get there I'm not sure. If the bloggers on this influential voices program can be part of that, well, I'd sure like to try.


Bruce Waltuck said...

While I have not yet posted a response to the ASQ Futures study, i will be doing so in the days ahead. But I was quite concerned at your choice of words regarding the Study's predictions on future employment trends. To say that "someone should get fired" because of what they wrote in the ASQ Study is unusually harsh language. As the late Senator daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, "you can have your own opinion, but you can't have your own facts." The language in the Future Study that incited your response, specifically mentions "demographics." That is, data on population trends. I would refer you and others to an article by the late Peter Drucker, which I believe appeared originally in the HBR. It is titled "The Future That Has Already happened." In this article, Drucker noted that the Baby Boomer generation in America, is the first generation not to reproduce at replacement levels.

This powerful fact - not opinion - should in and of itself, point to some of the very conclusions articulated in the ASQ report. As I and my peers live longer, we will need more care. The world will need more teachers, nurses, police, programmers and more. Combined with the inevitable decline in world oil supplies and the consequent rise in oil prices, the U.S. will need to re-establish domestic manufacturing capacity. This is already happening, and has been reported in Business Week over the past couple of months.

While I have been known in my life for strongly held and strongly voiced opinions, I generally try to follow the advice of Pat Moynihan, and Doctor Deming. Deming taught us not to blame the people, and insisted "in God we trust, all others bring data."

Jennifer Stepniowski said...

I went back and reviewed my interpretation of Workforce of the Future and actually reassured myself that my opinion regarding its saliency still stands. I think out of everything mentioned, this is a serious concern. I know many people in the tech and other industries that have been searching for skilled people to fill open positions for a long time. When I ask them what the issue is, they say it has everything to do with the applicants not having the practical knowledge and/or skills to get the job done. If this is happening now and we don't do anything, I can only conclude the problem will get much worse. That, combined with the information indicating the number of jobs increasing, makes this an immediate concern for me. Note, however, that I fully respect your interpretation of the information but just wasn't able to agree with that specific point.

Matthew said...

Fair enough, Bruce. I like the way you argue. :-)

You make a strong point about my rhetoric. I think the key point I was taking with point #5 was the /expectations/ set-up for the readers on the futures study. If, for example, the casual reader walks away thinking they don't need to study or prepare professionally because jobs will fall from the sky, well, then, yes, I think the authors could face professional censure.

I also admit that "professional censure" would have been a better term to use. I'm not a fan of revisionist history, so I'm not going to go change my blog post, but I can see how my own post could be taken as a /big/ irresponsible. :-)

That said -- do you care to make it interesting? I'd be happy to wager on the unemployment percentages in the united states ten or twenty years out. :-)

Unknown said...

I haven't yet posted on the Futures study either but I wanted to add a comment about this discussion, particularly the comment: "These process standards codify process into procedures. By doing this you create a defined process and defined process actively resists continuous improvement." What's the solution? Make a procedure for continuous improvement! (ISO 9001 8.5.1) Seriously, I agree that process definition limits improvement and innovation. How does it do that exactly? Well, what is the dream of every Quality Professional? Complete variation of product and defects...etc. What is the opposite of this dream state? Innovation. This is the "Consistency/Innovation Paradox" that faces companies, especially in manufacturing. If you want to see this paradox in action ask the following people which of those two ideals they would prefer in their professional life: Sales Manager, Design Manager, R&D Manager (pure research), Manufacturing Manager, Quality Manager. You would get different answers along the Consistency/Innovation scale. You have to be consistent to reduce waste and make money and you have to be innovative (inconsistent) to win market share and stay ahead of the competition. This paradox is really a "Producer/Consumer Paradox" and according to Adam Smith: "Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production; and the interest of the producer ought to be attended to, only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer." How do we, as Quality Professionals, find a way for our industries and companies to balance this paradox leaning towards the consumer as recommended by Adam Smith?

Dennis Arter said...

Hello Matthew,

I enjoyed reading your thoughts about the ASQ Futures Study. As you know, this study has been done several times before. It is used to guide – not direct – the so-called Living Strategy of the ASQ. This year, I had the honor of contributing to the study. It was hard! 150 people from around the world giving their opinions. As you might expect, many of the participants allowed the last year's events to influence their thoughts.

We were first given a list and very short description of about 80 "forces" culled from various media sources. Using Delphi techniques, the forces were narrowed down to 40, then 12, then 8. Many were combined. If they were on the final list of 8, it is because many folks felt that force would have a substantial influence over the next five years on the direction of quality, its use, and its practitioners.

By the way, force 5 (the one you took offense to) was first mentioned by Stewart Brand of the Long Now Foundation about four years ago. I believe I also heard reference to it in a recent T.E.D. Talk.

It is important to remember that the study is not finished. As was stated at the very top of the paper on the Final Eight, this was but the first phase. A smaller number of the original participants were asked to reflect on the implications these forces might have on the nature of "quality," organizations striving for excellence, and the current quality profession. I am on that second team and just uploaded my analysis to ASQ Headquarters. This is really where the prediction comes in. But not in the classical sense.

We were asked to think about how these forces will change the definition and practice of quality. As you might imagine [grin] some of these predicted changes will be profound. If they occur.

I think they probably will. I also think that the profession five years hence will be quite different from today. That's actually a departure from the last fifty years, where our profession has been remarkably stable.

After all of the phase two team members finish their analysis (within the next two weeks), the staff of Quality Progress will edit the results and prepare a feature article for publication. Then it will be time for the Board of Directors to determine any changes in ASQ direction. I predict most will be gradual.