Vision for a new century: We're all contract workers

ON EXCELLENCE

February 22, 1993|By TOM PETERS

Simstar Inc. President David Reim is "an entrepreneur of the '90s," writes journalist Steve Kaufman in the San Jose Mercury News. "Working with four Macintoshes in the bedroom of his Sunnyvale [Calif.] apartment, he is building a company that makes interactive multimedia software for health care patients."

As the company's only employee, he teams up with independent partners. "I simply view myself as a general contractor who manages his subcontractors over a computer network," he told Kaufman.

Norman Macrae, former deputy editor of The Economist, was among the first to foretell a de-massified world, with most commerce performed by entrepreneurial enterprises. In a recent speech in Mexico City, he opined on the future of work. Most labor, he claimed, will be accomplished by free agents using advanced global telecommunications and computer networks.

Macrae depicted the mythical McGonagle family in 2020, living in a community (who knows or cares where) run by a Dutch insurance company. The insurer offers them a contract -- guaranteed levels of environmental cleanliness, personal security and othermeasured services in return for a fixed property-tax rate. Problems with their child lead the telecommuting McGonagles to consider moving. To start the process, they survey a raft of community contracts available throughout the world.

Sound loony? I'm not so sure. In the United States alone there are already 7 million part- or full-time telecommuters, according to Management Review magazine. And the UCLA Institute for Industrial Relations reports that contract workers make up 24 percent of the corporate payroll -- heading toward 40 percent by the end of the decade.

Sure, a lot of that contract work is a thinly disguised effort to buy labor without paying costly benefits. But the fact is, corporations are becoming unbundled, and work is being untied from the office.

"The future belongs to . . . self-employed, project-focused, knowledge-based specialists," California-based consultant Charles Skorina claims.

"Corporations will . . . retain a small cadre of managers to hire and coordinate the activities of project specialists."

"People will work at different places at different times and may not necessarily do the same thing from week to week," Cornell Professor Franklin Becker told Management Review. "In the coming millennium," the magazine concludes, "the idea of arriving at an office at 9 a.m., parking yourself at a standard rectangular desk and remaining confined there until the workday is complete will seem as archaic and incomprehensible as that of using an old IBM Selectric does today."

And more: "The unskilled, single-task factory jobs that helped build the middle-class lifestyle for generations of American workers have been steadily disappearing -- automated out of existence, lost to foreign countries, or . . . replaced by a smaller cadre of workers who can operate computers as well as heave boxes," Frank Swoboda writes in the Washington Post.

"A powerful digital information network stretched across the country will revolutionize our daily lives," Rory O'Connor reports in the San Jose Mercury News. "But . . . unless everyone is assured affordable access to the network, the forces of commerce could create a huge, information-deprived underclass of poor inner-city and rural Americans."

The cumulative effect of these announcements is unsettling. Yet after decades of overestimating information technology's potential effect on the way we live and do business, we now seem to regularlyunderestimate the enormity of its impact.

But can this vision of self-employed folks spread evenly around the globe encompass the majority of the world's workers, or at least those of the advanced economies?

And isn't there an enormous and growing wage gap between knowledge workers and the "Reeks and Wrecks," as Kurt Vonnegut called the rest in his prescient 1952 novel, "Player Piano"?

Yes, the soaring wage disparity is scary. Commentators from management guru Peter Drucker to Labor Secretary Robert Reich and Council of Economic Advisers member Alan Blinder put the growing gap atop America's long-term economic (and social) agenda.

On the other hand, the shift toward making everyone a knowledge worker, employed on entrepreneurial projects, is no pipe dream: My studies of railroads (Union Pacific), financial servicecompanies (the Associated Group of Indianapolis) and toolmakers (Ingersoll-Rand) alike suggest that most work of the corporation is quickly becoming "horizontal" (multifunctional), self-managed/self-initiated projects. (More than 80 percent of today's manufacturing workers perform sophisticated service tasks. The remaining, fast-dwindling fraction in the factory spends much of its time on improvement-project teams.)

Maybe it's not such a stretch, then, from the tidal wave of projectized self-managed contract work to the end of the office, wholesale telecommuting -- and even those insurance company-led communities.

We have lots to learn about working and creating value in the newfangled, disembodied economy. But I, for one, have decided to quit snickering when I hear the likes of Macrae declaiming on a very curious tomorrow.

(Tom Peters' column is distributed by the Tribune Media Services Inc., 720 N. Orange Ave., Orlando, Fla. 32801; [407] 839-5600.)

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