Tech and mainstream news is full of headlines about how mobile is disruptive to business processes, IT departments, and even entire categories of jobs. The real story, the big overarching theme that gets lost in the barrage of headlines about the disruptive potential of mobile devices, is that mobile technology isn’t just changing how we do our jobs or where we work, it’s changing the very meaning of work and its place in our lives.
We’re not talking about disruption or evolution, we’re talking about a real revolution of work and workplace of a kind that the world hasn’t witnessed in over a generation and of a kind that has only occurred a few times in human history.
A brief history of global work transformations
Understanding just how truly transformative mobile is when it comes to work and our lives requires taking a much longer view of the history of work and the handful of technological and societal transformations surrounding each era.
Going from hunter-gatherer to farmer
The first real transformation of work for humanity was thousands of years ago when we shifted from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to one based on agriculture. That was probably the most transformative change in work that has ever taken place as it gave us the ability to live in enduring communities that eventually grew into towns and cities.
Going from farmer to craftsman, specialist, and trader
The move to sustained agriculture also led to the second big shift in humanity’s understanding of work – craftsmanship. Because food could be reliably grown by a subset of society, agriculture fostered specialization. Those that could make garments or erect buildings or fashion tools best ended up doing so, resulting in different trades and better products. That specialization brought as the very concept of trade that we know today and eventually led to the concept of currency or money to facilitate transactions. It led to apprenticeships and training and, to some degree, education, which in turn facilitated the idea of higher learning.
Going from farmer and craftsman to factory worker
Despite technological advances, exploration, the growth of city-states and nations, the evolution of democracy and politics, and the creation of highly specialized professions like medicine, law, and accounting, humanity’s next real leap in terms of work and its place or impact on our lives was thousands of years in coming and it was the Industrial Revolution.
The Industrial Revolution was a force that transformed virtually every aspect of the agrarian life that humans had led for all of recorded history. It turned farmers into factory workers. It made travel and communication faster than anyone had ever imagined possible. It engendered the creation of mega-cities like New York. It revolutionized trade and lay the first real seeds for globalization. And although most of us think of the Industrial Revolution as something that happened in the second half of the 19th century, you can make the argument that it continued well into the 20th with ever-more mechanized and computer-controlled factories that eventually came to need far fewer workers.
Going from factory worker to knowledge worker
The Information Age, defined by the rise of the knowledge worker and modern office, was the next major change in work for a large swath of mankind. Nine to five became the norm, the American dream of a house in the suburbs became accessible to millions, and things that had been luxuries like an automobile or television were within reach of a growing middle class. Education, particularly higher education, became more important and more common. The Information Age placed work into a comfortable box for most people, divorced from their personal life, and changed work from being solely about providing the basic needs to providing a better quality of life.
Even the introduction of the PC, enterprise computing, and the Internet didn’t fundamentally change the notion of work or the office. They automated transactions, improved efficiency, eliminated redundant positions, and improved workplace and business to customer communications, but didn’t change the notion of work or how business was conducted in a fundamental way.
Each of the transitions had massive impacts on individual lives, businesses, governments, and on humanity as a whole. Each was disruptive in every sense of the word. Each redefined humanity, culture, and work as well as the place work had in our collective lives.
Each of these transformations and the eras of history they created are often looked at in isolation. We don’t think of agriculture giving birth to various specialized craftsmen, trade, or even money, but none of these things would’ve happened without agriculture. In much the same way, the Industrial Revolution paved the way for the Information Age. As factories moved production farther from shops and suppliers and led to companies hiring hundreds or thousands of workers rather than just a handful, the need for paperwork to manage these new realities developed. That need eventually became so great that the modern office evolved out of it.
Today – Going from knowledge worker to mobile worker
Today’s nascent era, which many have dubbed the Mobile First era, is still just beginning to emerge, but it has already begun to be obvious that it will be equally transformative to work, its place in our lives, and to the overall meaning of our lives as the transitions of the past. For many, it already has been.
Mobile has already blurred and will eventually destroy the boundaries between work and personal life that the Industrial Revolution and Information Age built.
As many of us already know, it is now possible to work anywhere at any hour in many professions. As much as we work from home or Starbucks or a doctor’s waiting room or anyplace else, we also do more personal tasks during traditional work hours in the office – email, Facebook, checking to make sure the kids made it home from school, paying bills electronically, etc. The old notion of the work/life balance has given way to a continuum of work/life blending and context switching that encompasses our waking hours.
Employers, including state and federal agencies, are beginning to encourage us to work from home. It improves morale and reduces the need for large workspaces since workers come into the office only when there’s a real need, saving a good deal of money in the process. These early shifts led to the co-working movement; to services like Liquid Space that let you easily find and rent an office, cube, or desk wherever you are for as long as you need it; and it’s led to companies creating completely flexible workspaces where you can sit at any desk you like or use alternative spaces like lounges, quiet rooms, and conference spaces as needed.
The shift has changed the power dynamic when it comes to selecting and procuring work tools. Users can select whatever mobile apps for whatever devices they find most productive. Individuals and managers at all levels can purchase mobile and cloud solutions without the involvement of IT.
Mobile, along with other technologies, has also changed the way we collaborate. When collaboration can occur between two people on different continents as easily as between two people sharing a cubicle, the ability to collaborate and source talent explodes exponentially. This is especially true as workers increasingly tap their own social networks for knowledge, expertise, and advice.
The very nature of work has become incredibly more fluid thanks to mobile, cloud, and social technologies. Collaboration and expertise are no longer bound by the walls of an office building or a company. The ability to work however and whenever is beginning to take root as a core requirement of a modern workplace. The place of work in our daily lives has become equally as fluid, allowing us greater flexibility to manage and to blend our work and home lives as much as we need.
All of this has transpired in a few short years, seven if you count the iPhone as the birth of modern mobile technology (six if you start with the release of Apple’s App Store). The level of change already is astounding and the Mobile First world is in its infancy. By contrast, it took centuries for trade to develop and transform society after the move to agriculture; it took the Industrial Revolution the better part of a century to take root around the world; and it took a few decades for the Information Age to transform our daily lives. At the rate things are changing, mobile has the potential to achieve this level of transformation not in a century, but by the end of this decade.