It's five years ago, and we call you up. We call right in the middle of Seinfeld, because, well, we knew that we'd reach you then. After the ritual pleasantries ("How about that Whitewater deal?") and sports banter ("Will the Yanks ever get back to the Series?"), we come to the point: Tell us, we ask, about the future. Tell us what the world will look like five years from now.
Would you have had any clue that the Internet would explode into our work and lives? That you'd be auctioning off your old 45s on eBay? That your grade-school kids would carry beepers? That your so-called American PC would be assembled in Ireland and loaded with software that was coded in India?
Could you have predicted how completely technology would redefine transactions and interactions? How strategy would be reinvented to incorporate webs of relationships, networks of collaboration, and not just head-to-head competition? How dramatically our relationships to our jobs would be transformed? How forcefully global-capital markets would dictate political and social reform?
Fact is, the past five years have proven to be flat-out extraordinary on any number of metrics, and humans are notoriously bad at predicting the extraordinary. Most of us imagine the future only within the bounds of our present. We can parse change in increments, but we get flummoxed by the prospect of the radical. For a nation of optimists, we're pretty pessimistic that way.
Yet here we are, asking folks about the future — about the next five years, to be precise — as part of Act II of the new economy. The Fast Company/Roper Starch Survey invited people to reflect on moments and personalities that have defined our work and business culture since 1996. And the survey pressed them to consider what will define the world by 2006.
We interviewed 1,000 folks via America Online, all of them college-educated, employed adults in households with incomes of at least $75,000 per year. Generally, they indicated optimism about the future. When asked to characterize the next five years in a single word or phrase, 35% picked "prosperous"; another 34% chose "inspiringly innovative."
More striking, though, was their conviction that the next five years would be defined by constant change — perhaps even more so than the past five years have been. In a short time, these people believe, entire industries could be transformed. Companies that helped define the recent past could expire in the near future.
What the survey says is that change has become hardwired into how we operate. If anything, the survey respondents may still be underestimating how rapidly change will take place. The hows and the whys may remain elusive. But these citizens of the new economy get it: Five years from now, we'll find ourselves someplace that's worlds away from where we are today. The extraordinary, they know, has become the norm.
What are you working on?
Cheerfully engaged .......... 24%
Working steadily, but not particularly challenged .......... 31%
Hugely challenged with meaningful work .......... 33%
Overwhelmed — but mostly by mundane tasks .......... 9%
Bored out of my mind .......... 3%
At a time when most technology employers lose 20% of their professional employees every year, just 29% of respondents said they expect to leave their employer within the next five years. In a world that seems continually chaotic, people are searching for a safe haven. But as more than one-third of the poll takers agreed, who knows what can happen? The old safety net has some big holes in it.
Here's what's most telling, though: There's a strong relationship between people's attitudes toward their current work and their expectations for staying put. Among those who describe themselves as "cheerfully engaged" or "hugely challenged with meaningful work," about 40% say that they're "here for the long term." Just 28% of those who say that they're "overwhelmed," and 26% of those who are "not particularly challenged" can muster the same enthusiasm for their prospects. As for workers who are bored out of their minds? Blink, and they'll be gone: Just 7% expect to stick around for the next five years.
How digital are you?
Choosing from five years' worth of stunning technological innovation, the one that grabs us the most turns out to be the one whose technology, per se, is the least revolutionary.
Wireless phones don't really allow us to do anything that we couldn't do before. They don't alter the nature of conversation or of human relationships. Let's admit it: They don't even work that well.
But wirelessness does liberate us from our desks. That simple phenomenon is actually quite revolutionary and life changing — enough so that more than half of poll takers chose the mobile phone as the most compelling new technological development since 1996.
That says something important about the nature of innovation. We accept change the most readily when it arrives in familiar forms. Often, the most powerful inventions are those that slip into our lives with the least disruption. Mobile phones don't demand that we learn a new sort of handwriting or that we program a box on our TV. We barely have to read the manual, yet they deliver big-time freedom. We kinda like it that way.
(For our money, however, the 4% who picked Napster got it right. Award yourselves 1,000 bonus points — and a front-row seat in the peer-to-peer-computing arena.)
"In five years, most of us will only go to an office once in a while — when we have to meet with colleagues or customers face to face. Most of the time, we'll work from wherever it's convenient, from home or even from the beach, connected to work and to each other by technology."
"Even from the beach..." Think that idea grabbed some eyeballs? Let's see: Working from a beach. Why, yes. I believe I could come to terms with that in five years. Some 76% of respondents, in fact, found the virtual-workplace scenario to be appealing. Clearly, American workers value the freedom of deciding for themselves when, where, and how they work. But few — just 9% of poll takers — are certain that they'll ever have that chance. Why not? Surely, the enabling technology already exists. What's lacking? One nontechnical ingredient: permission. Employers just aren't ready to grant the sort of freedom that workers crave — and most employees simply aren't prepared to claim it.
How much creative destruction?
The Internet has never been about dotcoms. It's never been about dotcom stocks, inflated or hammered. It sure hasn't ever been about a sock puppet — although the mangy critter was sort of a hoot. Strip away all of the noise, and the Internet is an instrument of change. It has the potential to alter fundamentally the relationships that we have with institutions and with other individuals. It empowers people by facilitating their access to information.
People comprehend this promise, even if they don't quite see the results yet. Internet technology hasn't touched most people the way that cell-phones or PCs have. If the Net has changed their lives, then that change has been marginal — with modestly better shopping, perhaps, or the ability to track stock prices. Even so, people get it. And they're willing to believe in the possibility of a much grander future. The Internet economy — a freestanding, all-techie economic zone — may never have existed. But there is the economy. And the Internet is one powerful force to transform it.
Consider each of these dotcom phenoms of the past five years. In another five years, will they be stunning successes, acquired by some other company, or vanished like the dinosaurs?
Consider this list of the most valuable public companies today in America. In another five years, will they be stunning successes, acquired by some other company, or vanished like the dinosaurs?
In today's economy, permanence is relative at best. That great sandwich place on the corner? It's a GapKids now. Next month, Zara moves in. Here today, toast tomorrow. Impermanence rules.
In the context of chaos, it's not surprising that so many respondents think that today's dotcom stars are vulnerable. If, as so many believe, the Internet is only in its infancy, then who knows what five more years of growing pains will bring? Will Amazon.com be any more likely to make a buck in 2006 than it is today? Priceline.com is already dead meat. Napster was never built to survive in the first place. Even Yahoo!, the Net's poster child for what might be, is hardly a sure thing. (America Online, endorsed as a lasting success by 86% of respondents, apparently is a sure thing. Remember, though, that these poll takers were all AOL subscribers.)
Now take a look at the big boys. The 10 most valuable companies in America. Are they safe? Well, yes, probably. But consider: More than a quarter of respondents said that within five years, General Electric will be no more. GE! More than 40% think that Exxon Mobil, the world's biggest oil company, will be acquired or vanish. Like the dinosaurs. Exxon Mobil. Market value: $275 billion. Poof!
Get used to it: We're caught in an era of remarkable disruption. Of predictable unpredictability. The only sure things: Microsoft software still will run everything. And we'll all shop at Wal-Mart.
What will it take to win?
Money, money, money. Is that all you people can think about? Well, of course. Money talks. Money is sexy. And so, when people look back on the late 1990s, what they'll remember are the fortunes that were made and lost. The dotcom insta-millionaires. The NASDAQ boom and crash. The day-traders who fed and fed on speculative frenzy.
But seriously. The merger of AOL and Time Warner was an epic moment in business history, the instant when new economy met old economy and plain took over. The self-dismemberment of AT&T was evidence that the old kingpins just couldn't do business the way that they had done it in the past. And Daimler-Chrysler was the event that hit us in the face with the inevitability of a global economy.
The new economy was truly defined by changes that were far more fundamental than the IPO explosion. Technology pervaded our lives as it never had before. Communications made the global seem local. Individuals gained enormous, unaccustomed power, both as workers and as consumers. For that matter, smaller and smaller organizations were able to wallop much bigger entities.
That's what the new economy is all about, folks. The stock market was a sideshow, by definition a derivative of the real thing.
Consider these statements about the future and tell us whether you consider each to be very likely, possible, or very unlikely. In five years, the American auto industry as we know it will be transformed. Automakers will sell at least half of their cars directly to consumers over the Internet. An Internet portal or software company will own a major auto manufacturer.
In five years, the telecommunications industry as we know it will be transformed. Nearly all telephones will be wireless. AT&T will have disappeared, or nearly so.
During the past five years, a startup company has changed the way we think about buying books, and in doing so, it has exploded all of our preconceptions about the book industry. Another startup has revolutionized the way we get recorded music, and it has probably wrecked the music business. A third startup has acquired the nation's largest media company.
We have been conditioned not just to believe in the possibility of massive change, but to expect it. Witness: 77% of poll takers thought that it was possible or very likely that the $608 billion U.S. auto industry will endure an outrageous overhaul within five years. Such a scenario would require reversing decades-old relationships with suppliers, dealers, and consumers. It would require, say, Microsoft buying GM. But AOL bought Time Warner. Amazon reversed decades-old relationships with suppliers, dealers, and consumers.
The response from poll takers regarding this issue confirms our sense of the inevitability of change. And it says something more. The companies that are pillars of the old economy will soon be remade — or else, they will disappear. The dynamism ahead will not only transform industries, it will also destroy the line that divides the old economy from the new. The survey confirms the growing recognition that the next five years are all about convergence: big companies, fast companies; startups, standard-bearers — one and the same.
Throughout Fast Company's five-year history, the core question has been, What does it take to lead in the new economy? The poll respondents have clearly read every issue. Their answers here mirror our own definition of what leadership is all about.
Which is to say that tech savvy is critical, but on its own, it doesn't guarantee success. Great leaders develop and enunciate coherent and compelling visions for their organizations. They look at problems in ways that others don't, and they think outside of the box to produce solutions that their competitors won't match. Since talent is their number-one asset, they're skilled motivators and communicators. And they're experts at identifying and completing deals that will leverage their organizations' strengths.
Execution? That's important, but a leader hires great people to do the execution. Luck matters too, but try running a billion-dollar company, or anything else, on luck alone. Sometimes it may be better to be lucky than to be good. But if you want to win in a period of tumultuous change, the best idea is to be great.
Fast Company and Roper Starch Worldwide designed this online opinion poll. Digital Marketing Services collected the data from a sample of 1,000 college-educated, employed people from households with yearly incomes of $75,000 or more who visited America Online's Opinion Place. Respondents were selected randomly and were interviewed between November 16 and December 4, 2000.
Keith H. Hammonds (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Fast Company senior editor.
Sidebar: Additional Survey Results
Of this list, which product from the past five years do you think had the best design? In other words, which product best combined appearance, ease of use, performance, and a certain coolness?
Palm Pilot .......... 36%
Nokia's cell phones .......... 28%
Volkswagen Beetle .......... 14%
Apple iMac .......... 13%
Porsche Boxster .......... 8%
BlackBerry interactive pager .......... 1%
There's a reason why the Palm is the de rigueur plaything of new-economy titans — and of the titans' underlings, for that matter. It's both elegant and intuitive. Its handwriting-recognition software is blow-us-away cool. Once you enter all of your %#$@ contact information, it's insanely easy to use. Our survey audience is a tech-savvy crowd, so it's not shocking that two techie gadgets dominate this list. But Volkswagen's fun, retro-cool Beetle also had plenty of fans, as did the candy-colored iMac. Why did the BlackBerry fare so poorly? The tiny, two-way communications device has a rabidly devoted following. But relatively few people know that it's out there. And compared to the Palm, it's tough to learn how to use it. What will win this prize in five years' time? Any of these products? Or will it be a device that has yet to be invented?
Which statement do you think is closest to the truth?
"The Internet is overrated. It won't change everything. In the next five years, we'll see incremental advances in Net technology. But basically, what we see now is what we're going to get."
"The Internet is still in its infancy. Over the next five years, we'll see enormous technological leaps that will make the Net more and more pervasive in our work and in our lives."
Soaring stock market .......... 44%
Dotcom spree and meltdown .......... 31%
Microsoft trial .......... 12%
AOL - Time Warner merger .......... 8%
AT&T breakup .......... 4%
Daimler-Chrysler merger .......... 1%
When you think about business leaders over the next five years, which traits do you think will best define those who are successful? Are each of these traits very important, somewhat important, or not important at all?
|Very Important||Important||Not Important|
|The vision thing||69%||28%||3%|
|Kick-butt, take-names execution||17%||50%||33%|
|Brilliant deal making||60%||37%||3%|
A version of this article appeared in the March 2001 issue of Fast Company magazine.