Back to the Future: Past Predictions on CRE and the Workplace

October, 2015 is the month and year when Marty McFly traveled from July 1985 to the future in the famous Delorean time machine. Thus, it’s a good time to review past predictions of the changing workplace, and to rate their accuracy. Predictions of the future almost always miss the mark. Here are a few of my favorite classic misses:*

  • "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers." -- Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943

 

  • "This 'telephone' has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us." -- Western Union internal memo, 1876.

 

  • "While theoretically and technically television may be feasible, commercially and financially it is an impossibility." -- Lee DeForest, inventor.

 

  • "The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?" -- David Sarnoff's associates in response to his urgings for investment in the radio in the 1920s.

 

  • "Radio has no future. Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible. X-rays will prove to be a hoax." -- William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, British scientist, 1899.

My entire career has been underscored by a succession of predictions, primarily about the workplace. While a real estate manager at Xerox, I directed a project entitled “Office 88,” which was a forecast of the “new workplace” from a perspective in 1983. The primary purpose of the project was to identify technologies and furnishings that would transform the office environment. This was at a time when office technology was primarily still in the electric typewriter and fax machine era. I think our greatest insight related to the possibility of the paperless office which was way off the mark. Then a few years later, I formed “The Harbinger Group,” which was essentially a research group formed to identify changes in the workplace that would present product opportunities for Xerox. Our greatest achievement was the publishing of a research report, ORBIT II, which was a collaboration with Cornell and a British architectural firm, DEGW. The acronym stood for Organizations, Buildings, and Information Technology, and was a sequel to an earlier ORBIT study. We focused on office design, and services, with the advent of networked computing. Perhaps our greatest contribution was identifying a network technology at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) that created software that made it possible to send multi-media over fiber optic cable. Xerox opted to license the technology to two Xerox individuals who formed their own company: Synoptics. This fledgling enterprise became Bay Networks and was eventually acquired By Cisco. The Xerox guys made millions (not yours truly) and the birth of client server and multimedia telemetry was born. In essence Xerox invented one of the cornerstones of the Internet, but didn’t know it.

My latest foray into predicting the future workplace was the collaboration with MIT, Gartner and 22 corporate sponsors in a year- long research project entitled, “The Agile Workplace.” (Gartner, 2001) In reviewing the predictions in this report, I would say if anything we were too conservative. Almost all the predictions emerged as reality but much quicker than we had predicted. For example, we completely underestimated the growth of mobile computing and the impact of the smart phone. We also miss-judged the integration of workplace services, i.e. the merger of CRE, HR and IT. Even this prediction was too aggressive:

Through 2006, fewer than 25 percent of enterprises will fully integrate support services and processes between human resources, IS and real property management organizations, losing the potential for 15 percent to 35 percent improvement against financial and customer satisfaction benchmarks (0.7probability).

In the next Blog post I will put forward a few new predictions about CRE and the evolving workplace. Change is accelerating at blinding speed, so making predictions that will stand the test of time is always a risky business.