On changes... and constants

I began my career in 1982. That was the year Michael Jackson released the album ‘Thriller’ and an extra-terrestrial said the words “E.T. phone home”. There were also major technological innovations in 1982, such as the first CD and the launch of the Commodore 64, the iconic home computer with 64 KB of RAM. Geopolitically, it was the year of the Falklands War and when Israel withdrew from Sinai in Egypt. Finally, in Belgium, the Martens V government decided to devalue the Belgian franc by 8.5% to boost the country’s competitiveness.

Without any doubt, 2020 will be remembered as the year in which COVID-19 changed every aspect of our lives: the way we consume, maintain relationships, and go to work. And although the impact of COVID-19 on how we work should not be underestimated, a number of factors have already led to various metamorphoses in the business world since 1982. Let me explain a few of them.

First, the enormous technological developments of the last 40 years should not be underplayed. Technology has become increasingly accessible. Think, for example, of the success of the personal computer and the smartphone. The IT department used to be an all-powerful ivory tower that set the pace for the company. Today, the IT department has become a business partner that contributes ideas along with its internal client and promotes the company’s objectives in a joint partnership.

A second factor that has impacted the business world is increasing complexity. Organisations today operate in a context that is much more ambiguous than it used to be. The world is an international village, one where competition is coming from all sides. In addition, today’s well-informed consumers are highly demanding and have little patience. This means that there is increasingly less room for inefficiency.

Finally, social shifts have prompted companies to evolve from strictly hierarchical structures into participatory partnerships. In the past, every important decision was handed down from on high, promotions were strongly linked to seniority and performance appraisals were relatively uncommon. Today, in 2020, decisions are more often made in consultation with multiple organisational layers, employees switch jobs more frequently,  the real added value a person brings to the company determines whether or not they are promoted, and managers are also often coaches who seek to push their employees to a higher level.

There is just no getting around it: technological, social, and global factors have fundamentally changed the world of business over the last 40 years. Yet many aspects of business withstood the test of time, and COVID-19 will not change that either.

The rule that the more you invest, the more you can expect from (business) life, is as equally valid today as it was in the past. So ‘hard work pays off’.

Similarly, take care not to blindly follow every fad. Very often, it pays to maintain a certain distance, but still have the necessary flexibility to change gears quickly and take the plunge if necessary. And sometimes, in that setting, you must dare to be ‘deliberately contrarian’ and resist a dominant trend. In fact, ‘going against the grain’ can also be the basis for a unique market position.

And finally, as a company and as an individual, it is still best to proceed on the basis of your core competencies. Rather than focusing too much on your weaknesses, rely on your fellow employees or partners to compensate for them. Your strengths are the leverage you need to make a difference.

COVID-19 will most definitely accelerate a number of existing developments, and it will also give rise to some new ones. But if you look back to the past, numerous factors have had a lasting impact on (company) life and will remain the case,  but there are also constants that offer every organisation a firm footing in turbulent times.

Bart De Smet