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July 3, 2024

The Evolution of Work: Lessons from the Past for Today’s Executives

By Summary by IT Revolution

Throughout history, the nature of work has undergone significant transformations, often driven by technological advancements. From the first industrial revolution to the digital age, each era has brought forth innovations in management and ways of working. Jon Smart, a keynote speaker at the 2024 Enterprise Technology Leadership Summit Virtual Europe, delved into the past 250 years to uncover valuable lessons for today’s executives. In his presentation, “The Top 3 Patterns From Past Ways of Working You Need to Know!” Smart highlighted the importance of understanding our work history in order to navigate the present and future challenges effectively.

Smart began by discussing the recurring technology-led revolutions that have taken place every 50 to 60 years since 1771. As explained by Carlota Perez, each revolution, from the age of steam and railways to the age of oil and mass production, has brought about new management innovations and ways of working. The current digital age is no exception, with Agile and Lean methodologies emerging as key approaches to tackle the increasingly complex and unknowable nature of work.

Despite the advancements, Smart noted that many organizations still struggle with remnants of past ways of working, such as role silos, formalized reporting lines, and project management techniques from the deterministic era. To help executives break free from these constraints, Smart shared three key learnings from his research.

Lesson 1: The Importance of Feedback Loops

The first lesson is the importance of data feedback loops. Daniel McCallum, a pioneer in railway management during the Second Industrial Revolution, created the world’s first organizational chart and implemented principles such as clear responsibilities, delegated autonomy, and fast feedback loops. McCallum believed in the power of data to drive continuous improvement, encouraging a system of daily reports to provide officers with the information necessary to assess performance and identify areas for improvement. This approach fostered a culture of healthy competition and learning, a concept that remains relevant today.

Lesson 2: The Value of Continuous Improvement

The second lesson is the value of continuous improvement. Smart highlighted the work of Andrew Carnegie, a leading figure in the steel industry during the Third Industrial Revolution. Carnegie’s relentless pursuit of efficiency led him to hire experts, replace outdated equipment, and optimize processes for end-to-end flow. By vertically integrating his operations, from iron ore mines to railroads and ships, Carnegie created the largest and most profitable steel company in the world by 1890. His example serves as a reminder of the importance of constantly seeking ways to improve and adapt to changing circumstances.

Lesson 3: The Significance of Humanity in the Workplace

The third lesson is the significance of humanity in the workplace. Henry Gantt, known for creating the Gantt chart, was a surprising advocate for the human factor in efficiency measures. Despite being Frederick Taylor’s assistant and a proponent of scientific management, Gantt recognized that ignoring the human element and implementing efficiency measures in an autocratic manner would ultimately lead to failure. He emphasized the importance of nurturing humane ways of working and taking advantage of people’s ability to learn and improve their position.

Application for Today

To apply these lessons in today’s context, Smart advised executives to focus on their desired outcomes, establish data feedback loops, incentivize continuous improvement, and prioritize humane ways of working. He encouraged leaders to view impediments as opportunities for growth and to embrace experimentation and learning throughout the journey.

In conclusion, the evolution of work has been shaped by technological advancements and management innovations over the past 250 years. By studying the patterns and lessons from history, today’s executives can gain valuable insights to navigate the challenges and opportunities of the digital age. The importance of data-driven decision-making, continuous improvement, and human-centric approaches cannot be overstated. As organizations continue to adapt and evolve, those who embrace these lessons from the past will be better equipped to thrive in the future of work.

Watch the full presentation in our video library here.

Sign up for the next Enterprise Technology Leadership Summit here.

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Summary by IT Revolution

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