Climbing out of the ivory tower
A day on the road finds disruption everywhere
I drove 109 miles criss-crossing the greater Philadelphia region this summer accompanying an ISHN sales rep on customer calls. It’s always good for editors to climb down from their ivory towers and encounter the real world. Especially today. Blink and there’s another disruption of some sort. Change is coming fast and furious.
First off, there’s demographic change. Every customer we called on, save one, was young enough to be my son or daughter. Scary. When I got into this business in the late 1970s I was always the youngest in the room, which seemed filled with men old enough to be my father. Now I’m the reluctant father figure. Us baby boomers haven’t taken kindly to the aging process.
Driving around I saw plenty of empty stores and fading malls with few cars in parking lots. The world has gone online. Department stores, music stores, books stores are disappearing from the landscape, and soon probably supermarkets, pharmacies, land lines, hard cash, road maps, wall calendars, business cards and down the road truckers, cabbies, the postal service, many hotels (Airbnb), parking lots and driveways. Yes. Recently a Stanford researcher said by 2030 no one will own an automobile. GM, Lyft and Uber will own fleets of electric vehicles that will pick you up and take you wherever you want to go.
Work has gone digital. The much-hyped paperless office is coming into view. Customers we called on joked about how no one in their office uses the phone anymore – and business cards are something their kids collect. Landline desk phones are dust collectors. Most office communication is conducted via email, perhaps text messages. Cell phones are used only when something gets urgent or complicated. Somehow Skype and teleconferencing has not yet disrupted the stubbornly persistent office meeting. If anything, in the face of technology changing just about everything, meetings seem to be multiplying. Many formerly white or pink collar workers (now indistinguishable from warehouse labor in casual dress) seem to spend entire days floating from meeting to meeting. White boards are one old-school relic that won’t go away. One of our customers, her meeting room white board completely filled with notes, lists and flow charts, said she could use a second board.
One customer showed us his warehouse – spotless and nearly bereft of workers – where some of the remaining workers wear wristbands that display orders just received and direct order picking. Any order received before 5 p.m. is shipped that day. Speed has never been more important in business.
We pulled up to another client, nestled in one of those innovation parks, to discover a sleek, low-slung silver bullet of an electric car being recharged, a cable running from the battery, through a window, to a charging unit inside the building, When we left an hour later, the car was still being recharged. How long does it take, and how many times do you have to do it? I think I better brush up on these things.
Every customer talked about their website, their use of social media, digital messaging, webinars and analytics. One business was modeled on cloud computing. Another on providing safety and health training, consulting services – various “value adds.” It’s a given today that a brick and mortar business cannot survive “pushing stuff,” as one customer described. Most PPE gear – hard hats to gloves to earplugs – are commodities. There are no decent margins in commodity competition, which goes to the lowest price. Businesses built years ago selling commodities must create an expanded value proposition that encompasses consultative solutions and assisting customers in developing an effective “approach” – safety culture — to implementing those commodity goods, as one marketing manager told us.
What, no business case?
We talked to one customer, a sharp millennial by chance, who was confounded that, most people in the business world don’t get the business case for safety investments. But keeping workers safe, healthy and psychologically well reduces absenteeism, increases their productivity, makes them more involved in their work, and more likely to stick around and not hop to another gig, she said.
True, but in many small and mid-sized companies, which make up the bulk of the economy, there usually isn’t a full-time safety professional on staff to make that case. It’s all about compliance and staying out of OSHA’s hair, we explained. Nothing yet has disrupted most of the business world’s preoccupation with compliance.
On our last call of the day, a marketing manager laid out the still all-too-common reality: safety products are often the last thing a business thinks of when installing or overhauling equipment, constructing a new assembly line, changing a process, finishing a project, or doing due diligence on an acquisition.
Disruption rumbles all around us. It is changing, or will, how we live and work. It’s inevitable, fait accompli. Safety and compliance thinking won’t be immune to disruption. It will just take longer to get here.