An edited version of this column appeared in Business Week on October 12, 2009.
Sexist comments. Bourbon at 10AM. Lighting up a Pall Mall whenever you want. No, this isn’t the Mets locker room. It’s the way of life on the TV show “Mad Men”, and boy did those guys at Sterling Cooper (the show’s fictional advertising firm) have it made. Times were good. No one cared about cancer. And all the secretaries and stewardesses had hourglass figures. Plus you could actually still call them secretaries and stewardesses (let alone giving them a little pinch in the tush like Roger Sterling likes to do) without even getting in trouble. Oh, good times.
But times change. The only tush I can pinch is my dog’s. And he’s not happy about it. I have to steal my drinks from a flask in the men’s room. And smoking those Pall Malls? I’ll leave that to the President. But that’s not the only change.
Most of us who work in an office have noticed something else on Mad Men. It’s the technology. Or lack of it. You don’t see those big, black phones anymore. Or those IBM typewriters. A copy machine was newfangled. If Don Draper, the firm’s Creative Director, was suddenly transported to today’s office, he would be shocked by how much of the technology he used every day in 1963…is no longer used at all.
Would the same happen to a business owner from today if he also was transported ahead 50 years? Absolutely. In fact, try five years. Because in just that short amount of time, a lot of the technology we’re using today won’t be around as much. So if you’re thinking of investing in something new, you may want to stop and consider a few technologies that are changing right before our eyes.
For example, forget about anything that’s wired. Wired technology is on the way out. Companies are putting in wireless routers and using wireless modems over cables. They’re getting wireless headsets, keyboards, mouses, printers and monitors. Sure, we’ll all have brain cancer within the next decade. But at least we’ll be able to undergo chemotherapy “hands free”. Thanks Bluetooth!
Presentation tools are also going to change a lot. In Mad Men, the account team would have a big face to face meeting with the client and put on a big face to face presentation with boring story boards. Then the men would go to a strip club for lap dances. Now we have the internet, projectors, web conferencing and boring powerpoints. And no more strip clubs. Bummer! Things really have changed since then. And yet they’re going to change even more.
Unless it’s an emergency, I wouldn’t buy that new projector you were thinking of. Some cell phone and computer companies are starting to build mini projectors right into their units. And you know that stupid speaker box on the conference room table that everyone’s shouting at so the guy in Hong Kong can understand what’s going on at this meeting? Say goodbye to that too. Computers are being turned into phones, complete with conference calling capability too.
And the whole visual side of meetings is changing too. If you can stomach it - just look at your teenage kids: They’re all ichatting away on their Macbooks. Screens, projectors and phone devices will soon be replaced with just a plain old computer running an i-chat, AIM or Skype type application, sharing slides with an inexpensive technology like glance or crossloop and either projecting onto a wall or hooked up to a large flat screen monitor. Because they’re also coming down in price too.
When Don went to California on a business trip last season no one could reach him for days. Not that he cared to be reached seeing that he was cheating on his wife with Ms. D-cup in the hotel swimming pool. Today it’s a different, and still changing story. I see lots of business owners buying GPS devices for their service techs in the field. Don’t. They’re going to be on all our cell phones sooner rather than later and you’ll be using those old GPS devices as shuffleboard disks before you know it. If Don was traveling just a few years ago he’d be dragging his laptop, full of data into with him. That’s changing too. Carrying around data is out. Web access is in. Today’s people on the road carry Netbooks (I’m not crazy about them, but some people are) and very low level laptops and doing everything online. The technology is real and popular and becoming the norm.
And you know what else is becoming the norm? Squeezing tushes in the office. Just kidding. Apple technology is becoming the norm. There’s a whole new generation weaned on Macbooks hitting the job market. And a whole new generation of technology that easily gets these devices onto Windows-based networks or even runs Windows side by side. Investing in this stuff is becoming less and less taboo in the business world. The IBM typewriter moved over for the PC and the PC is slowly but surely sharing the space with the Macintosh. And oh, if you’re going to buy a PC, make sure it’s not running Windows XP or Windows Vista. Because in just a few years all you’re going to see is Windows 7 dominating the desktop (or Google’s Chrome or Linux). Today’s operating system will quickly be yesterday’s news.
One final thing that’s going to change the office? That’s the office. At Sterling Cooper every manager had a secretary, each with an hourglass body and a pinchable tush. Nowadays, with all this technology, we’ve got waif-like, half starved looking woman with no tush at all employed as the administrator and doing the work of many. That’s going to change even more. The office will continue to shrink over the next five years. Remote control and desktop sharing technology allows people to do the work from home and abroad (or “over a broad”, as Roger Sterling might say). Websites like guru and elance let us find people to do ad hoc work around the world. Hosted applications let us share data wherever we are. Space now rents for the hour, rather than the year. Sterling Cooper would look a lot different today, and in five years, then it did in the early 1960’s.
The characters on Mad Men have no idea what terrible things lie ahead of them in the next five to ten years of their time: a Presidential assassination, race riots, the Vietnam War, Sonny & Cher. And, with the exception of Newt Gingrich’s potential run for the White House, our future does not look so terrible. Especially when it comes to business technology. So spend wisely.