Staying Relevant

It’s hard to think of really where to start here. Everyone everywhere has already talked about the ongoing, continuous change that is constantly occurring in business. Even I have written about it, and I actually do try to stay away from those ubiquitous, and somewhat trite types of topics. As they say, no good can come of that.

However, those of us that have had either the good, or bad fortune to inhabit one of those industries that are subject to the technological whims of change, have an added issue with which to cope. In an environment where the “next thing” is always perceived as the now “best thing”, how do you fight what can best be described as career inertia, and remain relevant in your organization, and to a larger extent, your industry?

Charles Holland Duell, was the commissioner of the United States Patent and Trademark Office from 1898 to 1901. Duell has become famous for, during his tenure as United States Commissioner of Patents, purportedly saying “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” However, this has been debunked as apocryphal by librarian Samuel Sass who traced the quote back to a 1981 book titled “The Book of Facts and Fallacies” by Chris Morgan and David Langford. In fact, Duell said in 1902:

“In my opinion, all previous advances in the various lines of invention will appear totally insignificant when compared with those which the present century will witness. I almost wish that I might live my life over again to see the wonders which are at the threshold.”

I bring up this often mis-cited tidbit for a couple of reasons: the first is that even more than a century ago the speed and relevance of change was already being anticipated, and the second, is that relevance seems to be in the eye of the beholder. It is not so much what you think about your relevance to various opportunities, but what others think of it.

For the most part now, Duell is thought of as an out of step, foolish curmudgeon that had the audacity to state that nothing new was ever going to be developed or patented, when in reality he foresaw that both the magnitude and rate of future changes was going to be unprecedented.

An interesting urban myth, but I have digressed.
I think I’ll look at how both time, and technology work against just about everyone in business. I think this is a position that is somewhat out of step with some of the current thinking.

There is a school of thought that says experience is a good thing. But in order to gain experience you have to have been around either a company, or an industry for a while. The up side of experience is that in order to have remained around for a while you probably had to learn a few things. The down side is that time has passed, and that you may have been pigeon-holed into a role which is defined by your experience.

Robert Heinlein is an author of many famous books and multiple great quotes. I have read most of his catalog, and I have cited him often in many of my quotes. One of his most famous, and one of my favorites is:

“Live and learn, or you don’t live long.”

This is especially true in business. If you haven’t learned from your previous experiences, you probably aren’t going to get the chance to have any experiences in the future.

But how much is that experience worth in business? By just being around for a while, chances are that you are also going to experience salary growth. Yearly reviews, pay raises and inflation are an ingrained part of the business compensation structure. The longer that you are around, usually the more you end up costing the company.

Also, in today’s organizations it is reasonably well documented that management would prefer specific subject matter experts as opposed to very broad experiential histories. Again, that means that the longer you are around, the higher the probability that you are going to be associated with a specific business, technology, and capability set.

But what happens when the baseline business or technology changes? Strategic directions change. Digital has replaced analog. Wireless has replaced wire. Optical has replaced copper. Unleaded has replaced leaded. Transistors have replaced tubes. Fuel injection has replaced carburetors. The list obviously goes on and on.

It is not uncommon for relatively more experienced, and expensive people to be associated with what was once but may no longer be viewed as strategic businesses within an organization. In instances such as this, the opportunities for advancement can dwindle, and in the longer term so can the opportunity for employment.

So, what can be done to prepare and avoid such issues? How do you stay relevant in the face of ongoing change?

My suggestion for the first step in maintaining relevance is to understand the current environment. Employment is now a cost – benefit, or value proposition. As long as it is perceived that you are delivering more value to the business than you are costing it, chances are that things will continue.

That would mean that the correlation to the idea that the longer you are around, the more you probably will be making, is that as time passes it is probably expected that you need to be generating greater value. This is usually much easier said than done. It also means that if time is passing, and you are remaining in the same role, that it becomes more and more difficult to be perceived as generating greater value.

Value is normally associated with orders, revenue, costs and earnings. Understanding your relationship with, and ability to quantify your effect on these topics will go a long way toward defining your value. The weaker your relationship with these key metrics, the more tenuous your value proposition may be viewed.

The second step is to align more with a specific business function or discipline, and not so much with a specific business unit or specific product set or technology. Accountants, Financial Managers, Sales Staff, Project Managers, etc., can usually ply their trades across different industries and business units. This doesn’t mean that it will be easy to move from one industry to another. It merely reduces some of the perceived barriers that will normally be erected when someone is experienced in one industry and not another.

Next, as Heinlein said, if you are not learning, you are probably not going to be around for long. Take courses. Take training. Most companies have training programs to help increase both the depth of knowledge in specific disciplines, as well as programs to support external trainings and certifications. Use them.

If you are planning on being around for a while, it will be expected that you will have to know more in order to maintain your employment value proposition. Learn about other technologies and disciplines. Understand and become more conversant in the process and project orientation that most businesses are currently in.

Finally, it is incumbent on you to challenge both yourself and the organization by demonstrating your willingness and ability to move out of your comfort zone, or area of expertise, and take on new roles. Most of the time no one will come looking for you to take on a new role. You must step up, and out on that proverbial limb and make the first move.

Otherwise it will probably be assumed that you are content where you are, and there you will get to stay. Until something changes.

This approach requires an active awareness and participation. Businesses will normally present you with the opportunity to learn many diverse topics, disciplines and technologies. They will also usually present you with the opportunity to at least try to move into something else. It is up to you to search them out and take advantage of them. Very few companies require you to take courses to stay abreast of new trends within business. Fewer still will actively try to reposition you into new strategic product and businesses.

These are some things that you have to do.

It takes extra time. It involves extra effort. It requires your own initiative.

Otherwise you may be risking your relevance expecting the things you have been doing to be as important, and relevant, to the business in the future as they are today.