Guest Column

Looking forward through a rearview mirror

January 11, 2013
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“There’s no future in making predictions.” — Editorial from the Redwood Falls Gazette, Dec. 19, 2012.

The reason I like this statement is because it combines a little bit of humor with a lot of common sense. In my work as a consultant, I am frequently expected to make predictions, and then use common sense to explain them.

Some predictions are easier to make than others. The weather is one example; the outcome of certain elections is another. Business and economic predictions are far more difficult, simply because of an astounding number of variables that influence the outcome.

Before looking very far into the future, let’s look at some facts from today:

  • Most producers and distributors of furniture located or based in West Michigan have diversified into multiple markets. The office (working) segment is rapidly being overshadowed by the education (learning), health care (healing) and hospitality (leisure) markets.
  • Office spaces are becoming smaller, and the use of individual and private offices are on the decline. These are being replaced by collaborative, common, or even shared workspaces. Millions of today’s knowledge workers carry their offices in their backpack and/or hand-held computing device.
  • Sustainability has overshadowed ergonomics as a critical selling tool in the marketplace.
  • Few objects are more personal to most workers than their chair. Seating represents the industry’s largest product category, surpassing systems furniture, storage and filing, desks and other products in sales and shipments.
  • Manufacturers won’t admit it and reliable statistics are scant, but as people work in this “new normal,” shipments of furniture products into what we’ve known as the traditional office are declining.

“The future ain’t what it used to be.” — Yogi Berra, former New York Yankees catcher.

I’ve been making predictions surrounding this industry for more than 10 years. As we enter 2013, here are just a few things I see in the future:

  • File cabinets face the same obsolescence as the typewriter. We are finally seeing a decline in the use of paper. Storing data and information on discs or “in the cloud” are commonplace. The last typewriter to be made in Britain came off the factory floor in November 2012 as Brother sent its last typewriter to the Science Museum in London to be displayed as an artifact. The last file cabinet will face a similar fate.
  • The term “8-to-5 job” will disappear from the American lexicon. I know very few people who don’t conduct work away from their workplace. Our smartphones keep us tethered to work 24/7
  • The most personal working tool will be the tablet computer or smartphone, perhaps melding into the same device. Chairs will become more interactive, combining electronic interface with ergonomics.
  • There will be successors to e-mail, texting, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and SKYPE. If you don’t believe it, hardly anyone envisioned life without a fax machine in 1993.
  • The use of sustainable materials and business practices will be commonplace. The term “design for manufacture” will be replaced with “design for sustainability.”
  • Fifty percent of the “office” furniture in use today will be obsolete by the year 2030.
  • Cartoonist Scott Adams keeps us entertained by urging us to believe that people who work in good office jobs are fixed in “cubicles.” The truth is that “systems furniture” shipments have already declined more than 60 percent since 2000.
  • The “office furniture” industry will become known as the “business, institutional, technical, commercial, health care, hospitality, educational and networking environments” industry. (I can hardly wait for that acronym!)

“The difficult part of making predictions is that you never know how they are going to come out.” — Mike Dunlap, January 2013.

The floor is open for questions.

Mike Dunlap is principal of Michael A. Dunlap & Associates LLC, a business consulting services firm that focuses primarily on issues that involve the office furniture industry. Dunlap has more than 30 years experience in the industry. Contact him at (616) 786-3524 or by e-mail mike@mdunlap-associates.com.

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