Perspectives: The New Wired World of Work
A more transparent workplace will mean more white-collar accountability and less tolerance for hangers-on

You're hiking along near the Grand Canyon in August, 2000, but fretting about the progress your virtual partner in Kuala Lumpur has made in the past 24 hours? No problem! Your local Kampgrounds of America campsite now has Internet access.

Call it the new wired world of work. Depending on how you view it, it's intrusive, pervasive, or merely ubiquitous. But it's definitely not your dad's office. And this perpetually plugged-in existence is just the beginning of the changes we'll see in the 21st century white-collar workplace.

Work in the '50s and '60s meant trudging to the same office for decades. Same colleagues. Same processes, mostly rote. Former MCI Communications Chief Bill McGowan called yesterday's middle managers ''human message switches.'' And the information was laughably dated. Closing the account books at month's end could drag on for weeks. Customer data were nonexistent, or hopelessly unreliable.

But in the next few years, whether at a tiny company or behemoth, we will be working with an eclectic mix of contract teammates from around the globe, many of whom we'll never meet face-to-face. Every project will call for a new team, composed of specially tailored skills. Info that's more than hours old will be viewed with concern.

Every player on this team will be evaluated--pass by pass, at-bat by at-bat--for the quality and uniqueness and timeliness and passion of her or his contribution. And therein lies the peril, and the remarkable opportunity, of this weird, wired, wild new age of work. White-collar accountability has until now been mostly an oxymoron. Show up, suck up, process your paper flow with a modicum of efficiency, and you could count on a pretty decent end-of-year evaluation, a cost-of-living-plus raise, and a sure-as-death-and-taxes 40-year tenure at Desk No. 263.

Now you are like a New York Yankees or Los Angeles Dodgers closer. A couple of blown saves following a night on the town and your pressured and performance-driven teammates, more than your manager, are ready to show you the exit. This will hold for the freshly minted University of Wisconsin grad as well as the 56-year-old who had envisioned himself on a pain-free coast toward retirement. There may be a tight labor market for stellar performers, but the flip side is much less tolerance for hangers-on.

As enterprise resource-planning software and other such systems wreak havoc on the vast majority of staff jobs in the next decade, what will it take for you and me to navigate and win? Here's a list of minimal survival skills for the 21st century office worker:

-- Mastery: To thrive in tomorrow's transparent team environment, the typical white-collar worker will have to be noticeably good at something the world values. ''HR guy'' doesn't cut it. Nor does ''CPA.'' What subset of, say, techie recruiting skills or international accountancy excellence makes you a clearly valued contributor? I firmly believe that if you can't describe your distinction in the space of a one-sixteenth-page Yellow Pages ad, you will be doomed.

-- Who Do You Know?: The new Rolodex will deemphasize bosses and traditional power figures, focusing more on peers (future project mates!) who appreciate your clear-cut contributions. I consider my own electronic Rolodex to be my Extended Global University, colleagues I can call upon (and who can call upon me) to further my current and future projects.

-- Entrepreneurial Instinct: You do not have to start your own business. But as I see it, all these projects are entrepreneurial. So you must act as if you were running your own business. Think of yourself as Maggie Inc., who happens to be at General Electric Capital Services Inc. at the moment. And speaking of which, I fully expect women to dominate managerial roles. I think they tend to handle ambiguity better than we guys do. The new world is a floating crap game, with new projects, new teammates, and a constant need to adjust. Those who can operate in the absence of laid-out bounds will be the leaders.

-- Love Of Technology: Technology is changing everything. Believe the hype--if anything, it's understated. You need not be a technologist per se, but you must embrace technology. ''Coping'' with it is not enough.

-- Marketing: You do not have to become a shameless self-promoter, a la Martha Stewart. But you must get your story out on the airwaves. Do it via your personal Web site. Do it by telling your project's story at a trade show.

-- Passion For Renewal: You've got to constantly improve and, on occasion, reinvent yourself. My bread and butter--at age 57--are my lectures. But I imagine that the Internet will devour many conventional meetings in a few years. Hence I am madly working with several groups that will deliver my message via the new technologies.

I love to read Dilbert and usually choke with laughter. But I have a problem with the subtext: My company stinks, my boss stinks, my job stinks. If that's your take--at this moment of monumental change and gargantuan opportunity--then I can only feel sad for you. We get to reinvent the world. I feel so damn lucky!

Peters has written numerous books on management and change, including the
Reinventing Work series.

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