As far as job titles are concerned, ‘Historian of the Future’ is an absolute gossip. As one of the leading practitioners of this fascinating trade, Dr. James Bellini, may testify, the description may lead to a few misunderstandings: He is certainly not, for example, a magician.
“Let me be clear: I don’t have a cape, a spiked hat and a magic wand,” jokes Bellini – and he absolutely can’t tell you who wins 3.30 at Ascot. What he can do, however, is to embark on a career spanning decades of research and analysis, networking and award-winning creative endeavors to make assessments of the probable future that are as informed and as entertaining as any you will encounter.
When SSON meets Bellini, the good doctor – whose Ph.D. “in the military stuff” came from the London School of Economics – just finishing presenting for the 8th annual Shared Services Week in Sitges, near Barcelona. His speech – the event’s first plenary – has ranged from early business history, through demographic changes in modern Europe, through ‘Gutenberg 2.0’, to the emergence of a new wave of consumers and the employment challenges that emerged from the rise of ‘ Generation ‘C’ and he has spread some beautiful brain-bending statistics along the way.
Eg. Do those of us in the audience know that by 2040, if current trends are maintained, Italy will have 20 million fewer inhabitants; that “in 1965 there were 10,000 people for each computer, but in 2015 there will be 10,000 connected devices for each person”; that “more than 50 per cent of people in the world have never called”; that Japan by 2020 will be the oldest community in the developed world and the United States will be the youngest.
It is from a vast archive of such data, analyzed using methods for many years to perfection, that Bellini is able to create the “works of informed imagination” that make up his futurological output. Facts and figures, he says, are the currency of futurology, and he declares that he, “fate-like,” will steal something without remorse, which will contribute to his understanding of the myriad forces that shape the times to come.
This understanding has evolved over a marked and varied career that has seen Bellini find success as an academic, a think tank analyst, a reporter and television presenter, a writer, a storyteller and of course as a speaker. But if this suggests chameleon professional tendencies to accompany his corvine approach to data, Bellini’s angry laughter, pervasive stare and uncompromising wit mark him as resolutely human – as does his unwillingness to pan for social delights: his latest book that tackles corporate fraud and pervasiveness of misrepresentation in business, is aptly termed The Bullshit Factor.
Bellini moved from the university (St John’s College, Cambridge) to advertise – among other things – in Paris, he was the first British member of the highly regarded Hudson Institute (co-founded by Bellini’s early mentor, nuclear strategist Herman Kahn), where he won his spurs and plaudits, with a series of predictions for major European economies, starting with France. He and his colleagues were far ahead of the curve in anticipating the French economic revival of the 1970s and 1980s, and their success did not go unnoticed; brought in by the BBC as a consultant for a similar predictable piece about the UK economy, Bellini ended up fronting the program as the main reporter. Perhaps unpredictable – even for this most promising of viewers – television and fame had come knocking.
Although discussing his successes with disarming humility, Bellini’s career in television left much to be desired: seven years as a studio host with Sky News and Financial Times Television; stints presenting Panorama, Newsnight and The Money program; and a number of awards, including the Prince Rainier II award at the Monte Carlo International TV Festival and a special award given by the United Nations for his work on the epic documentary series The Nuclear Age – as well as less glittering roles such as presenting a TV version of Cluedo. In the meantime, I have continued to predict, analyze – and publish with a variety of well-received tomatoes reaching the shelves of the 1980s and beyond.
By that time, Bellini had established a reputation as one of the most attentive and intuitive connoisseurs on current affairs circuits, and the step to speak in public to compliment his thriving literary career was logical. His natural flair for business (he has held senior management positions in several companies) and for communication combined with his specific spheres of interest means – though he is just as happy to present to them as Greenpeace likes “for a cup of tea” – his natural constituency is made up of relatively high-powered business people with an interest in understanding the fundamentals of the future (exactly the kind of people who attend Shared Services Week, in fact).
And a future it will be. Bellini paints a fascinating picture of societies, businesses and economies on the brink of truly fundamental change; while he maintains that “in general, nothing is really new – it may be different, but it is not new”, he is at the same time developments that are as new as you have gone in terms of the structure and operation of organizations them since the Stone Age.
“Shared services aren’t the sexiest management field, but it’s one of the most important. It’s about creating things that haven’t been seen before in business history: in-house profit-driven services. This isn’t really revolutionary, though: in the next 10 For 15 years I see a revolution, a period comparable to the beginning of the company’s history, “he says.” We see so much change [in organisational structure] for the next 15 years that we saw in the last 5,000. “
An important facilitator of this restructuring, of course, is the globalizing information revolution taking place at a confusing rate.
“The pace of change is getting much more compressed … Moore’s law is probably already outdated. We have to generate new words to deal with the speed at which information grows,” he says, citing an example of the rise of “exabytes” – one a billion billion bytes or, in more ancient terms, a trillion large books filled with data.
The implications for the business of this staggering acceleration of development are of course many. But Bellini sees one of the most crucial effects taking place in the field of recruitment and HR, and beyond that in the way the business itself is conducted on a personal level.
“The people you hire in the future will be very different from the ones you have hired in the past,” he warns. “Your future talent comes from what some people call Generation Y, but I prefer to call Generation C” – the connected, communicating, completely digital creator generators currently on the road to adulthood.
“They are digital natives, very different individuals, living, educating and working in digital spaces. Sharing is instinctive among them … It’s not about being selfish, but about collaborating in effective and efficient ways.”
Bellini believes the arrival of this generation will force employers to reevaluate old practices, such as recruitment, interviewing techniques and training. After all, this is a generation with a decreasing attention span, but a marked increase in the ability to multitask and switch from one task to another very quickly; if a coach starts to lose the attention of his students, Bellini asks who is to blame – the trainees who have evolved in a fast-changing, fast-fire digital environment, or the coach who has not? The answer is implicit in the question, and Bellini warns that companies who expect their new recruits to bow to an established, ‘old’ modus operandi will find themselves back: “Talent war will be more acute,” he says and it’s a war no company can afford to lose.
The nature of employment itself will also change, the doctor reckons. Long-term contracts at fixed locations are becoming increasingly outdated. The future will consist of a task-based hiring of “clusters” of employees who gather to meet specific needs and offer complementary skills for relatively short, intense productivity outbreaks – often working remotely from home around the world.
For older employees, such a shift could pose a huge challenge and perhaps an attack on traditional amenities such as job security; for the Generation C digital natives, however, such practices will be different – and Bellini uses the example of Hollywood film production that has come from off a task-based environment, such as how businesses and entire industries can work on another, and potentially formidable, model.
The future will also bring us a very different consumer class, Bellini promises. Societies are getting older, and old ones are getting more prosperous: in the UK, for example, in this “New Age of Consumer”, over 50s already own over 80 percent of the country’s assets, and the country has reached a tipping point when there are more retirees than there are children. Meanwhile, family sizes are declining, creating a growing deficit in the workforce of the future: We are approaching “the future of the children,” Bellini says somewhat dishonestly.
“This has huge implications for everyone,” he says. “Take R&D: the reason why cars are, as they are, with four seats, is because the nuclear family model was the dominant one when car design was at its most dynamic. Four family members demanded four seats. Now the nuclear family is not the dominant model: what will the layout be for the car of the future? Or take cereal packages: They were sized for a nuclear family. Now the size is no longer appropriate. “
Different needs require different regulations, and Bellini urges today’s businesses to plan properly for a very different consumer race. The older generation – who will live longer than anyone in human history – will have various high value requirements that must be met; Meanwhile, the younger generation will be relatively less affluent, but have very different needs and expect these needs to be met in very different ways. Marketing, design, sales: everyone will have to go through their own revolutions.
“There is a conversation going on, a huge worldwide conversation. You will not control this conversation, even though it is about you and will affect you,” he warns. Of course, this lack of control can scare many businesses and practitioners – especially those in shared services, for maintaining the right level of control over processes is such a fundamental aspect of the job – but it also represents a unique opportunity.
If Bellini assures us that the next few years will see that we will have to “revise the idea of how to think”, such a reunion with processes and the reasons behind them – driven in no way by the digital natives that make up the next generation of employees – will certainly lead to major changes in almost every aspect of business. Cost and efficiency savings currently held world-class by leading shared service practitioners could be blatantly insignificant against the benefits – tangible and intangible – brought about by new approaches to the business and economic raison d’etre itself and the technological revolution, whose final consequences even this most reputed futurologist can only consider from a long distance.
(Dr James Bellini’s The Bullshit Factor is now available through Artesian Publishing)