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Offsetting your suburban, middle class, white collar bias

If you are reading this, you probably work in some kind of white collar job. There’s a fair chance you didn’t work in a factory when you were younger, though maybe you worked in construction, on a farm, or in food service or retail. If you currently or used to work in manufacturing, you do not need to read further.

So do you have much experience with how things are made? Not having a close, tactile sense of that may limit your thinking about commerce, industry, products, and so on. Or, if you have some grounding in one industry, and how its products are made, you may not know much about any other. I am not judging anyone about this, it’s my affliction too. The closest I got to “production” was helping artisans in candlemaking, pottery, and other arts. And I had a blue-collar summer job in park maintenance. But the first time I saw manufacturing was when I toured the Harley Davidson Factory in York, Pennsylvania, when I was a young adult.
Why does this matter to foresight? If you want to do the best you can at understanding the emerging future, you need to try to know something about a lot of things. And this is an example of a gap in understanding that is pretty common among my colleagues and the business executives I work with.
I find it easy for my futurist colleagues, and my clients, for example, to focus on potential change in consumer life and lifestyles—we are all consumers. It’s not hard to look at change in the consumer marketplace with a great familiarity about the situations consumers are in, their values and tastes—at least for the center cut demographic of people in one’s own society.
But it’s much harder to get people to: 1). Understand and think about the business processes that are behind the scenes, 2). Remember whole groups of stakeholders in how things are changing in the world—the businesses and people that produce things, provide energy, and so on.
What can you do about this? I can’t help you fully overcome the problem, but I am a strong advocate for working intently, if modestly, on it. Here are things you might try to do:
  • Take factory tours, [see this site for information on a lot of the public tours in the US], but also try to look for some that are not the official, available-to-tourists tours. If you can get a friend to give you a behind the scenes tour, terrific. Nevertheless, some public tours are terrific. I learned a lot and really enjoyed: Miller Coors, Golden, Colorado, Martin Guitars, Nazareth, Pennsylvania, Harley Davidson, York, Pennsylvania, and Blue Bell Ice Cream, in Brenham, Texas.
  • Go to trade shows—often they are free, and in most cities, nearby. It doesn’t matter too much which ones, branch out from what you know, take some of these in, lurk, talk to people, touch things.
  • Read odd (to you) trade journals from time to time. You may not understand a lot of what you are seeing, but you’ll deepen your sense of what’s out there, and knowing more about what you don’t know is a good thing.
  • You can also look for “how it’s made” videos on YouTube, there are lots of them. But don’t let more web surfing offset time you might take to go and see real things!
  • Interview a friend in an industry you don’t understand, and maybe even take a learning journey with your friend to factories, distribution centers, R&D facilities, etc.
  • Watch “How It’s Made” on the Science Channel
  • Go look at things, explore, and drive around back of things, literally and figuratively
One of the best things my colleagues and I did a few years ago with our multisponsor program group on the future of packaging was take them to a recycling facility in Boulder, Colorado. Though these were packaging executives, responsible, in many cases, for packaging recycling, they found the tour revealing and stimulating.
All of this is fun and interesting. You can probably take your family or friends. It is environmental scanning—the non-sedentary kind—and so it is a proper part of your work. It can make a pretty big difference in at least reminding us that there is more—much more—to know. And please, if you find this works well for you, let me know!
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