Lets step back from all the hustle and bustle and think about this for a minute.
1) There is a major demographic shift as the baby-boomer generation eases into retirement and the workforce composition changes considerably.
2) The rise of more global competition from the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) countries to established Western players has a considerable impact on how business will be done moving forward. The increasing number of middle-class (potential or current) Internet users in India and China are far far greater than all of the Western users of the Internet. Expect the lingua franca of the Internet to shift from predominantly-English to a much more polyglot mix.
3) The ease of creating an entirely virtual company, using services like Earth Class Mail and RingCentral, is less expensive, more flexible and much easier than in years past. On the development side, there are almost too many contract development houses competing to be the low-bidder on engineering jobs.
4) There is a need for companies to be 'Globally Localized'. If you are a big multinational corporation, you haven't been able to expect your Asian product/market/operation to look even remotely like your South American product/market/operation since the 1980s. The days of 'Build it for the US, change the packaging for ROW (rest of world)' are long past. At the same time, small local players cannot financially compete effectively with multinationals in just one small market, and need to expand to larger and larger markets to reap benefits of scale. The result? Precision marketing and products for smaller and smaller sub-populations of consumers.
5) The backlash against dis-intermediation and 'web self service' in already in full-swing, most notably among the aforementioned baby-boomers as they seek assistance in dealing with new technology. One colleague at the MetaverseU conference referred to the result as 'Re-Intermediation', or putting a human being back in the loop to provide full-service support when required. If you look at the amount of competition and noise on the Internet, and the average cost of customer acquisition for most companies, the math on keeping a customer happy is very simple when considering when a well-timed phone call will result in a subscription-renewal. Look at what Sprint has had to resort to for bargain-basement mobile pricing plans due to the exodus of users they experienced in the last two years due to spotty mobile coverage and atrocious customer service.
6) Finally, we have two seemingly contradictory forces at work when it comes to doing business. Businesspeople are traveling more and more (677 million travelers last year in the United States alone, compared with a total US population of less than half that number) while the amount of interest and concern for the environmental impact of this travel is resulting in rapid innovation in distance-meeting-technologies, such as web-conferencing, video conferencing/telepresence, and immersive environments.
So where does this leave us? Well, large multinational firms will continue to have hundreds of local offices in particular countries, but will see a decrease in traditional workforce activity (eg. cubicle dwellers) in favor of a more virtual, mobile workforce. I spoke with a large office furniture company this week who said that they thought that approximately 50% of all office space was sitting unused in corporations, and that the mix was rapidly shifting from the 'one employee-one desk' mode to mobile workers periodically converging to an office composed of predominantly shared-use/collaborative spaces.
At the same time, there is a marked shift in the growth of small and medium-sized businesses. These businesses, as was the case when Amazon challenged the Barnes and Noble/Borders brick-and-mortar business model, will be on equal footing for providing local re-intermediated customer service and localized products that will compete and beat multinationals at their own game. They may not be as margin rich as the volume-discount multinationals, but they will prevail in the sticky relationships they are able to construct in their local markets.
These small/medium businesses, when successful, will face the same challenge in scaling their operations as usual, and will become more like a loosely-coupled affiliate network with other small/medium entities who have beaten their local market and are also looking to expand. Think 'Co-Op' models.
The trick in this transition from 'multinational-employer-as-sovereign/employee-as-serf' model to a more granular market-based skills employment model (think of the 'Library' and submissions metaphor from Stephenson's Snowcrash) will be in the gradual transition of employees as chattel to employees as self-employed businesspeople. I honestly don't know if every person either wants or is capable of making this shift, as there are countless jobs that require structure and location-centric tasks, and at least 12.5% of the US workforce has demonstrated that they prefer a layer of insulation between themselves and their employer in the form of labor unions. I don't see the stampede beginning there.
As always, the countries and companies with 'no installed base' will be more nimble and able to implement the new models and compete more effectively than the entrenched labor-union/location-specific work models. Granted, we're not micro-manufacturing titanium in a center coach seat on United, so there will always be industry that does require a 'somewhereness' of location, however as the workforce shifts from manufacturing to knowledge workers, this trend will begin to reduce as evidenced in the decline in memberships in labor unions in the last five years.
One wildcard is that, in the last four years or possibly more, that people have been more and more forward about the amount of information about themselves on the Internet. At a certain point, you have a corpus of knowledge about society that can be indexed and utilized by analytical tools (think about how Facebook's terms-of-service allows them to spider the Internet for more links regarding you) and then correlated to potential employment opportunities.
I remember the London cabbie in August 2006 that said that his business was way down because people were increasingly telecommuting on Mondays and Fridays, and I forsee that as an omen of this shift of workforce. When people work independently and mobile, they have less cultural bonding and team dynamic, and operate more autonomously. In this situation, they have no filial allegiance to an employer or team of coworkers, and they become much more mercenary (in a non-pejorative way) than the local coffee-machine-gossip club of corporate lore.
Combine this group of adept mercenaries with data analytics tools to help find their teammates for a given contract worktask, and you have your new workforce. The future of work? Starbucks, a laptop, and a mobile phone.