One hundred years ago, Steelcase began as the Metal Office Furniture Company, drastically changing the office environment with an innovative idea: the metal waste paper basket.
This simple, but incredibly forward-thinking design, prevented the fires created when people discarded cigarette ashes into a wicker basket. Since then, innovation has been a Steelcase cornerstone, and it remains there as the company looks to the future.
The world has changed drastically in the past 100 years, Steelcase observes. It has become more interconnected as companies are increasingly distributed around the globe. Mobile technology un-tethers employees from the physical work environment, but people still want to remain connected and collaborative.
This has created challenges for the typical work environment. The manufacturing industry is not immune. Indeed, the industry has possibly seen more changes than most as a result of increasing globalization. Not only since the days of the invention of the metal waste paper basket, but even in just the past few decades. Steelcase Chief Executive Officer James Hackett reflects on the industry shifts during his tenure: “When I started 17 years ago, we speculated that something like 50 percent of the Fortune 1000 did business around the world. During ensuing years, economists estimated that there are 95,000 global companies.”
This shift, however challenging, has presented manufacturers with a tremendous amount of opportunity. Each time a new international market becomes more accessible, the potential customer base increases exponentially. Some companies will choose to optimize geographically, focusing on key areas where they see the greatest potential. For some companies, this may change the way chief executive officers lead.
How is Steelcase handling this shift? These international markets are now part of the company’s larger network and are highly integrated into the business. Local markets can be very advantageous, and thus, smart for business. Often, they can even hold a competitive edge unto themselves, because there are certain parts of the world that simply thrive in some areas or trades more than others. Looking at this aspect of globalization not as a threat but as an opportunity has helped Steelcase, and it could help other manufacturing companies take advantage of the best the world has to offer.
Globalization doesn’t just have to just drive competition for the manufacturing industry. It can also facilitate greater innovation. For example, companies can take advantage of the available global talent pool available – and the new thoughts, views and experiences these people can bring to the drawing board. Connecting with people across the world that work and innovate differently than we do can turn upside-down the way people learn – but in the most positive way. It enables people to view issues, challenges or situations differently – to approach daily tasks with a fresh set of eyes (a new vision, if you will).
Finding what it takes for your company to succeed and grow in today’s changing environment is key. For Steelcase, it’s about the ability to compete. Steelcase doesn’t limit its thinking to the idea that having a healthy company must go hand in hand with lowering costs. Instead, Steelcase strives to become better at what it does. This has encouraged the enterprise to grow far beyond its antecedent furniture business started 100 years ago.
THE HUMAN FACTOR
By studying how people work, wherever they work, and fostering the existing culture of innovation to uncover new ideas, Steelcase has brought human insight into business. Such perceptions have inspired the creation of new environments, products and research that can help organizations across the globe adapt to the changing world of work. Reflecting on the last 100 years, Steelcase realizes that it’s this culture that has propelled it to create solutions that help people work better in this ever-changing world, and has helped the company thrive in the manufacturing industry.
But this isn’t where Steelcase stops. This culture of innovation will continue to guide the company’s future as it encourages everyone – employees, customers, friends, family and even children – to dream about the future of work. What will it look like? How will globalization continue to change how we work? How will new technology change how we connect to one another? What will the office of the future look like?
Such thoughts and question inspired “One Day,” a documentary directed by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Daniel Junge. The film was released in conjunction with Steelcase’s centennial anniversary, as a celebration to support dreaming of the future.
For the film, children around the world were asked to dream about how people will live and work in the future. They shared their expressions in both words and drawings. The importance behind this exercise was not just to see how children think and what they dream about. Rather, it’s important because innovation that comes from broad questions can have real significance. And sometimes, it can even be worth a lot in revenue. When aiming to remain competitive in the marketplace, innovation and optimistic innocence cannot be overlooked.
In the film, the children’s dreams were innocently grand, and focused on building sustainable architecture for the future. This is a possible – even workable – vision of the future. The child is the father to the man. Currently, Steelcase is building better hospital spaces, more collaborative meeting environments, cafes that can be an inviting place to both work and eat, and classrooms that help promote learning and integrate cutting edge technology.
Innovation inspired by human insights is what will keep Steelcase competitive in this ever changing, global world, for the next 100 years – and beyond.
Founded in 1912, the Michigan-based Steelcase is a global, publicly traded furniture company with a comprehensive portfolio of workplace products, furnishings and services. Its fiscal 2012 revenue reached $2.75 billion.