The future of work
Outsourcing is a journey that most companies take, even if they have only outsourced their recruitment. As we more forward the desire to outsource more and more non-core business processes is starting to accelerate and this has major implications for how we will work in the future.
Recently I attended a symposium hosted by Fuji Xerox called ‘Nextwork’. It was all about exploring the workplace of tomorrow. At the outset, I must say that it was one of the most stimulating and thought-provoking events that I have ever been to. Fuji Xerox had done their homework as they brought together some of the finest minds to share their views about tomorrow. I was amazed by the technology and trends that were presented; suffice it to say it’s all about the cloud, mobility and location, and there is some exciting new language evolving like “Business Colonies”, “Anticipatory Analytics”, “Cohort Theory”, “Disruptive Innovation” and “Continuous Partial Attention”.
At the end of this report I have included some links, including to some material from the Institute for the Future, which I think are essential for anyone interested in learning more about that topic.
During the symposium there was a lot of discussion around the physical work space and what would that look like in the future – and how we would not necessarily ‘own’ the space that we occupied in a concrete sense as there would be a lot more ‘hot-desking’ that would cater for disparate work groups that would only come together for special events and projects. There was talk about using new technologies like Skype to video conference and people bringing their own internet-connecting device to work (smart phone/tablet/ laptop etc.) as companies of the future would not impose restrictions on the tools one needs to do one’s job – think converging technologies, cloud and thin clients, yet using your own internet access device.
Looking forward, it was agreed that a lot more people would work remotely away from their employer’s physical location and that has implications for how real estate features into the mix: this will give metropolitan building owners and managers heart palpitations as in the future people will not go to where the work is, as we do now; in the future the work will go to where the people are. In Australia with the rollout of the National Broadband Network (NBN) we will see the resurgence of rural and regional Australia as people opt for the work/life balance and do away with the long commute and congested living.
Of course, if mobility is going to be one of the underlying trends then loss of the gateway devices (who has not accidently left a smartphone or laptop in a taxi?) will have to be a consideration and it was suggested by the panel that these devices would not actually hold data on them per se as all data would be housed in the cloud so that it can be accessed anywhere, anyhow, anytime by anything – so long as one has the relevant access codes. In other words, data will be the most important asset in the future and being able to access it, not the devices that the data is on, will be critical.
In order to make sure that we are offering services that our customers want and need, we will use tools like crowdsourcing to engage with customers to solve business and marketing problems. We will have to get used to collaborating outside of the standard business framework and work with our own communities of interest, work groups and social networks to test our ideas.
If data is the key, the future will allow us to extract unprecedented analytical information; therefore there is the potential to get bogged down with data overload. The business issues will be around making sense of it all; how do we manage data; what business intelligence tools will we need; how will we extract data and use it in a meaningful way?
The first bespoke presentation was given by Mike Walsh, CEO of innovation research agency Tommorrow. Walsh determined that with new and different ways to interact with customers and more flexible ways for employees to work there would need to be a rethink about how we create frameworks that bring out the best in people.
“Unless you understand the underlying culture of what drives your employees you cannot build the office of the future”, he said. He went on to say that “even though employees will work from remote locations like their home, they still crave social contact”. Walsh gave an example of a hotel in New York that offered wi-fi and an environment where freelancers would come together with others to have a sense of community and a collegiate atmosphere that would not be possible if they were working in isolation from home.
Walsh gave some other great examples that are already being used today in Japan where people use their mobile phones to scan barcodes on posters in railway stations to buy their groceries. Perhaps his most important point was that the companies of the future would be built around a core of data. He also brought into the discussion some concepts around social anthropology as a prism to make sense of the future. He said that 56 per cent of students nearing graduation would not work for a company that blocked Facebook and Twitter.
Walsh also pushed ‘Cohort Theory’. Generational cohort theory argues that events, social change and even pop culture affects the values, beliefs, attitudes and ultimately behaviour of individuals. According to this perspective, a generation is less about the age of a group but more about their shared experience in their youth.
Another subject that he touched on was ‘Disruptive Innovation’. The term disruptive innovation as we know it today first appeared in the 1997 bestseller, The Innovator’s Dilemma. In the book, Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen investigated why some innovations that were radical in nature reinforced the incumbent’s position in a certain industry. Christensen analysed extensively the disk drive industry because it represented the most dynamic, technologically discontinuous and complex industry one could find in our economy. Just consider that the memory capacity packed into a square inch of disk increased by 35 per cent per year, from 50 kilobytes in 1967 to 1.7 megabytes in 1973, 12 megabytes in 1981 and 1100 megabytes in 1995.
Disruptive innovation will often have characteristics that traditional customer segments may not want, at least initially. Such innovations will appear as cheaper, simpler and even with inferior quality if compared to existing products, but some marginal or new segment will value it.
Operating under such a value network might lead a company to “listen too much” to its main customers. As a result, it will not recognise potentially disruptive innovations that serve only marginal customers. Secondly, large companies will not be interested in small markets: they hardly offer significant growth opportunities. Again this will lead companies to completely ignore the disruptive innovation or to wait until the market is “large enough to be attractive”. That is exactly when new entrants attack the incumbent’s turf, and by that time it is usually too late.
The physical and digital worlds are converging at a speed predicted by very few. According to IDC, the world’s information is doubling every two years.
Walsh spoke about Continuous Partial Attention (CPA), which is the process of paying simultaneous attention to a number of sources of incoming information, i.e. customer feedback, warehouse withdrawals and website hits, but at a superficial level. The term was coined by Linda Stone in 1998. Author Steven Berlin Johnson, describes this as a kind of multitasking: “It usually involves skimming the surface of the incoming data; picking out the relevant details and moving on to the next stream. You’re paying attention, but only partially. CPA lets you cast a wider net but it also runs the risk of keeping you from really studying the fish”.
Dr Thomas Frey, a futurist and Executive Director at the Da Vinci Institute and Google’s top-rated futurist speaker, a man with a seriously bright mind gave a brilliant presentation around the secret language of the future. He presented his theory about how the future gets created. He explained how we could influence the future by using social media and other unusual techniques for both understanding and gaining control of our own futures.
Frey put forward a proposition that in the future work groups would come together in much the same way that Hollywood comes together to make a movie and then break up after the project is over.
“The future gets created in the minds of everyone around us. Virtually everyone has a hand in it, but not all contributions are equal. As you might imagine, a small group of people armed with powerful ideas can make a disproportionately large impact… But creating the future needs to involve much more than just ideas. The ideas create a starting point but need to be put into a visual context, massaged, enhanced, and somehow made to spring to life.”
Frey spoke about ‘Business Colonies’. Business colonies are an evolving, new kind of organisational structure designed around matching talent with pending work projects. The operation will revolve around some combination of resident people based in a physical facility and a non-resident virtual workforce. Some will forgo the cost of the physical facility completely, opting instead to form around an entirely virtual communications structure.
Most will be organised around a topical area best suited for the talent base of the core team. As an example, a team of photonics engineers will attract projects best suited for that kind of talent. Likewise, a working group of programmers specialising in computer gaming applications will serve as a magnet for new gaming projects.
In some instances, large corporations will launch their own business colonies as a way to expand capability without adding to their headcount. Staffed with a few project managers, the company will use the colony as a proving ground for experimental assignments best performed outside of the cultural bounds of existing workflow.
The next two presentations were given by holograms (very cool) of the presenters. The first hologram was Francois Ragnet from Xerox’s Technology Innovation France-based Think Tank and he spoke about a ‘less-paper’ office. As Xerox is a ‘green’ company he chose not to enlarge his carbon footprint by not actually coming to Australia in person, so he came as a hologram. Ragnet presented some scary statistics such as 20 per cent of all documents that printed are not actually picked up and 40 per cent are discarded the next day – imagine the impact on our forests if we eliminated such waste from our business processes!
Dr. Larry Rowe of Xerox’s Palo Alto, California Research Labs also beamed in as a hologram. Rowe laid out a presentation around the importance of fostering teamwork in a disparate mobile workforce and that collaboration was the key. He argued that combining low-cost computing, storage and communication with powerful mobile devices is changing the nature of work and everyday life today. Rowe also spoke about how organisations need to think about how to use the physical place itself as a part of the information toolkit along with laptops, mobile phones, and printers. The need to manage large volumes of complex visual information will lead to workplace design needs that expand the size and scope of digital displays.
In summary, the future is looming up very quickly and the old command and control way of running our businesses is passing: for most of us it’s a work in progress; and some will still want to hang on to the old ways and resist change. There is only one constant in business and that is change: as my first boss told me, “if you are not going forward, then you are gong backwards.”
For further reading, see: