The future of business is now

Following on from my talk on mobility and connectedness at Intranatverk last week, I’ve pulled together this quick blog post for Business Reimagined on how technology is changing the way we work, making predictions about new ways of working a reality for more and more people.

The business of reimagining business is nothing new. Popular narrative from the middle of the last century painted the new millennium as an age of domestic automation, jetpacks and interplanetary travel – and all turned out to be some way off the mark.

More prescient, though, was Brave New World author Aldous Huxley, who in 1950 was asked to predict what work would be like in the year 2000. He wrote:“…offices will be relocated in small country communities, where life is cheaper, pleasanter and  more genuinely human than in those breeding-grounds of mass neurosis, the great metropolitan centers of today.”

Granted, he was wrong about quite a few things (not least that  the 20-hour work week would become standard) and in the year 2000 most of us were firmly chained to our desks.  But in the thirteen years since, the digital workplace – the ecosystem of communication tools, social platforms and business systems within the enterprise – has succeeded in making Huxley’s prediction something closer to a reality for a growing number of workers.

The revolution in technology since the turn of the 21st century has been accompanied by a seismic shift in working cultures that has seen the commute and the 9-5 workplace become a thing of the past.

The arrival of the digital workplace has led businesses to completely rethink the way they work. By moving the tools people need to do their jobs online, businesses have made it possible for their employees to work from anywhere – so that work becomes what you do, not where you go.

Already one in ten office workers in Western Europe are mobile, working all or part of the time from home, and this is growing by 6% a year.

Mobility, supported by a good digital workplace, has a raft of well-documented benefits, including improved productivity and reduced costs, as well as making employees happier and healthier. Businesses are quickly realising that mobility isn’t a nice to have; in a world where competitive advantage is everything, becoming more responsive and productive is essential.

But while technology is a central component of the digital workplace, making a success of it means focussing instead on people – not designing mobile websites, but designing policies, places and online services for people who are mobile.

For example, the digital workplace allows smart companies to change the way their use physical space; instead of banks of desks used from 9-5, they give people well-designed space to think, work alone, or to collaborate. Not simplyless space, but the right space and place for the task at hand – whether that’s at home, on the road, or in the office.

Design matters. If the primary way those who work for you experience the organisation is online, the online experience can’t be a bad one. Successful mobile organisations recognise the importance of brand, design and user experience in the digital workplace.

Enterprise mobility is a decentralising force, but this shift can lead employees to feel disconnected from their colleagues. Successful organisations work to establish community through social intranets so that remote workers can communicate with – and feel connected to – their colleagues, wherever they’re working.

By making it possible to work whenever and wherever we choose, the digital workplace is ending the tyranny of the daily commute. And all while making our businesses more productive, and more profitable.

Today’s technology enables us to do business the way we’ve been reimagining it for decades; enabling people to work more flexibly in ways that benefit employees, and the bottom line.

Organisational communication 2020

This was the 50th meeting of the London Communicators and Engagement Group, an informal monthly meetup of (mostly internal) communicators. After 50 meetings you’d think organiser Matt O’Neill would be out of topics to cover – but you’d be wrong.

This time, Matt invited David Galipeau (from eighty20.org /United Nations/Academia) to deliver a mini exposition into the future of communications. In a futuristic spirit he delivered his talk – on where he sees communications of the future heading – using a Skype video link from Geneva.

David Galipeau off Red Dwarf

In practice, this gave him the disjoined, disbodied appearance of Holly from Red Dwarf. But it worked surprisingly well – so that’s another nail in the coffin for international business travel, perhaps.

As Matt said in his introduction to the event, communicators are focussing on how we can use social media tools to improve organisational communication now and in the immediate future. But are the implications for the future? ‘Is this just the start of an emerging pattern that will fundamentally change the way organisations talk internally and externally?’ asked Matt.

He’d also suggested we take a look at some of Galipeau’s work ahead of the event. Alas, I was in a rush, and when I took a look at this, I thought ‘arrgh!’ and closed my browser tab.

Galipeau’s talk was almost as difficult to digest. I know he’s an academic, but I suspect I was one of the more geeky communicators in the room, and still quite a lot of what he said went right over my head. I’m not sure whether those who weren’t digital natives really knew what he was talking about for much of the time.

For example, Galipeau talked about the implementation of IPV6. For the lay reader – that’s most of you, I suspect – our IP addresses are currently based on IPV4, but we are fast running out of numbers. IPV6, Adrian Short told me via the Twitter back channel, will give us gives 6.5 x 1023 addresses for every square metre on Earth.

The arrival IPV6 will enable an ‘Internet of Things’ in which everything down to your slippers will have its own IP address. Your TV will speak to your fridge, and your supermarket trolley to your bank.

This, he contended, means the interweb is entering a new and much darker phase, quite different to the hippy free-for-all we’ve come to know. The internet is already slowing down thanks to tens of thousands of DOS attacks taking place daily. This, he said, is an early sign totalitarian nutjobs are engaged in cyber attacks and counter hacks, and the threat of industrial and political espionage is growing.

He gave groups that protested against Scientology as an example of this – yet didn’t really elaborate what was new about this threat other than giving people the ability to self-organise.

What was odd about the talk was that the speaker achieved the rare feat of going right over people’s heads while at the same time getting some real basics completely wrong. For instance, he talked about ‘crowdsourcing’, giving the example of “bringing people together to all dance in the station at the same time”.

This isn’t crowdsourcing, it’s flashmobbing. Crowdsourcing means drawing on the wisdom of the crowd in order to inform your own decision-making. It has a purpose, and increasingly it has real value for individuals and corporations. It can be as simple as putting a shout out on Twitter to gather some lazy reasearch, or as complex as wiki-style policy formation.

Simply framing it in terms of simply bringing people together for no discernable purpose really undermined Galipeau’s credibility, and this was reflected in the Twitter stream.

Galipeau went on to argue strongly what organisations are becoming more centralised, and in particular decision-making is becoming more centralised within organisations. But as he didn’t elaborate on why he believed this to be so, or what evidence pointed in this direction, I wasn’t convinced (particualrly as it doesn’t chime with what so many of us internal communicators are working towards).

I was glad, then, of the surprise appearance of engagement guru John Smythe. His excellent book – CEO: Chief Engagement Officer – focuses on how organisations can deliver increased engagement, and improved productivity, by opening up and moving towards a culture of co-creation.

When Smythe asked the speaker to give examples of research that proved the opposite, Galipeau muttered something about unpublished research commissioned by the US military, which didn’t convince me at all.

I am far more convinced by Smythe’s thesis than Galipeau’s, not least because the latter appears to run contrary to so much of what I see going on in government and business. There are already countless examples of companies successfully democratising decision making both with employees and customers.

Smythe has challenged Galipeau to a debate on this, which he very grudgingly accepted. I really hope this happens.

My objections to Galipeau’s thesis are, I admit, partly emotional. He presented a remarkably gloomy vision of the future, in which the individual is powerless and the corporate centre is an omniscient Orwellian beast.

Nonetheless, it provided an interesting counterbalance to the the highly positive future envisaged by theorists like Clay Shirky and Charles Leadbeater. Shirky, as I’ve blogged about before, sketches out future in which technology enables public participation on a scale never before seen. He says that ‘for the first time, we have the tools to make group action truly a reality. And they’re going to change our whole world.’

So there’s a concensus that techology will radically change our relationship with organisations and the state. For me, at least, the balance of evidence would suggest Smythe and Shirky’s culture of co-creation is on the rise.

If Galipeau’s talk got you reaching for the anti-depressants, check out Us Now, a film project about the power of mass collaboration, government and the internet. It’s a rather more cheerful view of the digital future.