The Smart Workplace in 2030

 How to empower the next wave of productivity and innovation 

Organizations and individuals struggle to understand the impact of today’s changes on our future professional life. Technology is becoming more pervasive. By 2030 most of our workforce will be digital natives. They literally can’t remember what life was like before the internet and the cell phone. The race for their talent, productivity and innovation will be about embracing change, investing in tools and offering them compatible management practices. 

 

Technology can be overwhelming. And it’s just getting more so. The younger generation might be at ease chatting with ten people simultaneously. Still we all get at some point saturated by too much information. Too many loose ends. Too many open tabs. 

Do we all need to become even more ICT literate? Do we all need hacking skills? If we’re going to thrive using the next wave of productivity enhancing tools, we’d first need to change our mindset. We need to let go. And let technology handle technology. 

Workplace innovation shouldn’t be about adding new ways of working on top of the old ones. When new tools and methods add complexity, people won’t let go their old ways. It’s time to stop adding bells and whistles and to start thinking about simplicity. Less is more, especially in ICT. 

 

Information is everywhere Abundant interfaces on the go 

The ‘pc’ once revolutionized computing. Many things have changed. Yet most of our ICT driven work is  still done in the same static setting involving a table, chair, screen, keyboard and mouse. It’s efficient for  individual productivity. Slightly less for collaboration and co-creation. When cell phones and the internet came along, people learned to work anywhere, at any time. Now we change our place of work regularly,  yet not as much our way of working. 

The smartphone has partially replaced the pc. Especially in the private space. Now there’s an app for  everything. Yet at work we stick to our old computer. It’s lighter, with longer battery life and… with the  familiar screen, keyboard and mouse interface. 

Many new form factors came around. Tablets make comfortable reading. Smartwatches give you updates on the go. Companies like Microsoft offer innovative interfaces through gesture or speech with Surface, Xbox  Kinect, Cortana and HoloLens. The slow adoption for some of these is testimony to the force of collective habit. And to some technological limitations of today. 

Virtual Reality can offer a very intense immersive experience, even adding artificial scent. New business  applications will likely rather come from Augmented Reality and Mixed Reality, allowing to add information layers in daily life – through connected cars, smart glasses, ambient intelligence or wearables. For different types of activities, we could use well adapted devices instead of using our computer or smartphone as a  digital Swiss knife. 

Cloud and identity services will soon take the complexity out of the interface abundance. Only when  identities, applications and sessions can seamlessly be transferred from one device to another, you can really choose which device works best at any given moment. Things become simple if we can dissociate digital identities, devices, applications and data. By 2030 switching devices will be easy. We’ll probably have dozens of devices – per worker, per desk, per type of activity. Maybe people would still carry around a  personal device at all times. Yet it would likely not be as bulky as a laptop. 

 

A view from the Clouds: new ways of sharing and retrieving information 

Most people save and retrieve information based on the device, drive or folder where they decided to store it – hopefully with a meaningful filename, description or nametag. It’s today’s digital analogy of an old paper archive. We’re putting so many files in so many folders. It becomes hard to remember what went where. 

Today people increasingly use search technology to retrieve the files they’re looking for. Sometimes it’s  hard to retrieve the last version among many almost identical ones. Even harder it is to retrieve information within your organization, of which you’re not the author. Here’s the paradox. The more information your organization produces, the more difficult it becomes to rapidly find what you’re looking for. And there’s no value in information you can’t find. 

Another issue is the confidentiality and lifecycle of information you’d like to share. E-mailing documents to people inside or outside your organization, means losing control. Duplicate versions will co-exist and get passed around. Secure file-share locations are slightly better. Yet the access and the security parameters are still pre-defined. The ‘safe zone’ or ‘perimeter’ based security model makes it hard to instantly share  information in a secure yet flexible way. 

Using Cloud technology, it somehow stops being relevant ‘where’ you put your files. It becomes more important to think about discoverability and access rights. Metadata could help you find the most relevant document, the most recent version, the finalized and approved one. Yet workers and teams might decide to limit discoverability by default to themselves only. This could reinforce information silos within the  organization. And finding information will still be painfully hard. 

Organizations should classify information based on roles, identities and activities. This moves away from perimeter-based security. Security should be multi-layered and flexible, if it doesn’t want to become the roadblock to agile business initiatives. Conversations are an intuitive way. In a modern workplace you deal with access rights by simply pulling someone into a conversation. To talk or to share, is an instant disclosure decision. Information security should be able to follow and enforce that decision. And have people thinking more about confidentiality, and less about technology. 

 

Your brain on steroids making sense of information through Artificial Intelligence 

More information makes things harder to understand. When looking for a needle in a haystack, it doesn’t help adding more hay. In 2030 there will be loads of information around about your activities, your projects, your interactions. Commercial companies will be logging and correlating their customers’ profiles and  purchase history. Everything they do. Collaborators will come and go. Teams will be highly dynamic.  So how can you still make sense of the heap of information you’re sitting on? 

Artificial Intelligence (AI) will help your understanding, in two different ways. Firstly AI helps computers to keep up with human interaction. It’s sometimes hard to get our expectations right. When someone hands you a business card, you’d spontaneously be able to identify the street address, e-mail and phone number. Basic AI means a computer can now do the same. 

Is this trivial? Not from a technical point of view. Is it useless? Not when you have dozens of business cards to treat. Basic AI helps you interact with computers in a more natural way. It is already present today in our smartphone’s digital assistant, in online recommendation engines, in Office 365 Delve. Natural Language  Processing (NLP) helps a computer to understand spoken language. It uses our human logic, instead of adapting our thinking to a computer’s very structured input & output. 

By 2030 searching information will be a more natural thing – based on text input, natural langue and  contextual info. Digital assistants, chatbots and spoken language will become very natural forms of user interaction. Contact centers could look completely different. Humans could provide follow-up for special situations while computers efficiently provide automated answers to frequently asked questions. 

AI helps improving data quality by easily retrieving nearly identical information. It helps putting a wealth of personalized information at your fingertips – whether you are a professional, customer or end-user. In some sectors natural digital interfaces will make the difference in customer satisfaction. 

Artificial Intelligence would still need us to adapt to technology, yet in a different way. It would take a  mental effort to let go. To let a car park itself, instead of firmly holding control of the steering wheel.  Author Fredo Desmet pleads for us to consciously give away some control to technology, and to embrace our ‘artificial stupidity’*. 

Secondly, strong Artificial Intelligence is a very different thing. Instead of focusing on user interaction, it helps strategic decision making. Strong AI will help you define trend baselines from ‘big data’ collections and rapidly detect changing conditions. It helps smart enterprises to react quickly, through data-driven decision making. 

Strong AI is typically developed at boardroom level first. Yet by 2030 organizations might use it at any  level – to automate routine decision making, and to offer better insight for workers in the field. In the future AI tools will become increasingly visual, enabling rapid yet well informed business decisions. 

It takes some maturity as an organization to empower workers with AI powered insights. If done right, doing so will make your organization’s strategy very transparent and actionable. AI will help putting all noses in the same direction. If done badly, AI could foster endless discussions about which strategy to take. Empowering workers with strategic insight should be done within an organizational culture of responsibility and trust. 

Before even considering strong AI for decision support, organizations should develop a big data strategy. ‘Garbage in, garbage out’ most certainly applies for business analytics. Don’t you have consistent, high  quality data sets? Then don’t expect consistent, high quality answers. You might need time to develop and train predictive algorithms. And everything starts with reliable, manageable source data. 

When personal data are used for AI-driven analytics and instant decision making, your customers will notice. They need to understand and agree. Their privacy is precious. If an organization is not transparent about it, sooner or later it’ll lead to fierce reactions – loss of customer confidence, reputation damage or worse. In the European Union the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) provides guidelines, and serious sanctions, for proper privacy protection. 

By 2030 people will likely be even more privacy aware, probably after some privacy breaches or scandals have touched them personally. They’d accept to give detailed information about themselves when it allows them to get personalized services that better fit their needs. Yet they’d likely no longer accept handing over personal information with no questions asked. It’s important to provide transparent, easy-to-understand information and granular privacy choices. 

Lastly the use of strong AI could lead to serious ethical questions. These might touch the fundamentals of your organization’s mission. Not everything what’s technically possible, is also desirable, acceptable and  sustainable. Whether you are in a for-profit or a non-profit organization, clear guidelines should be put in place. 

 

The power of digital conversations: empowering fluid collaboration 

Imagine your workforce behaving as one body. Imagine expertise fluently flowing through all parts of your organization. You could call in someone with specific skills on the spot, have one or two questions answered and both pass on to the next issue. Actually, you could already do so today using group chat, video chat and advanced collaboration. 

Think about the possibilities of having freelance collaborators and external experts joining in seamlessly, instantly. It could extend the notions of your ‘workforce’ and ‘organization’ to a highly dynamic ecosystem. Formal recruitment and HR would still exist. You would offer a broad range of possibilities from full-time  employment, to temporary project lead, or expert-on-call. Technology and new business practices would allow for hybrid careers. Workers would be able to quickly adjust their work-life-balance – for example to  assume their role as a parent or take care of others. Obviously the legal and fiscal frameworks might  differ from one country to the other. Typically, legislation has a hard time keeping up with technology driven change. Yet due to the scarcity of expertise and the expectations of the millennial generation, this will be the battle ground to the next ‘war for talent’. 

Some expect large enterprises to invest in outstanding campuses, as a hotbed of innovation and organizational culture*. They would be an inspiring, attractive environment for workers, temporary workers, suppliers and business partners. Working there would be considered a privilege, with work and private life blending together. Work would be rewarding in many more ways than just financially. 

Imagine your collaboration environment to be a knowledge network. You’d no longer be looking for a  precise person with the right expertise to become available. Someone in your organization, or in your  business ecosystem, might be a perfect fit. You’d simply need to know who. 

The next generation knowledge management will not just instantly retrieve information. Also skills and  expertise. You just specify what kind of expertise you’re looking for, and your collaboration system should find the perfect match. Artificial Intelligence will search personal profiles, yet also documents, chats,  conversations and online meetings. Organizations will be pleasantly surprised about the untapped skills and knowledge they already have within their workforce. 

Imagine a CEO delivering a speech or taking on tough negotiations. Through Mixed Presence she or he could have a team of analysts, managers and experts participating off-site. The team could do research and fact-checking on-the-fly. They could flag false statements, suggest detailed questions and provide updated information through Augmented Reality interfaces. They could coach and closely monitor non-verbal  reactions from other participants. 

Information would literally be at one’s fingertips. Human Intelligence would blend with Artificial Intelligence into a versatile thinking combo. Decision making would be greatly accelerated, based on facts and expertise, rather than gut feeling.  

Imagine imagination. If personal enthusiasm and out-of-the-box thinking could meet with the right tools and business knowledge, innovative new ideas could be developed faster, and better. Modern workplace tools would greatly benefit early go-to-market initiatives. Testing crazy ideas in real life. It would help large  organizations foster a true entrepreneurial spirit, now typical for smaller scale start-ups. It would help  eliminating procedures, functional silo’s and all the complexity that usually comes with scale. 

The modern workplace will be an environment where information technology blends in perfectly, so we’d stop thinking about anything technical. ICT tools should become as intuitive as riding a bicycle. After a short learning curve, we should totally shift our focus back to work – chatting, meeting people, drafting proposals, presenting, convincing and delivering. 

Some futurists argue information technology is nearing the end of its dominance. Could something else replace ICT as the next major driver of economic development? Just like the steam engine, steel, electricity or motorized transport? If by 2030 information will be as abundantly available as electricity or water, we might think of it as a commodity. Yet powerful, simple and lightweight information management will define how well you’ll be prepared for the next big thing.