When Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas A Watson first talked across a three-kilometre telephone wire between Cambridge and Boston on 9th October 1876, the concept of the “digital workplace” was born. The two men did not communicate in the same physical space but did so in a virtual world. That was 140 years ago. Yet enriching, what was in practice, a “first stage digital workplace” with richer services and deeper connections has until recently been a painfully slow journey.
But once the technological revolution took hold in the 1970s, the pace of innovation accelerated and a range of digital experiences in work started to spread through the workplace – email, teleconferencing, shared servers, intranets and HR systems. However, what we see now is a quickening of the rate of innovation as it moves through the gears, accelerating at speed.
I first began using the term digital workplace in 2010 to describe the evolution from a digital world of work dominated by intranets to a deeper and more wide-ranging set of enterprise services. Yes, we knew and understood the physical workplace very well, but I noticed that increasingly we were spending more and more time in a new kind of space, the digital workplace.
In consequence, my own organization, the Intranet Benchmarking Forum (IBF) evolved into the Digital Workplace Group (DWG) and, without losing our focus on making intranets better, our research, benchmarking and consulting began to include broader areas of unified communications, mobile services, collaborative worlds and applications. In my view, while intranets were essential, the digital workplace was transformational, enabling work to shift from a “fixed place” to “everywhere”; mutating from somewhere you go, to something you do. Work was leaving the physical and being liberated for the first time ever.
Next generation digital workplace
Now, in 2016, we are seeing the “Next Generation Digital Workplace” coming into being that makes the first iteration look rather pale and limp in comparison. In this next chapter for the digital workplace, an entire digital geography of work becomes imbued with intelligence.
For example, take a standard audio and video call, whether on Skype for Business or WebEx or Citrix. This call enables teams and individuals to connect and discuss, and to share content, ideas and knowledge, irrespective of distance and place. Remarkable and useful when it first appeared but just an expression of the first generation digital workplace.
In the next generation of the digital workplace we will be part of a virtual reality world where our brains believe we are physically together. Gestures, facial tones, nuances, tactile sensations will enable work to happen in hyper-real digital environments as enterprise versions of Oculus Rift or Halo and other virtual reality devices take hold. What will make these experiences even more compelling and useful will be the ability we will have to summon data, information and expertise at will as the digital reality we inhabit listens to us and equips us with what it thinks we need and might find helpful.
In another example, take a field sales force. The current fairly static provision of accurate and timely customer and marketplace details for an insurance company will evolve such that the “system” watches and interprets our diary, travel and notes, providing insights and suggestions that aid our work. Perhaps this ever more intelligent digital workplace will even perform tasks on our behalf such as “Shall I send a copy of this news item or special service direct to customer Y to save you time?”
It is true that many organizations, both large and small, are still trying to get the fragmented digital workplace to deliver a smooth and universally portable service to its workforce, but innovation during the digital renaissance has its own momentum and all the major technology vendors and 600-plus smaller enterprise software companies are working in a world that they know will be saturated with artificial intelligence, marking this next stage in what will be an “intelligent digital workplace”.
Me and my robot
Human beings must adjust and understand how to work with what we, inside DWG, already routinely refer to as “our DWG robot”. For us this is a catch-all term for every digitally intelligent assistant, device and piece of software we use in our daily work. We treat every DWG team as having its own robot and, sadly, while we human beings are not getting any smarter, the “DWG robot” is building its intelligence by the day.
Hollywood scenarios may create narratives where AI grows and then crushes us like ants but what (in my view) will happen is far more nuanced, as we develop skills and patterns that allow us all to work alongside (and in collaboration with) ever smarter technologies.
Looking back we can now see that the industrial revolution turned us into “efficient machines” as we carried out tasks for the industrial world. But the digital revolution has the potential to turn us back into human beings, working in collaboration with hyper-intelligent systems. It is up to each of us, as well as the organizations where we work, to seize this opportunity to create ever more human and ever smarter worlds of work.