Last week I spoke at a conference run by the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales about five trends that will shape the way we do business in the future. I’ve posted the deck on Slideshare and turned my notes into this piece. I’ll be breaking some of these themes out in more detail at some point down the line.
1. The Personal Web
Arguably the single most important piece of technology infrastructure of the last fifty years has been the Internet. There are now more than 2 billion individuals online and every one of these has access to an incredibly sophisticated suite of creative tools. For example, the most popular content management system in the world — WordPress — powers almost 17% of the top million sites on the web (as ranked by Alexa) and 22% of all new sites. And it is free.
The world’s online citizens access these tools via incredibly cheap commoditised hardware. This weekend I saw new, dual core laptops for sale new at £160. £65 will buy you a 7in Android tablet with cameras, WiFi and everything you need to make videos, podcasts and more.
Storing all this content is cheap. In 1990 a gigabyte of storage would cost you roughly ten thousand pounds. These days it costs around ten pence.
The result is that we’re all producing content at an incredible rate. There are nearly eight billion web pages in the world. Over eight years of video content is added to YouTube every day. We don’t need to wait for the ten o’clock news anymore to tell us what’s going on. We are surrounded by reporters on everything from world events to the mundanities of everyday life.
There is simply too much content for us to navigate unassisted.
This brings me to my first trend. The personal web.
More and more we are going to need help to navigate the noise of the web, and that help is going to come in a number of forms.
Google already personalises our search results based on what it knows about us. If you and I search for the same things, we will see different results.
People are beginning to take up the challenge of navigation, curating content around their subjects of interest via Twitter and Pinterest, and there are a load of new startup companies focused on these 21st century editors.
Software is beginning to do the job of searching and summarising on our behalf. Google Alerts searches on your behalf. Summ.ly automatically summarises the news into bite sized chunks.
Websites will no longer be the same for everyone. Just like Amazon recommends products to you today, websites will try to understand what you want when you land on them and present the right things to you without you searching. This is the goal of a business called CANDDi I co-founded a few years back.
Why does this matter for your business?
Because you want the best navigation tools at the hands of your employees in order for them to find the right information efficiently. Because you need to know how your customers are going to be discovering suppliers in the near future. With a personalised web just being the biggest and shouting the loudest no longer guarantees you attention.
2. The Bionic Workforce
Talking about tools for your employees brings me to my next key trend. And a statement: Humans are rubbish.
Specifically they are rubbish employees. As people we are inherently fluffy. Soft-edged and sociable. Hard to measure and tough to direct.
I spoke to a call centre operator a couple of years ago who told me he reckons his staff are about 20% efficient. So for every hour they are in the office they actually spend 12 minutes on a call to a customer.
Now that’s shocking. But tell me: do you know how efficient your staff are? For how many minutes of the day are they doing something productive? What did each member of your team achieve yesterday. What did that activity contribute to the bottom line?
Call centre man knows the answers to these questions. Because the software systems that run his call centre track these things. As a result he can build his business around this data.
Factories have been doing this sort of thing for years. But in offices we have felt ourselves to be above such things. That such tight control was for the blue collars, not us in our suits.
This attitude can’t persist. If we in the UK are to compete with the aggressively growing knowledge economies of the BRIC nations we need to be efficient.
We need bionic employees.
I don’t mean people who can leap buildings and crush steel.
I mean employees who are augmented by software. A queue of tasks at their fingertips alongside the right information and the tools to complete those tasks with the minimum number of keystrokes.
Bionic managers, augmented with fantastically powerful management information that tells them what was done in how long, how long jobs like this ought to take in the future and hence how much they are costing the business.
The beginnings of these tools exist in many industries. Case management systems in law. CRM in marketing. But nowhere has this been more aggressively adopted than in software and technology businesses. Here you have a bunch of technology obsessives and in my experience, management theory obsessives. They have adopted the mantra that ‘what gets measured, gets done’ and are implementing the tools to deliver it.
Even the most senior staff members document their activities in a job scheduling system, with input from peers about which tasks are, and are not, strategic. Juniors get allocated tasks with a brief and time expectations attached, with approval loops and feedback built in. It is an adaptable model that could be applied to almost any office.
And, I believe, it will be.
3. The Email-less Office
One of the casualties of this practice might be email.
Email has always been an odd technology. When it first entered the workplace people used it like a letter. Formally formatted, topped and tailed. These days no-one’s sure whether it is for instant messages, shipping documents or sharing instructions. It has become a jack of all trades and a master of none.
Everybody has different rules for email. Some people treat it like a real time medium and expect an instant response. In my opinion there’s a tool for that. It’s called a phone.
Email interrupts the working day. It tethers us to the office out of hours. It increases stress and diminishes productivity.
Over the next few years I believe we will see the use of email diminish in the workplace.
As shared calendars, proper workflow tools and office-friendly social communication tools like Google Hangouts are popularised, our need for email will diminish.
Email will either return to its rightful role, as a long form written communication, useful for documented communication, or it will die a timely death.
4. The Rise of the Free Agent
While the unemployment figures look good on face value, there’s a dirty secret at their heart. 97% of the new jobs created in 2010 were part time. Millions of workers in the UK want more work than they can get (http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/lmac/underemployed-workers-in-the-uk/2012/rpt-underemployed-workers.html). Business owners though all rightly nervous about committing to full time roles in an uncertain economy. So what do we do?
Technology is making it easier for people to be self-employed. Government administration is moving online, and while they haven’t done a great job of making things intuitive yet, it’s getting better. The software tools for managing your own business affairs are both cost effective and simple to use. Tools like FreeAgent make accounts simple for anyone. You can register a limited company online now for £17 , with a standard set of memorandum and articles to go with it. The same commoditised hardware that allows us to create online, enables us to manage our business affairs.
It will get easier, and cheaper. And something else will happen: there will be more and more open, online markets for work.
You can already see this in the creative industries. You can go online, post a brief for a piece of design or animation and multiple providers will bid on it. Not big companies but individuals, freelancers.
You can do the same for shipping, for plumbers or builders. Soon you will be able to do it for almost any form of work. You will qualify people like you qualify eBay sellers — by their reputation.
More and more in business we will make use of free agents and the transactions will be enabled by technology.
5. The Intimate Computer
The four trends I have talked about so far today all have one thing in common. They require an interface between us and technology. And that interface today is largely the keyboard. We can touch and we can swipe on our phones and tablets, but the fundamental method of data input remains the keyboard. A technology that goes back well over 100 years.
It’s not good enough.
For even the fastest typists a keyboard remains a narrowband interface. Communicating the nuance and richness of human interaction is reliant on the literary or coding skill of the writer. What we need is a broadband interface between us and the electronic world.
Speech has always been the dream but it’s fairly public: you probably don’t want to be dictating to your computer when you’re on a train. For me the big advances in the near future will come in gesture interfaces and thought recognition.
Today’s gesture interfaces are fairly crude. The Xbox Kinect is probably the best example but it requires you to wave your arms around to not very accurate effect. Not very practical when sat in your cubicle.
The next generation of gesture interface will be accurate to the level of fingersand eye movements. Combine these with even today’s crude thought interfaces — available as kids games for just a hundred pounds or so — and you start to compound a very rich, portable, subtle interface.
What I call the Intimate Computer will combine these subtle, human interfaces with other data about location and time, with your behavioural history to start to build up a profile of you. It will smooth your interactions with the digital world, using its deep knowledge of you to interpolate and filter and add richness and nuance to your interactions — and taking some of the more administrative functions out of your hands entirely.
Do you really need to turn lights on and off? Set and unset alarms? Connect and disconnect from different networks. These things should be handled on your behalf.
The business lesson from this trend is to keep your eyes open. What is gaming technology today could present serious competitive advantage tomorrow. Understanding how the next generation of employees is learning to interact with their technology at home will enable you to identify opportunities to engage, motivate, and differentiate when they join the workforce. And you may just see an opportunity for your own company in intimate computing.