The business environment is changing on many, inter-connected fronts. This short article reviews just some of the developments with disruptive potential to how people work and learn.
The pace of technological change is furious, and many developments are happening at the same time.
There are technologies that we can wear to allow us to measure things about ourselves – the ‘quantifiable self’.
There are nano technologies embedded within materials, and used for a wide range of purposes throughout the built environment.
Then we have bio technologies, like stem cells, that can alter our physiology.
The ‘internet of things’ – where devices are connected and communicate with each other – is set to kick off more astonishing possibilities
And, of course, social technologies are now such an integrated part of our lives. Anne McCrossan, CEO of Visceral Business, points out that communities we forge online are made through choice. The bonds we create can be strong – “affinity is stronger than structure.”
The robots are coming!
This technological development deserves to be treated separately. The growth of artificial intelligence is gaining a lot of attention.
Is this article speculative scare-mongering, or does it describe the future we face? It suggests that technology is:
“setting the stage for the elimination of the majority of human jobs … robots will drive our cars, manufacture our goods, and do our chores … drones will take the jobs of postmen and delivery people.”
It is not only labour that is being automated, it is our reasoning and thinking capabilities. While artificial intelligence might seem a long way off or in the realm of science fiction, it’s not. It’s here and worrying a lot of people. The pessimistic view of artificial intelligence is that it will replace our creative, thinking abilities.
At the other extreme, optimists believe that artificial intelligence will augment and enrich our capabilities. Who knows what’s going to happen?
New Industries, New Products
What we do know, here and now, is that the collision of art and engineering is creating immense possibilities. A BBC programme, Beneath the Lab Coat, featured a shoe designer who was originally an architect.
Using his understanding of structures to custom-design shoes, he began by making a 3D scan of a foot and then used CAD software in the design. Next, he made a scaled-down shoe using a 3D printer. The finished shoes were unique and gorgeous.
Integration of different industries, electronics and automotive for example, also affects products that we are familiar with. Widespread inclusion of electronic sensors in cars has given us self-parking and self-driving cars.
Customer choice took root decades ago with mass customisation, when personalised products became available within a limited range of choices. Constraints of limited choice is lifting.
Possibilities for personalisation have now massively expanded. Customers are no longer satisfied with just accepting what they are given. They increasingly expect to be included in designing the products and services that they want.
Millions of markets
The result is the emergence of businesses that are willing and able to respond to this demand for uniqueness. BBC business journalist Peter Day talks about the ‘potent individuality’ of customers. He quotes Joe Kraus, co-founder of Excite (a search engine that failed as Google was taking off) as saying:
“The 20th Century was about dozens of markets of millions of consumers. The 21st Century is about millions of markets of dozens of consumers.”
It’s personal at work
Increasing expectation of choice is also growing in the workplace, including how, when and where we work.
That expectation extends to what technologies we use. An outcome of having access to powerful consumer technologies, so personal that they become an extension of who we are, is the expectation of being able to bring our own devices to work.
And for people who don’t want to use their own devices at work? Some companies offer personalisation through a ‘choose your own’ device scheme.
Customers are connecting online asking for recommendations, making recommendations, and collectively denting reputations when businesses get things wrong.
Organisations are becoming open in a number of different ways.
We saw in It’s All About People and Organising for Customer Value that informal social networks are where things really get done, in the shadow systems that lie behind, and interact with, formal organisational systems.
Social technologies extend these informal social connections beyond organisational boundaries. Far from being a distraction from ‘real work’, playful, creative conversations that we have using social tools can make us more effective. It’s in these conversations, inside and outside of the organisation, that we discover insight and find inspiration that help us make sense of things that might be puzzling us.
Organisations are connected through networks of contractual arrangements. For example through businesses providing and receiving services from each other in supply networks. Another source of openness might be collaborative partnerships among different organisations.
Employment arrangements that include a mix of permanent, fixed term and freelance are increasingly common. People now work under an array of contractual and operational arrangements:
traditional full and part-time employment contracts
flexible, short-term freelancing ‘gigs’
people from outsourced companies in the supply network
people with specific expertise brought in from partner companies.
This fluid, kaleidoscopic workforce has implications for how work is managed, and how workplace relationship form and are sustained. It increases social complexity, as relationships and interactions in this open and diverse workforce reach across organisational boundaries.
Collaboration can be challenging at the best of times, without this increased social complexity.
We need to be understand that we do not all see the world in the same way. People in organisations increasingly need to become ‘culturally literate’. As Ed Schein, author of the classic The Corporate Culture Survival Guide puts in this short video, we learn about culture by travelling – both physically and psychologically.
As well as relationships and interactions being affected by this openness, there are also technology implications. Communications technologies need to be compatible across organisational boundaries.
People – especially those who have specialist knowledge or whose skills are in short-supply – increasingly expect a personalised experience of work, choosing how, when, and where they work.
Physical workplaces where open workforces meet are also becoming more distributed and open. People can work from the office, or remotely from home, on-the-go, in cafés and shared spaces, co-working centres, client offices – and so on.
It is increasingly common for contractors, freelancers, outsourced companies, and small suppliers who build relationships with larger companies to be invited, or required, to use their premises.
Social psychologists have for a long time been providing us with research evidence on what people need psychologically and socially from work.
How to achieve this with increasingly diverse, mobile and open workforces will challenge the skills and capabilities of everyone – people working in new ways, and those involved in creating conditions for them to be able to work and learn together.
Consequences of Trends
It is interesting to note that it was people themselves outside of institutional constraints and without permission that adopted social technologies en masse.
Disruptive newcomers like Uber and AirBnB were quick to see the possibility of digital technologies to provide new services and business models, which expand customer choice and threaten existing companies.
There are claims now that “disruption and uncertainty are the new status quo” . But business have been slower to adopt social technologies than people in general were, and they are slower to adapt that they need to be.