The Wedge of Technology and the Next Era of Work
Why read this (31-minute essay)
If you are an adult who uses a computer for your job, you’re probably already aware that the ways people work, and even what we call “work”, have been changing for some time. It’s logical, therefore, that you would expect some further degree of change in the future. You may even have observed that the rate at which Work is changing is itself accelerating. What you are probably not aware of is that we are in the “moments right before” a transformation of Work so dramatic that it will (in a comparative instant) make prior decades of cumulative evolution look insignificant by comparison.
I’m writing about this change with excitement, and I expect you’ll want to hear about it, too, because the greatest effect is that we are going to be a lot more free as workers, and a lot happier.
The reason the change is coming “right now”, I believe, is because we are coming to the end of a major era for Work. In the era that follows, a number of long-standing paradigms that together define how we have worked will be replaced by new paradigms.
The impact of these new paradigms on how we work cannot be confidently predicted over the long term. But, because we can already identify those paradigms as they are taking shape, we can make some imaginative guesses about what the beginning of the next Era will be like.
In this essay I will attempt to describe this new, incoming era of Work, relative to the one that is outgoing, and to talk a bit about the forces (in Technology, in Us and in Companies) that are driving the big change.
I want to say things like: what is about to happen to Work is comparable to the advent of rocketry on the timeline of human transportation technology. But I also want to be careful to admit that the changes to Work that I’m talking about won’t be as easy to quantify as the difference between a horse-drawn carriage and a Saturn V. While no less dramatic I believe, we go in to this conversation knowing that these changes will come down to the subjective perceptions of humans. Which is not to say that the changes I’m talking about will be completely without quantitative evidence and manifestations. In fact there will be some enormous quantitative signals that the way we work has changed dramatically. But the most important measure, in my opinion, will be qualitative, and will be in the dimension of our experience. Why? Because work is going to get a lot more fun, and it’s going to change how we feel about it.
Another arguably necessary disclaimer up front is that these big changes are not going to change work for everybody. There are some kinds of work that will probably prove resistant to sudden and dramatic re-invention. Jobs where your physical presence is required to be at a specific place at a specific time will probably remain un-disrupted forever. But if your job does not impose a strict spatio-temporal requirement, this imminent future is for you.
PART I: The Office and the Rise of Information
I find it hard when writing things that are even a little bit historical to decide where to begin. From the easy perspective of hindsight you can always find one more causal relationship or interesting precursor, if you look back still farther. I have no desire, however, to be historically comprehensive. All I want to do is give a quick sketch of how what came before sets up what comes next.
The major era of Work that is right now coming to an end could be called the “Era of the Office”, since the word “office” conveys a number of its defining themes. But before we get into describing what those defining themes are, it’s useful to note that the Office Era replaced what came before it, which you could call the “Factory Era”. We don’t need to say much about the Factory Era except that its contributions to the long-term evolution of Work relate to the directly-supervised organization of manual human labor. That’s what a factory is. In that context, “work” necessarily meant manual labor.
Another conspicuous attribute of the Factory Era is the hard separation between laborer types and supervisor/owner types. You could reasonably guess that workers under the Factory Era did not have a strong influence on how they worked. We will look a little bit later at how the wants of workers and the interests of employers, have shifted and, together, shaped the evolution of work… and will continue to do so in the future.
Just to keep sketching broadly, you could also say that the general result of the Factory Era was the optimization of methods of physical production. This continued from the Industrial Revolution to the middle of the 20th Century, when the Office Era began. In a sense, the advent of the Office Era was a response to the success of the Factory Era, which had hit a wall in terms of being able to “optimize” further without a shift of paradigm. That shift of paradigm, as it turned out, was the beginning of the Information Age. And with that came the birth of the Knowledge Worker, whom we can contrast sharply to the manual laborer of the prior Era.
Industry still comprised factories, of course, with lots of people who still labored manually inside them. But, in the Office Era, now we had many more people who did not work in the factories, and who contributed to the business in other ways.
Today, we know that Knowledge Work isn’t confined just to companies that have physical manufacturing. But it’s useful to build on the factory model and to look at where the quest for optimization hit a wall under the Factory Era. What was missing, and what the Office Era brought in a big way, was information. Where the on-site owner/supervisor model had failed to produce the insights needed to continue optimizing, now (in offices) we added people who were explicitly concerned with collecting those insights. And the desire to collect (and leverage) information now extended beyond the factory walls, to every aspect of the business.
That people should come together in offices to do this new kind of work made a lot of sense. When the goal is to make optimal use of information, the focus naturally shifts to the mechanisms of communication and information flow. And, in the middle of the 20th century, physical proximity was inescapably a factor in communicating well with others. In these new physical environments created just for the purpose, the pursuit of more business information and better ways to use it produced all of the norms and practices that we readily associate with “Office Work” today, like meetings, memos, presentations, managers, and the deep ritualization of hierarchical decision-making.
So, was the Office Era successful? By most measures, no question about it. For companies, the value created by Knowledge Work far exceeded anything possible before. For workers, there have also been clear wins. It’s no doubt far pleasanter to work in an office than a factory. Salaries have increased, reflecting (if only to some degree) the exponential increases in business value their labor creates.
Because my interest is ultimately in showing how the next Era of Work will make us happier, I want to focus on the ways in which the Office Era has made us unhappy.
I can’t tell you how awesome it feels as a writer to practically not have to say a single word on the subject of the negative impact of the Office Era on the human psyche. It has been so exhaustively documented! The reasons we dislike the Office have been so well and so thoroughly enacted in movies and sitcoms. It is a cultural truth.
The core reason we dislike the Office is it makes enormous constraints on us. Like a factory, it is still a place where you have to show up and be. But the spatio-temporal requirements alone are not why the Office makes us unhappy. There is also the psychic drain of participating in all the specialized process and ceremony we’ve created to serve the flow of information and the making of decisions, which are the Office Era’s hallmark.
Though we are princes compared to the average worker in the Factory Era, collective unhappiness with the Office is a huge source of energy for the change that is coming.
But what is it we want now as workers? Where do we want Work to go from here? Which ways are our still-unhappy psyches pushing us? And, perhaps the most important question: why is NOW the moment when our desires are finally going to make Work more like we want it to be than ever before?
I’ll get to that. But before we plunge into the future, I want to take one more trip into the past. The usefulness of doing so here is to establish the starting point of an important change that’s been happening during the decades of the Office Era. I’m talking, of course, about the arrival of computers into the Office. The evolution of personal computer use in the Office during the last thirty or so years also gives us a chance to observe the wants of workers at last begin to really shape the biggest modalities of Work in the Office Era. There will be much more of that in the coming Era.
The worker desire that’s been conspicuously shaping Work in the Office Era during the last thirty years is the desire to not be at the office. This desire has been there longer than thirty years. But only in the last thirty, since the beginning of the general use of computers by people who work in offices, have we been able to see such striking effect.
One clear manifestation of that desire can be seen in the evolution of the computers (yes, the very machines) we use for work. And the nature of the effect is that we have made them easier to remove from the office, that we may remove ourselves from the office as well. This is a terrifically relevant historical arc to track, since it will bring us right to the present day and carry us into the next Era.
In the history of the portable business PC we also have a chance to observe another important development — that companies also woke up to the idea that workers were capable of doing work outside of the office, and that maybe it was a good idea to let them do so. Importantly, during this time the higher idea that employee wellness contributes to productivity and value creation is also growing in general popularity.
PART II: The Long Road to Mobility
We can think of Work as the sum of the tools, the behaviors and the culture that binds it all together. You can think of this Sum in terms of individual companies, in terms of entire industries, or even in universal terms. In broad or narrow cases, and at any moment in time, that Sum represents the balance of many complex forces. There’s much more to it than the simplistic reconciliation of what people want (or think they want) and whatever’s technologically possible (never mind feasible to manufacture and sell them) at the time.
But, if we were to indulge in a simplistic interpretation of the evolution of computing devices used for work, since the early Eighties, you could say that the shrinking size of the devices was powerfully driven by our desire to carry them more easily from place to place. I think that when people talk about the shrinking size of computing devices (relative to their power) they start with the obvious troublesomeness of room-sized Univacs back in the Fifties. From that big and inconvenient size one could imagine (again, simplistically) that the desire to have “personal ownership” brought us to the desktop.
But the reason we kept shrinking and slimming down from the desktops of the early-Eighties to the Macbook Airs of today, I think we can all agree, was our desire to carry these devices with us. I stopped consciously at Macbook Air, rather than extend the line all the way to the new class of smart devices. The reason for this is that we are trying to confine this (historical part of the) discussion to the use of these devices for work. Indeed, one of the themes I will treat later is the fact that smart devices have not yet been assimilated into the work life. When it comes to work, the device we carry with us is still probably a laptop.
To understand the changes that are coming very soon I think it’s useful to look at this historical desire on the part of business people to have a computing device that they could carry with them. Why would they want to carry their computing devices with them? It’s worth performing the mental exercise of clearing out of your mind all that you know about how people use laptops for work today in 2014. In the beginning, there were no pre-existing scenarios. Even such images that have become iconic representations of mobile work, like someone flying in a plane with a laptop open in front of them, did not exist at all.
Because the first “portable” personal computers were still quite heavy (at about 28 lbs.) people did not try to use them while traveling. They were still too big and heavy for that. In the beginning all that was gained was the ability to transport the device from place to place, and therefore to expand the number of places where you could work with a computer. This was not a win for mobility, really, since all it gave us was an increase in the number of fixed locations where we could work. This was a geographic diversification event for Work. And because home is the 2nd most frequented location for business people (after the office), it was a big win for work-at-home.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of the general sanction by business on the theoretical value of making their employees “mobile”, and the long-term impact of that sanction on personal computing device evolution.
I’m inspired by this old IBM ad that shows this buff business guy with the smug smirk of being a very productive individual. This was the face IBM chose to put to the first portable PC user. It was necessarily a business face, because regular consumers could not yet conceive of being able to afford something like this. When this ad came out in 1982, only companies for the most part could afford to buy computers, portable or otherwise. The consumer personal computer market did not yet exist. And so the desire to have them become portable came solely from the promise that giving your employees one of these bad boys would have a good ROI result.
It was no small feat of marketing for the computer sellers that succeeded in convincing all of business that this was true in the early Eighties, absent any evidence in advance or available models through which the portable-computer-enabled work of employees could be mapped to higher value creation. It was even too early to know the value of giving them desktops. In hindsight, it’s easy to dismiss this step toward mobility as an inevitability. But without the leap of faith from IT budgets, there would not have been, at least not this beginning to the portabilization of personal computers. Without interest from companies in buying the first portable computers while they were still really expensive, we would have had to wait until costs came down much lower before consumer demand could kick in.
Even as the consumer market for portable personal computers took off (and started to get the majority of the advertising attention), the idealized model of the mobile worker (as enabled by a powerful portable computing device) become ever-more ingrained in business.
So ingrained was this model that companies collectively started putting tens of billions of dollars into creating this “enablement stack” for their employees, comprising the devices (mainly laptops), the software (whether boxed or now SaaS), and the internal support structures and resources to maintain it all. Even now, in 2014, the typical case is that you have a laptop that your employer has bought for you. It’s also still true that your employer pays for the software you use to do work, and pays to provide the technological infrastructure on which you work. In that sense the purveyance model has not changed at all since the very beginning.
Let’s come back now to the basis of the desire on the part of business users to have a portable computer for work. For the employee the promise was this new power to work elsewhere. In practice, we know this mainly has meant work at home. But, consistently, I think there has always been this attempt to characterize “mobile work” as more mobile than it really is. I find it ironic that the iconic representation of mobile work, the laptop open on the plane, is one of the most personally immobile situations in actuality. It’s also typical of ads to attempt to convey this kind of “mobile liberation of work” idea by showing that work has been enabled in some exotic or remote location. I find it funny that the idea of mobile work has been represented in all these stationary ways, and that for such a long time all we have ever meant by portable is “to be taken from place to place”.
I think it helps characterize the importance of the change that’s coming by situating it on a longer timeline, as the culmination of something that both business workers and their employers have been wanting for over thirty years. To better look forward from here, we first looked back at the beginning of so-called “work mobility”. From that perspective we can see why companies funded the idea of the mobile employee in the first place. And from the perspective of the business user, we have to acknowledge that the only new freedom we have so far achieved, even at this seemingly advanced point, is a stretch of the geographic dimension.
We just work at more places. But still in the same way.
Although the Internet is everywhere today and we now have computing devices that are so small and light we can have them with us always, we still work mainly at fixed locations. And we still use mainly our laptops for “real work”. We hardly use these new devices at all for real work… yet. Doing light work-related email doesn’t count, but it is a harbinger.
To try to predict the future from here, based on the continuing effects of these two driving forces — the desire of workers to still be more free, and the buy-in from companies that this is good — you first have to decide whether you believe they will continue to have a similar agency in the future.
Do business people really still want more mobility for work? Or is portability all they ever really wanted? If there is still a desire for more freedom, what is the new dimension of that freedom?
Tough questions. The desire to make personal computers more transportable for business users may have been the main driver for size reductions in the beginning of this ultimately-mobile hardware movement. But more recently, fundamental hardware innovations have taken place that, shall we say, “alter the nature” of the relationship between the user and the device in ways that far transcend merely more lightness and more transportability.
But I don’t want to get ahead of myself.
It’s easy to situate, say for example, the iPad (introduced in 2010) as an end-point along an ever-smaller/lighter, ever-more-powerful timeline of portable computing devices used for work, all the way back to the first portables of the Eighties. It’s true that the iPad is even more portable than a laptop, but that is not the right way to characterize the iPad’s importance in the timeline of portable computing devices used for work!
Accordingly, we have to come up with new ways to describe the new “mobile freedoms” that are coming to Work in the future, that have nothing to do with the size and weight of the devices. That is all mostly irrelevant now. Later on, I’ll try to describe the forces that will bring masses of business people to the iPad very soon, since that is a big part of the future of Work we are sketching here.
But for now, suffice it to say that we believe the business user will remain interested in having still greater freedom with regard to how they work, even as the measure of that freedom changes from device portability to something entirely new. Not only do I believe the desire by employees to be more free will persist and continue to influence how we work and the tools we use. I believe this desire is about to enjoy unprecedented impact on the modalities of Work.
The other question we have to ask is will companies continue to support this evolution? The value proposition of a more productive employee (who could “work on the road”) was what kickstarted the portable movement in the first place. As described above, this intersected nicely with the desire by employees to be more free. Now that the chapter based on device portability has come to an end, and greater work freedom will come from new dimensions, will the interests of companies and employees remain aligned? These are also tough questions.
I’m going to really sketch here and give a very short answer that, “Yes”, companies are going to continue to support greater freedoms for workers and that their interests in this regard will grow even more aligned.
But, the ways in which companies will have to “buy in” to the tools and modalities of Work are going to change in the next Era. More power is going to shift to the workers.
PART III: The Time Dimension
To summarize what we learned from the first two sections: we are coming to the end of the Office Era. We can observe during the last thirty years the impact of personal computers, and then of the Internet, on Work. PCs and the Internet did a lot for Work under the Office Era. In this essay, we’re interested in the evolutionary interplay between technology and Work. So, one thing we observed was that personal computers became portable and that both workers and companies have bought into the idea that being able to work away from the office is a good thing.
But now, the defining paradigms of the Office Era are standing in the way of further evolution. Up until now, the enablement of technology on Work has been limited in fundamental ways by the strictures of Office Era (though we acknowledge great positive effects, too!) But in 2014, technology enablement of Work is evolving in ways that will pay no heed to these old strictures.
Earlier we wondered whether workers still longed for more freedom in their Work and what the new dimensions of that freedom might be.
Because we are free to sketch in broad strokes here, I’m going to say that the locational dimension has been conquered. And that’s the combined result of portable computers and the ubiquitous Internet.
It’s easy to see that as an endpoint, and to think that now that we have conquered the location dimension all we have to do is, slowly, popularize work-from-wherever as the norm. That will happen anyway, but that (comparatively slower-acting) force is not a key force in the next Era. At least, it’s not the most important force for rapid change at the moment.
I believe the most important force right now is our next desire for freedom as workers. Now that the location dimension has been conquered, I believe we have our sights set on the time dimension. And, as in the example of how the desire to be out of the office changed the nature of Work under the Office Era (and spawned portables), we will see now that the desire to be more free timewise is going to usher in and shape the next Era. And here too we are going to be able to observe the evolutionary interplay between Work and technology.
But, in the next Era of Work, the critical arena of evolution will be in software.
Let’s try to figure out what me mean by the desire to be more free with regard to the time dimension. Rate of adoption among employers notwithstanding, we take it for granted now that people (except for fry cooks and night watchmen) can work wherever they want. It’s the work-whenever-you-want part to work that’s coming next. To be clear, what we are not talking about here is that because Joe is up at 3AM and has a laptop and the Internet exists he can do some work. That’s old and not what we’re excited about.
If we look at the many strictures of Office Era Work, you can see that a lot of them are both locational and temporal. It’s not enough to be at the office, you have to be there when other people are there too. And so, even as the locational requirements are becoming more relaxed, the temporal requirements of Office Era Work are still there.
And it’s not just that meetings still have to be scheduled and things have deadlines. That will always be true. The problem is in the very orientation and attitude that Office Era Mindset has towards Time. It’s basic rhythm is wrong, and finding a new rhythm is one of the main changes of the next Era.
To understand why the rhythm is old and wrong, let’s consider two factors in three phases. The three phases are “before”, “now”, and “soon”. And the two factors are “when work-generating events take place” and “when the work is done”. In the “before” phase, the windows for work generation and and work completion were both synced to happen between 9AM and 5PM. At least that was the idea. This arrangement has lots of problems, delusion among them. But one nice aspect is that the sides are at least theoretically balanced. In the “now” phase, we still have a 9–5 window for when the work gets done. But now, the window of work-generating events has expanded to 24/7. You might say this scenario has always been the case and that work triggers have always been 24/7, and that this was the central delusion of early Office Era. But, undeniably, the triggers are increasing in volume now. And because our desire to act on these triggers has never been higher, the rhythm imbalance has never been more limiting.
So what’s next? Well, it should be obvious that the way to correct the imbalance is to expand the window of work action to 24/7, to match the window of work triggers.
Again, we’re not talking about just shifting blocks of time out of the traditional 9–5 window. And we certainly don’t mean that people should be working 24/7.
So what do we mean? We mean self-determination. The power to freely intersect moment and location. To work exactly where and when you feel like it.
This is finally the scope of freedom we’ve been wanting for decades. And, yes, we willingly trade the “easy container” of a defined work period, for a more active personal time management situation. And why do we want this when it increases the demands on our attention? Because it’s that sweet to not have to work when you don’t feel like it. It’s why Uber drivers smile.
The desire of workers to be completely spatio-temporally self-determinative is a humongous force that will have all kinds of manifestations.
PART IV: The Canvas of Possibility
What I want to do next is focus attention on one location of change that I think is going to be especially interesting as we enter the next Era of Work.
If we accept that the important technology arc of the Office Era was in hardware (because that’s where things needed to evolve for us to be able to work anywhere), then the important arc of the next Era will be in software. And specifically, in business software for the iPad.
This is now where I see the edge of the Wedge.
In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I’ve been using the word “iPad” as a metonymy for a whole range of devices, some a little bigger, some a little smaller. But they are all fundamentally one thing, at this point, I’d argue. And because the iPad was the first ever such thing when it came out in 2010, I feel perfectly okay to use that word to describe all the immediately subsequent copies as well. Techno-anthropologists of the future would probably agree. But it’s not an iPhone. An iPhone is something else, which is why it was necessary to make the iPad. (smirk)
Earlier I wrote that, while it is true that the iPad is lighter and more transportable than a laptop, this is not at all the right way to understand its importance on the evolutionary timeline of computers we use for work. Its arrival is much more important than that. It marks the end of one evolutionary arc in hardware. And the beginning of another evolutionary arc, in software, one that will be ever so much more transformative than the prior arc. Of course I don’t mean that hardware evolution will cease or that there won’t be meaningful advances. What I mean is that now that we have “opened the door” to interacting with software in this much more intimate and natural way, on these new devices, it’s only a matter of time before we do as many things as possible on them. That may be a controversial statement to make about the future to some, or at least the part where the iPad becomes the dominant work device. But I don’t consider that to be a statement about the future at all. In every important and decisive way, that future is already inescapable. That, too, is a subject well-written about, so I don’t want to make this an even longer essay by reproducing the arguments here. All I have to say about it is babies and old people.
Given the iPad’s unstoppable ascendancy, what remains to be seen is who the software players will be that succeed in imagining new ways for us to work. And what those apps will be like. The greatest of them will help us move towards this new spatio-temporally self-determinative, continuous productivity ideal. These are the new paradigms of the next Era of Work, and the most popular apps will ride these waves.
I should like to speculate now about what those mobile business apps of the future might be like.
This brings me now, finally, to my original inspiration for writing about the future of Work. It all began with this one chart in the annual Internet Trends report by Mary Meeker that came out in May. (Yes I’ve been working on this since May). It’s the chart about daily image sharing volume (slide #62). What’s awesome about this chart is that it’s interesting on different levels, and will mean different things to you depending on what you care about. The headline is that we are now sharing something like two billion images per day, more than 10x increase in just five years. The subhead line, if you will, is that these incredible volumes are happening on the very newest sharing platforms, like Snapchat and Whatsapp, that have grown faster than any other apps before them, ever.
The mental exercise I want to suggest is let’s pretend that what just happened in photo sharing were about to happen in business apps. Let’s pretend that we are no more than 2 or 3 years (tops) from a 10X explosion in the number of daily interactions with work-related apps on iPads. (Not email!)
When you look at the really small players in the Meeker image sharing chart, you can see some names that once had a lot of mindshare in the personal digital image space, like Flickr (seems like a lifetime ago). Even names that not so long ago made headlines when they were bought at seemingly outrageous valuations (based on their growth, then), like Instagram, have been dwarfed in this new order of things.
There are a few ways to dissect the transformation in usage volume and market share in the image sharing space, and each way has interesting implications when we consider how something similar might play out with business apps.
I’m using this as a framework for trying to predict the future, so I don’t want to stretch the image sharing example too far. But here are some patterns I see from the Meeker image sharing chart that might make sense for our mental exercise into next Era business apps:
- That the lions share of the 10X growth will come from new market entrants.
- That the most successful apps will be pared-down or creatively-unbundled mobile versions of much heavier, monolithic desktop progenitors.
- That collaboration (which is just business speak for Social) is deeply integrated into these experiences.
The first item is not a requirement. Though it does feel like a truism now that incumbents can’t make these kinds of innovative leaps. I don’t have a strong opinion on that, other than probably true.
Skipping ahead to item #3, duh.
The second item resonates very powerfully. If we compare Flickr to Instagram and then try to look for analogs to Flickr in business software today, it lets us tee-up the very exciting question: what will be the Instagrams and Whatsapps of business apps that will flourish in this next Era of Work?
In case it is not clear what is meant by “pared-down or creatively-unbundled mobile versions of much heavier, monolithic progenitors”, what we mean is let’s acknowledge that:
- Software based on the desktop interaction model (which is still the model we use on laptops) has tended to be kind of broad-scope, in that there was a lot of functionality built into these tools that could support a large number of individual use cases. A typical business worker today still uses a relatively small number of “big” tools, in many different ways throughout the day, in conjunction with other tools as part of numerous individual workflows.
- Reproducing those big desktop tools for iPad makes no sense and doesn’t work. So, let’s not just break away from the old tools, let’s feel free to break away from old desktop-based workflows, as well, because they are cumbersome.
One particularly monolithic and desktop-bound business software, comparable to Flickr (or even Photoshop) form our image sharing tool example, is Microsoft Office. The “un-bundling” of Microsoft Office, and the myriad workflows it supports on desktop, is going to spawn a wide and interesting assortment of next Era business apps.
At the beginning of this section I said that I was going to focus on business apps for iPad because I think this is going to be an interesting space to watch changes related to the next Era of Work. The reason for that, the reason the “Wedge” is here, is that this is where those entirely new workflows will be created, and they will be strongly influenced by next Era forces. It’s important to understand that business apps on the iPad will not be influenced by these forces because they are “next Era” — it’s not a conscious choice by software developers at that level. What’s going to happen is the apps that succeed in creating these simplified, fun new ways of doing working, will strike a nerve with users. And what’s motivating business users right now is the pursuit of this spatio-temporally free, continuously productive way of working.
Some people trip up at this point and say that you will never be able to do “real work” on an iPad, because, like, it’s not precise enough or something. This is another argument area I want to defer to the extant material on the subject. I think we’re going to be looking back on the keyboard-and-mouse model as if it were the command line pretty soon.
So, to summarize and clarify, I believe the iPad is a key stage for this incredibly important evolutionary moment of Work because:
- It’s the device we can not only have with us always, but also use because it does not require a place to be. Now you can work between places. This is true mobility, and it’s the end of the hardware evolution arc based on size and form. For this reason, it will readily serve our spatio-temporally self-determinative impulses to be continuously productive.
- The unprecedented intuitiveness of the touch interface, combined with continuous connectivity, location awareness, the cloud, etc. is an almost completely blank canvas on which imaginative software designers will create exactly the ways we want to work — the ways that feel so good because they relieve the pain of old workflows and make us feel more free and more productive.
- People want to use these devices so much that they are buying them for themselves. The old purveyance model of the employer purchasing the device for you and choosing all its software is disrupted. The line where company IT manages the enablement stack is redrawn.
Part V: Conclusion (the “Us” piece, or “Wait, I don’t want this!”)
We showed how the desire of workers to be more free touched the evolution of the personal computer and ultimately resulted in the expansion of the location dimension of Work. We made an argument that the desire for even more self-determinative freedom by Workers will continue, and that this desire is going to shape the modalities and tools of Work in the next Era, much more so than they did in the outgoing Office Era. We suggested that the next important freedom people will want from Work is Time. We suggested that, just as we saw the desire to broaden Work Location shape hardware, now we are going to see the desire for Work Time freedom shape software. We held up the iPad as much more than the culmination of the hardware arc, but as a breakthrough of interaction design that has fundamentally changed how we use computers. And for that reason, the iPad will be the key locus of activity for business software evolution. I went on from there to suggest that the evolution of next Era business apps might resemble some of the things we’ve already seen with consumer apps.
But, what if you don’t believe that our “general desire for more self-determinative freedom” is still there. Or, if you believe that it is, maybe you doubt that people will really want to give up the “easy container” of a defined work-action window.
Maybe you’re sitting there thinking “I know I don’t want my work-action window expanded to 24/7!” Maybe you like a clear-cut distinction between working and not-working, and having the kind of day where we plan and apportion blocks of time (usually hours) to each situation. I could try to assure you it can still be this way in the next Era. I could tell that you’d be free to schedule those “blocks of time” whenever you wanted. But that would be like trying to convince you that you should like on-demand TV because you can still watch your favorite shows at the same time on the same night of the week, if you feel like it.
The future is not for everyone. And not everyone will move towards it at the same time. But it’s coming all the same.
The subject of our unfolding collective attitudes and the Culture of Work in the next Era is big enough and worthy enough that I should maybe defer it to a separate essay. But I will say it’s not hard to see there are a few behavioral signals that many of us are ready to jump in now. And, because I promised at the very beginning to convince you of the imminence and inevitability of these awesome changes, I should mention one or two indicators that I see.
The clearest behavioral signal I see that says we’re ready is that we are already carrying these devices with us and we are already using them pretty much continuously. We have already slipped these devices/apps into every possible crevice of wakeful attention during the day and night. The spatio-temporal matrix has already been blown wide open by our use of consumer apps. All we need now are the new business apps that are so awesome we will welcome them with alacrity into this much bigger, distributed attention-space we’ve created.
Another clear signal we’re ready for continuous productivity, that also relates to our current use of consumer apps, is that we are all now clearly checked-in to the “Socialspace” pretty much all the time. And by Socialspace I mean the conscious awareness we have of people, events and interactions across all of the services we use to connect with and follow others. And the awareness we have of ourselves in that mix. What’s important about the Socialspace is that, even as we know that our own participation in it may be periodic or wax and wane at different hours of the day, we are inescapably aware that it is always there. It’s always on. This has a deep effect on the psyche, I believe. And it has also prepared us perfectly to enter Workspace — which is exactly like Socialspace, except it will be filled with people you work with. For lots of folks these spaces already overlap. All that’s missing, again, are the amazing new apps that will facilitate bold, new ways for us to collaborate with our teammates.
But unlimited logistical use opportunity and psycho-cultural preparedness aside, maybe you need more convincing. These are only Worker-side signals, after all. What signals can we point to in Business that support the next Era changes?
Though we showed how Companies will lose some of their traditional control over the enablement stack, we cannot of course completely discount the role those (centralized) interests will have in shaping and choosing the tools and modalities of next Era work. This also feels like it’s a pretty-well written about topic. I mean, people are talking and writing about how Business is changing all the time, right. But some of the more currently popular themes that I think support my theory about the imminent switch from the Office Era to the next Era of Work include:
- All the ways in which teams and organizations are supposed to be changing, culturally and behaviorally. All this talk of flattening and of the removal of hierarchies, with attention to how these traditional management structures now impede the optimal flow and utilization of information. The changing nature of decision-making.
- Everything related to the need to give continuous attention to the Customer. The many channels of external dialog, which are all continuous now. The cultural and organizational changes needed to create a broad “listen and respond” capability across a company.
Those are admittedly somewhat “fuzzy” signals, since you’d have to look for clear evidence of change in each case, and it would be different things at different companies. And you’d still find some people who’d argue it’s not really happening at all. And at some companies, they’d be right.
But there is one business “signal” I see that is neither fuzzy nor is it possible for anyone to deny its presence. I’m talking of course about…
3. Data (I think at this point the “Big” is implied).
I deliberately left for last the discussion of Data’s role in the next Era of Work because it is so important. It’s so important that it doesn’t even matter if you have an opinion on the business value of Data, or if you work directly or not with the thing Data. Data is changing Business. And the reason it’s such a powerful force (and a force driving us into the next Era) is because Data is changing the very rhythm of Business.
We’ve already described in Part III the framework you need to understand how ever-Bigger Data influences the rhythm of Work. More data equals more work triggers. For everyone. Not just for the people whose job it is to make available, process or analyze data. More Data is more Information, and it will create new work and new jobs (and whole new territories of attention), just as the explosion of Information did under the Office Era.
This is, of course, awesome. But it comes at a price. Under the Office Era, workers traded the constraints of the Office for the opportunities these new kinds of Knowledge Work jobs created. And the very emergence of the Office, as a place and as an organizational System, all arose from the desire to serve the Information. Likewise, the changes that are coming to Business in the next Era, arise now out of the necessity to serve the Information, as it is, in these staggering new volumes.
But why would merely more volume of Information (even if were exponentially more) have such a profoundly disruptive effect on Business? Why can’t we just “handle it” under the old ways of working? Try explaining it to an early 20th Century factory owner why his management structure of foremen and Workbosses would be inadequate to scaling his single-factory business across the country. You hit a wall. And the paradigm has to shift.
Specifically, Data is bulldozing the old ways of working with Information inside of companies. Our current processes are based on entirely outmoded expectations of our own powers to collect, organize and glean insight from Information. Bringing together the necessary information periodically into tidy “reports” that are then discussed in “meetings” was a cozy system for a long time, but that’s over now. It’s no longer acceptable to have to wait to know something until an official report has been prepared. We can no longer defer decision-making and action until the appropriate personnel have been briefed and convened.
That’s why the deluge of Data is grinding with such destructive friction against these old Office Era ways of working, based on controlled information flow and hierarchies. That’s why Data bulldozes into the Time dimension and compels a new rhythm for Business. The desire to make use of nearly limitless streams of data does more than compel a broadening of our work-action window. It’s not enough to merely open your mouth bigger. You have to change your whole attitude about Information. Organizations are going to be turned inside-out by the desire to chase the Data opportunity. The good ones, anyway.
Make no mistake. The words “data-driven” are not just a trendy buzzphrase used to sell B2B products. This is a mantra by which Companies are internally re-architecting themselves, shedding old Office Era traditions, and inciting their Workers to step up their game.
Originally published at www.chartcube.com.