Have I missed something?


I was running a foresight session a few years ago and we were talking about work-life interaction – specifically the use of social media during formal work hours. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the age of the audience there was scepticism (another post perhaps) about the efficiency of this. One of my colleagues said “But things do change – did you think when you started work that you would spend at least 50% of your time each day on email?” Apart from the comment “50%? And the rest!” everyone agreed that email was a nightmare. But . . . email was one channel (although we had face to face, phones as well – having seen off telexes and faxes by then).

Now, let’s see – I’ve got a blog on wordpress, a linkedin page, posts and company page, multiple email accounts, IM, twitter, texts, phone, the odd face to face meeting (!) and now Slack. Along the way I’ve played with Yik Yak, Pinterest and am about to open an Instagram account. And of course various financial sites too. Plus not just powerpoint, but Prezi, Videoscribe and Adobe Voice to help me communicate. And I am well aware that I am not particularly up to date or active in the digital space.

So I am intrigued as to when we stopped moaning about email and embraced so many alternatives. Because on the face of it, it’s more bewildering and difficult to manage these multiple channels than the single email route. (I should perhaps confess that because I had a really long daily commute I never got overwhelmed by email but simple swopped the one evil for the other). Is it really because, as many would have it, we are now in control of all these channels? We can choose whether or not to post, or tweet or to reply? Or have we simply become addicted to digital communication in a way that email never inspired and that control is a delusion? And what are the inevitable consequences of that?

I’m interested because of a parallel track of thinking. When I’m running a foresight session I commonly ask what people think will have disappeared in say 5 years time. There are 2 very common responses – cash and pens. And when we discuss the latter, people begin to think that handwriting might disappear as well. Because in none of the above does snail mail, letter writing appear. And whilst I will confess I do write letters, it is becoming rarer and rarer (and I freely admit my handwriting is getting worse). All of which stems from the ability of almost everyone (but importantly not all) to exchange digital notes. So if we continue down this route what happens to our abilities to communicate? And how do we talk to the ‘have nots’ and ‘choose nots’ of technology?

And what physical consequences are there? Texting thumb is an identified issue as is the hunched neck and shoulder of a mobile addict. It is less these individual consequences that interest me so much as how fast this is all happening. We think of evolution in generations – centuries or millennia, not years or decades. I’m also interested in an updated version of the infinite monkey theorem. If we gave smart phones to monkeys would they develop texting thumb and how fast?

I’m certainly not the first to raise the issue – but I am fascinated by our ability to detest (but become ruled by) one form of digital communication (email) whilst embracing so many others – and interested in the evolutionary experiment we are running!

Always on

clock watching

More for less – it’s been the holy grail of business for years. And yet – sometimes we don’t know it when we see it. Or rather when it’s there – it is the seeing that is the fundamental problem. Trust in management circles has generally relied on seeing what’s going on and reviewing what gets produced. The issue with a knowledge or virtual based economy is that the effective way to work is likely to be remotely, probably mobile and digital in nature, and hence invisible to the watching manager. And increasingly what matters, in a consumer world at least, is experience – it trumps product or service and hence quite often outcome is more important than measureable output.

Why does all of this matter? Work – life balance – how to help people be more productive in work, and yet enjoy life. Mobile devices and enterprise apps are making this increasingly possible but the behavioural and cultural aspects are as ever the most intractable. Or at least they have been to date. For generations comfortable with texting their immediate neighbour rather than conversing, it shouldn’t really be a problem. Like so many things affected by digital we need to reappraise trust, metrics and accountability – after all the research has shown for years that except for mechanical tasks productivity increases with autonomy (Check out Dan Pink on the subject).

So fixing the old issue may be about technology and trust – but what about the new? Do we really understand what working remotely, when it suits you, without an office, really looks and feels like? I’m intrigued by Hoffice, a Swedish start up which is encouraging people to get groups of individuals at their homes – with a structured approach to working with timed breaks, coffee and encouragement to achieve rolled into the package.

As with so many things digital, the technology is only part of the issue – our own instincts and needs, the support and issues of working relationships, the trust and clarity of what good looks like in terms of outputs or outcomes are all key to long term success. And as the Internet of Things takes off I suspect that life is going to change again . . . .