The Office of the Future

Posted by Peter Cochrane on January 1, 2004

Peter Cochrane, ConceptLabs

Futurologist Peter Cochrane discusses future developments in the relationship between man and machine, and how these will change the way we think and work in the next generation

The past 20 years have seen the eradication of the typing pool and the telex, and the arrival of the fax, PC, mobile phone, Internet, and 24x7 operations. The customer has become king and everything is being commoditised through industrialisation across all sectors. Data based industries are being Napsterised, young people text instead of talking, email instead of writing, and always go to the web rather then a library, and everything seems on the move…

Where is the technology taking us? At one level we will just see more of the same, but bigger and better - screens, hard drives, computers and connections, mobile phones, devices we wear, and chips on and in everything including us. RFID will revolutionise the logistics chain, EPOS, and security. Computers will have more access to more data and so will we. But I suspect our progress has already started to limit. For decades my work output has increased dramatically through upgrading technology and working practices. But I am now stalling through my human limitations - and the technology is always waiting for me: it never tires, stops, makes a mistake - but I do! Finding what I want, when I want is increasingly time consuming. For the next big productivity leap we all need help - an augmentation of our intelligence - machines that think!

It is paradoxical that the military play all day and occasionally have a war, while in industry we are at war everyday and we seldom play. To buy a pencil in most companies sees some quality assurance system in place, but to sell the company or make a really massive decision, well that can be done over coffee without any checks and balances!

A big step in the office of the future will be the arrival of the intelligent machine with war-gaming and modelling capabilities to provide us with decision-making support. But it will probably start with a modest amount of intelligence to help us sort, file, find and format data without human intervention.

Information is now generated and communicated thousands of times faster than we can accommodate, in a world that is networked, interdependent, and inherently non-linear. And we have an awful tendency to look at very complex non-liner problems, and reduce them to the two or three most dominant parameters, construct a model on that basis and make a decision on a single number outcome. In the past decade such actions have seen whole sectors severely damaged by decisions based on old thinking and old models. If only the managers had the ability to check the decisions before actually acting on them!

I see a future world of faster change with people moving jobs in shorter times, where they provide their own computing power and means of communications in the same way they buy a pen today. Companies will give up their total domination of people lives for the virtual workforce, where specialisation will see the assembly of teams in task forces addressing and attacking problems, only to disband when the job is done.

Most design has already gone to CadCam, where virtual specialists create the next product. The everyday processes of most organisations are being automated and the number of people involved is going down. So in the future of smarter machines than people, I see a number of primary objectives:

  • Reduce the number of bad decisions made at all levels
  • Automate more of our infrastructure and decision-making to reduce the 47% of the global GDP currently wasted in transactions costs
  • Reduce the number of people travelling
  • Realise more flexibility of contract in the way we employ people
  • Dedicate more resources to gathering data and intelligence information, modelling, gaming and anticipating change
  • Engender a culture of changing with technology rather than waiting for IT to change us
  • Do what you do best - outsource the rest, and reduce the number of employees. For example, more than 30% of the oil produced is expended on people transportation, and for more than 50 years engineers have been trying to perfect videoconferencing as a solution, but it has been a dismal failure. The reasons are all too evident, understood, and totally ignored by an industry that considers bandwidth expensive. For success we require images of human beings on the right size, scale, colour, with life like renderings, eye contact, gaze awareness and high quality sound. If we were to just fix these things we could quickly take a lot of cars off the road and a lot of airplanes out of the air. But we can go much further - we now have had the technology for a decade, to make complete walls melt away between offices at any distance across the planet so we could have kneecap-to-kneecap meetings.

The limited approach to office change seems to be down to the IT interfaces, which are largely created by people who don't actually use them in the working environment. It is blatantly clear that the people who design cash registers never use one during the January sales, or indeed travel luggage designers stay at home and never travel. I feel the same is true of office applications. If I could be God for a day I would rule that all architects and designers live in and use their own designs for at least two years after completion!

In my future world, we the customer, increasingly take charge of the technology and the environment and customise it to our needs. The good news is that the software and the interfaces are gradually allowing us to do that. It may look difficult to us, but in 20 years another generation will be sat in our seat and to them it will be second nature, and we will see the symbiosis of man and machine working together to create adaptable and intelligent organisations.