Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Convergent Technology

An important event is happening this month, and no it is not Peter Geyer returning from the ‘world tour’. Of course it is highly likely that you may not even be aware of this important event and that is not because you are out of touch, it is because you are designers and not nerds. It is quite possible that you are not sitting on the edge of your chair like every geek across the Silicon Valley counting down the days, hours and minutes to the June 29th release of Apple’s long awaited iPhone.

You might not care, but in the view of those at Apple, the iPhone will change life as we know it. Why? Because the iPhone will be the ultimate in convergence of technologies. To ice the cake, it will take Apple’s concept of user friendliness, exhibited in the iPod, and apply it to a mobile phone. This is good news for those of us who cannot figure out how to work their mobile phones. Sadly, I must admit that I am also personally challenged with operating an iPod. Let me be more specific, otherwise I risk fanning the flames for those of you who believe I am a complete technical moron; it is not the iPod that is confusing, it is iTunes and downloading that causes me to seek advice from my tech savvy son.

The Economist magazine describes Apple as “masters of innovation”, they say we can learn four key lessons from the company about inventiveness. The first is to innovate from without as opposed to within, this is referred to as ‘network innovation’. Stitch together your own ideas with others, and perfect them. The iPod was not a new device, but it did have elegant software and stylish design and of course the iPod has the multi touch keyboard that makes it so much more popular than other mp3 players. Apple brought user friendliness, good looks and a dynamite marketing campaign to the game, they didn’t invent the portable music player.

Lesson 2 is to design for users, not the demands of the technology; otherwise we run the risk of having devices designed by engineers for engineers. According to Apple’s CEO Steve Jobs “We are all born with the ultimate pointing device – our fingers – and the iPhone uses them to create the most revolutionary user interface since the mouse”. Jobs predicts the iPhone will “revolutionise the industry”.

The third lesson to learn from Apple is that smart companies should ignore what the market says it wants today. It seems a bit counter intuitive, but it makes good sense, you will never innovate if your frame of reference is how we do things right now - today. To drive this point home consider the absurdity of this prediction about telephones made by the Boston Post. “Well-informed people know it is possible to transmit the voice over wires and that were it possible to do so, the thing would be of no practical value”. Okay I am cheating; this prediction was made in 1865. The point is, we don’t know what we don’t know, and to stay ahead in the game we need to continually challenge ourselves to “think different”.

The final lesson to be learned from Apple is to fail wisely. Again not being geeks, the fact that the Mac was not Apple’s first foray into personal computers is probably not common knowledge to us.
Depending on the source, some say the Mackintosh computer was a descendant of Apple’s Lisa computer developed in the 1980’s. The Lisa was a personal computer with a graphic user interface. Lisa was a flop and Steve Jobs was forced to leave the project. Apple has a history of flops, but they keep going. They learn from their mistakes, and clearly Steve Jobs is tenacious. Some believe it is the leadership of Steve Jobs that saved Apple from bankruptcy.

So within days the iPhone will be released. When you hear so much about the arrival of such things you begin to anticipate, have expectations and in my cynical view wonder if you’re being duped. Is it ever going to happen, is it for real, will it deliver on the promise? e.g. the paperless office, Elvis being alive, the Geyer Blog (not anymore...) or the completion of the Melbourne fitout.

The iPhone is a multimedia and Internet enabled mobile phone. Its functions will include: a camera, a multimedia player, mobile phone, e-mail, text messaging, web browsing and visual voice mail. The touch screen will have virtual keyboard and buttons; it is a quad-band GSM phone. The phone has so much technology in it that Apple has applied for over 200 patients! Soon you will be able to purchase the iPhone if you are prepared to part with US $499 for a 4 GB model, or really go hog wild with the 8 GB model which will set you back US $599.

The lure of having one device that will do everything is attractive to some. For me I have my doubts, mostly because as a family we have gone through multiple mobile phones for a variety of reasons. You might say, of course, she has teenage boys they lose everything. Unfortunately, it was not my sons who popped my mobile in the washing machine on the normal cycle. Even after a rinse cycle retrieval and emergency mobile phone CPR (soaking the phone in methylated spirits) it still wouldn’t work. By the way that technique was recommended to me by Peter McCamley who had a water accident with his mobile, it worked for him!

Whether we like it or not the trend toward converging technologies is in full swing. At the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference – geeze sorry I missed that, I wouldn’t have been invited anyway because it is Microsoft’s annual meeting where they chart their aspirations for the future, At WinHEC Bill Gates, Microsoft’s co-founder, predicted “We don’t see the desk phone existing as a separate device in the future”. In Microsoft’s future vision, the PC would incorporate all of our desk phone’s functionality with our PC’s. We would be able to set up a conference call with the click of a mouse and you could play solitaire on the conference call if/when it got boring.

Sounds good to me, it took at least seven people to help me set up a three way conference call on my phone last week and that was just the people in our office working on it. The guys from the two other companies I was attempting to connect with couldn’t do any better. It wasn’t till Sean dug out the operating instructions for our 1975 handsets that we were able to successfully complete the call. Having this occur when the Sydney office was down an office coordinator and IT guy didn’t help.

In his article Skype Overcomes Hype with Fun Factor, Peter Moon talks about how much fun it is to make phone calls over your PC. It must be, why else would 8 million people be connected via Skype at any moment. Just as we are seeing a convergence of technologies with mobile phones and PCs we are seeing it with Skype too. If you think all you can do with skype is make phone calls you’re wrong. The latest release of the software provides the ability to transfer money using Pay Pal. Moon points out how useful this will be when your kids are calling you for money, one seamless transaction.

Wait – were not done yet, there are more converged technologies to report. There is the Qmedia speaker system that turns any mp3 player into a clock radio. With a secure digital card, a USB cable or a 3.5 mm jack you can go to sleep listening to your favourite podcast enabling you to learn as you snooze!

A few warnings about the immanent convergence of technology; Don’t try to do it by yourself or bad things could happen such as attempts to converge your mobile phone with your I key in your purse. If you drive a Nissan or Lexus the mobile phone will render the key useless, the car wont start and the best thing is it can’t be reprogrammed. OOPS

So over to you, do you think that converging technologies will change the items that we have on our desk, and even more importantly, how much of an impact will convergent technologies change the way that we work in the future?

Tuesday, 5 June 2007

Business issues that create workplace trends

I have been in New Zealand so much that I am beginning to wear nothing but black and white. You will note the affect this has had on me at the Christmas party when I break out into the Hakka after a few drinks. Needless to say it has been quite a busy time, so when the request came out to attend a session to discuss workplace trends my first response was, sure I’ll get right on that in my plentiful spare time. Fortunately, it occurred to me that I could kill two birds with one stone and turn this exercise into this months Ramblings. One item off the to do list – 7000 to go.

You can view this months ramblings like the fashion magazine’s yearly “ The big hair issue” except in this case it will be the “Big trends in workplace” issue you have all been waiting for. What I have done is assemble a collection of what I believe are the pressing issues that drive workplace trends. This is after all the purpose of the Ramblings, especially now that the thrill is gone from the secondary purpose of Futures Ramblings - summed up beautifully by my friend Susan in Seattle who wrote in an e mail “It is ALMOST not as fun to poke fun of Bush these days. Since the elections he has been so humble it is nauseating”

One of the challenges we have in identifying workplace trends is the gravitation toward thinking about responses before thoroughly considering the issues that drive the response. Business, social and political issues are catalysts that companies react to, which in turn start trends. We put a desk on wheels to respond to a desire for greater flexibility which is a response to a volatile business climate. This is why I believe it is necessary to consider broader issues as a starting point, mostly because it will give us a greater number of touch points to generate interesting solutions from.

Imagine five blind men trying to describe an elephant. The blind man holding the tail says it is as skinny as a snake, the blind man holding the ear says it is big and thin like a fan, the blind man holding on to the elephants leg says it is strong and solid like a tree trunk – you can see where this goes. It is impossible to effectively define or describe something if you can’t see the big picture. Such is the case with understanding trends, this is why I have formulated what follows into issues. I am hoping that you will begin to see the more of the whole picture, you will begin to see the way the issues link to one another and hopefully by having more to grab on to, will generate many more fantastic ideas for how the physical environment might respond to these problems.

ISSUE ONE- Shrinking talent pool - To focus on recruitment and retention is too limiting, this is a broader issue. There are fewer people to choose from when it comes to finding talent, not only do we need to make sure our clients are able to attract the dwindling source of company sustainability, the cities and countries we live in are in the same boat. They too are trying to attract people, and people attract companies, and companies bring money and then the city thrives. This elevates the discussion a bit. It is not just about getting people to work for our company, but getting them to come to your country or community. What makes them come? assuming we are after young talented knowledge workers they want to be in places where the ‘three T’s’ are present. Talent – more smart people to learn from and hang out with Technology – a government and community that will finance research and development and embrace new technology (e.g. if I am an up and coming biologist am I going to go live in a place where the government will not allow the type of research I want to do, such as stem cell research?). Tolerance – living in an area that tolerates diversity: age, sex, religion, sexual preference. These are the types of communities that will be attracting the next generation of talented workers. What does this mean in terms of environment: We need to create environments for knowledge transfer and to create learning communities that give younger workers exposure to senior workers enabling their careers to advance – this too plays into generational drivers. For the same reasons the environment must be used as a communicating device (perhaps through technology) to let workers know what else is going on within their company and the community, and the world.

ISSUE TWO - Outsourcing / off shoring / partnering - As companies respond to shrinking talent pools and increased competition they will want to leverage themselves for competitive advantage. Particularly in places like New Zealand, a country who is geographically isolated but has an insatiable passion to align with the rest of the world in technology/ consumer goods/ art/ fashion ideas etc. For a small country like NZ to play in the big world scene they need to join forces or partner with others to become a part of a larger community. Increasingly smaller companies and countries are doing this as a means to increase scale and reach. What does it mean in terms of environment – the physical environment will need to accommodate people who do not work for them but are working on projects for specific periods of time. We need to design more ‘partnering rooms’ that can be a home base for employees and outsiders. Technology will need to be better to enable clear inexpensive communications with out sourced, off shore partners (this is why the HP halo communication is making such a big splash) Also security issues will need to be addressed physically and virtually.

ISSUE THREE – Conflict resolution – Not a new idea but one that has hidden impact on how a business will perform. While we cannot make people get along and work together many of our clients hope that the environment can help repair severed bonds (the same way couples think babies will fix there problems perhaps?) Some times there is conflict due to personalities and differences, an extreme case is our client Ngai Tahu who are joining several Maori tribes to come together to promote their culture and business proposition. The issue of conflict resolution or difference is more often seen with companies that have merged and are attempting to create a single culture. What do we do – This one is really tough, going back to the couple analogy perhaps focus on what the common goals are and create an environment that support common values but allow the differences to still exist? E.G. the building and work environment communicates overarching value but each employee has a name tag that is customised, graphics to define groups?

ISSUE FOUR – Technology and technology backlash – While we demand and require great technology that is simple to use and gets beyond security issues, we also need to consider that many people are bloody sick and tired of it. There is a bit of generational differences here too, the younger generations have much more tolerance for multiple points of stimulation. We need to consider environments that provide opportunities to just get away, Cisco has done this in San Jose with the creation of a library space where there is no technology or noise permitted. Do we help our client develop signals and protocol (like PMC did last week with no e mail Friday)? Obviously, creating spaces that foster community – particularly as workers have greater mobility and flexibility in work hours, will encourage face to face communication to augment the great freedom we will have due to technology.

ISSUE FIVE – Consumer activism, awareness, corporate social responsibility - This is a big issue. People are beginning to question authority more and are drawing stronger connections with a companies values and their behaviours. Companies in the US are spending lots of time and energy defending themselves and their motives – taking out full page ads in the New York times to tell everyone they are really good guys and not just a big multi national that only care about money. A while ago I wrote about Wal Mart creating a ‘situation room’ to brainstorm and respond to negative press. The public and employees have greater expectation that companies do not behave the way Enron, WorldCom or the AWB did. What does this mean in terms of environment? – Clear ESD implications, also alignment of brand values to building and workplace image. Provision of community spaces on company premises .

ISSUE SIX – Faith and meaning – As people we are searching for meaning, I am not sure why there is more of this now than before, but there is. There is a definite push in the US toward religion to achieve this – sadly thru fundamentalist views, just as there is with other cultures and religions. Countries like New Zealand and Australia have a large number of new immigrants, and are also seeing more ethnic gang activity and violence. In a simplistic level these gangs are a means of providing community, connection and meaning to people who cannot find another way to fit with the culture – in the US I believe it has more to do with social and economic differences. Others are increasingly finding meaning through other means, such as yoga obsessions, or environmentalism – which has been coined as the new religion. What does this mean – People want a community, people want meaning in their life, particularly gen Y. Work environments must support differences and provide a sense of community that allows each person to feel like they belong.

ISSUE SEVEN – Depression, stress general well being – As I described in last months Future’s Ramblings organizations are now being held responsible for the well being of their employees. About a week ago Michael Greer sent out an article describing an Australian company that was in some hot water because they did not tell their employees before hand that they were shifting from offices to open work settings. What does this mean? Depression and stress are closely related, and we can certainly have an effect by designing workplaces that don’t drive people nuts. It sounds like design 101 but: zoning loud activities away from quiet activates to avoid distraction, use full height spaces as buffers, provide a variety of ‘fit for purpose’ spaces, create areas to decompress, provide good acoustics.