Emerging tech is transforming the workplace

While smart mobile devices, SaaS, and social software ushered in a wave of major change in the workplace, that's nothing compared to what's coming.
Written by Dion Hinchcliffe, Contributor

Pretty soon — and in the not-too-distant future, most likely measured in years rather than decades — just about everything will be connected over networks. And by this, I mean literally just about every man-made object. With the ability to put low-power digital radios in just about anything that isn't sub-microscopic, the technology world is now preparing to usher in a world where all things have active sensors and can create a data stream that can be sensed, identified, and captured.

This uber connectedness will enable profound new business possibilities and capabilities, most of which will be beneficial and a few that will likely not be quite as good.

Combine ambient data on just about any physically manufactured object — from car tires and milk cartons to shipping containers and test tubes — with pervasive wearable technologies that constantly present us with dashboards, notifications, analyses, and visualizations of all this data, and you have a workplace that will rapidly turn into a contemporary cybernetic amagamation that was previously only the purview of science fiction.

Worse, I actually know this from personal experience: Devices like Google Glass have already caused me to spend more time wearing, looking at, and talking to this deeply connected digital and virtual world than I ever thought possible until recently.

Related: The enterprise products with disruptive potential for 2014

The Near Future Of Workplace Technology: Wearable, 3d printer, quantified enterprise, mobile collaboration, knowledge flow

This fusion of all-knowing systems with practically boundless instrumented data from the real world is simply the inevitable scenario that happens when enterprise big data meets the coming ambient connectedness of most manufactured things. It's practically the very definition of a synergistic effect.

While potentially sinister on one hand, this also enables profound possibilities that we are just beginning to fathom today — and will almost certainly significantly impact health care, manufacturing, logistics, transporation, and many other industries. And it's essentially a fait accompli: All of this is largely a revolution that is already well under way.

More specifically, it is the technologies of the so-called Internet of Things, enabled by new fine-grained device protocols such as Z-wave and Zigbee — to name two of the enabling standards that are still far from household names today — which are remaking the deeply connected networked fabric of the world in a way that hasn't happened, well, since the advent of the web itself. Network-enabled devices based on these technologies are defining a new set of capabilities, namely that everything and anything can be percieved remotely, in real-time, over the network, and can then be monitored, measured, and even controlled as necessary.

For now — at least when it comes to the workplace — forget drones, genome editing, brain scanning, and agile robots, all breakthrough new technologies that will impact society in the next half-decade at scale according to the MIT Technology Review. This less grand, more invisible, but far more iminent set of workplace technologies is about to emerge in a cubicle near you.

And, unlike many of the technologies I explored in my recent overview of top enterprise IT trends to watch in 2014, these advances in the way we work will occupy and mediate much of our active time on the job when not face to face with co-workers, much like computer screens, applications, the internet, and social media do today.

These then are the technologies that are highly likely to change how we work, and the way we work in the next few years:

Internet of Things

It's not just the purview of Salesforce1 or Kickstarter projects any longer; the Internet of Things industry — IoT, for short — is network-enabling physical items in the enterprise down to the smallest conceivable object, if it's worth the effort (and I suspect, sometimes even when it's not). These objects (devices) inherently know how to find and connect to the cloud, and they're designed to transmit data about their location, orientation, and other useful quantified and qualified types of data (health, usage, battery life, etc.).

Even smaller enterprises will soon have potentially billions of low power networked objects — most of them everyday items of business utility — that enable orchestration, optimization, and even reorganization, recomposition, and arbitrage in a way we've never been able to realize before.  Buildings, factories, and transporation will be fully instrumented soon enough, as will entire supply chains, retail stores, and hospitals.

Related: Internet of Things to drive explosion of useful data

Quantified enterprise

In the same way we are using pedometers, Fitbits, Fuelbands, Withings scales, and other devices today to capture data that we are fascinated by in our personal lives, the same has long been taking place in the enterprise. Albeit it has been with fairly high value and significant assets until now, such as inventory control systems and RFID. Instead, the quanitified enterprise describes a mindset where readily available tools exist that enable analytics and business intelligence around the enterprise Interenet of Things at a much more fine-grained and high-scale manner.

The insight here is that the reality of business has long been that you cannot manage what you cannot measure. So much of what actually takes place in the enterprise is submerged or "dark," from enterprise data to ground truth on the physical state of the business. The quanitified enterprise is made up of applications and instrumentation that allows workers to literally take the full measure of what's taking place now and use it to manage, control, and optimize the business.

Finally, as Theo Priestley noted last year in Wired, even employees will be an integral component of this new workplace, as we realize that "an organization is only as good as the sum of its collective employee [data, such as digital] reputation."

Expect a new generation of (largely mobile) analytics tools and business intelligence services that allows workers to tap into, measure, analyze, and better make use of the fully instrumented organization.

Related: Extracting smart data from big data for business focus

Wearable and embedded devices

Enterprise smart watches, the Hitachi Business Microscope, and Google Glass are just a few of the harbingers of the future workplace. Gesture-based computing and even mind/machine interfaces are all in various stages of R&D and will allow us to not only greatly increase the speed of interaction and control with workplace technologies, but will also increasingly permit us to have higher bandwidth sensual perception of enterprise data, IoT devices, and the resultant quantified enterprise. Google and others are already experimenting with overlays of data in contact lenses, for example.

Perhaps the most important factor however, in the post-Snowden era, will be access to privacy. Starting with everyday mobile devices, a greatly hightened sensitivity to the needs of privacy, especially for devices connected directly to our bodies, will be the imperative for a large number of users.

Related: A pulse check on wearable tech: Think beyond the wrist already

3D scanners and printers

Long-term, 3D scanning and printing will allow most objects to be manufactured just-in-time at the point of consumption. Increasingly complex devices made out of a growing number of materials will be possible within a short period of time. As I noted in my enterprise technologies to watch this year, 3D printing is still in its very early days, but it's heading squarely for the vision of the Star Trek replicator: Able to produce most things, even living organs, on demand. For more enterprises, this means getting very, very good at owning the "replicatable" designs for products and putting industrial age notions like supply chain to bed.

Related: 10 innovations in the 3D printing realm

Lightweight and mobile collaboration

New applications for workforce engagement, often disposable and much more focused on privacy and data control, are emerging in the consumer world and are heading directly for the enterprise. While I've long been bullish on using social collaboration for this — and it's still favorite for larger enterprises — other competitive technologies like persistent chat are emerging as major contenders to make it easier for teams to collaborate together, accumulate collective intelligence, and forge a common culture. These applications will be designed to enable collaboration natively on mobile devices, and will support multiple modes of communication, especially high definition, multi-point video. Think Snapchat combined with ooVoo for the small and medium enterprise.

Related: The 10 apps you need to keep prying eyes away from your mobile messages and data

This then gives us a good sense of what we're about to see enter the workplace in the next two to four years. While 3D printing seems the longest outlier timewise, most of these technologies will be significant in enterprises large and small in the next 36 months on the outside.

What other emerging technologies are you seeing as major players in the next generation enterprise?

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