Briefing the ‘digital astronauts’ who are colonizing the ‘virtual planets’ where we will all work

Author: Paul | Date posted: October 5, 2012

Reflections on my book talk to the Microsoft HQ engineers on the digital workplace.

It was an odd, almost alarming experience as the room at Microsoft’s Headquarters Campus in Redmond, Seattle started to fill up for my talk to them about the digital future of work.

Who would show up? What kind of people were they? Having been fortunate enough to be invited by Microsoft Research (the $9 billion annual R & D side of MS) to discuss the digital workplace I had no concept what to expect. Would anyone come? Did I have anything worth sharing?

Early signs were positive as copies of the book that had brought us together “The Digital Workplace – How Technology is Liberating Work” were getting snapped up as the room started to fill. To break the ice before the talk I asked about some of their backgrounds – engineers working on the next iteration of MS Office, re-thinking the visual side of Lync, Xbox development, on synchronous and asynchronous communication, digital connection and physical travel.

It started to hit me that this group of 40 or so were all extremely bright, individualistic, reflective and unlike any group I had spoken to before – and there were hundreds tuned into a live stream of the talk from across the huge Redmond Campus and around the world.

Thanks to my interviewer and colleague Ephraim Freed the conversation flowed nicely. What do I mean by the term “digital workplace”? How is it affecting the physical world of work? Can this be empowering for the frontline worker? Give me some examples of what is liberating and why? What are the downsides?

What was fascinating was areas of the topic we got into:

  • My view that government policy at national and international levels needs to see digital investment like it did after the industrial revolution in physical transport – railways, roads and then air.
  • That it is a digital right of all citizens to have access to powerful technology – we see ‘right’ to travel on a train or bus as a universal service for everyone but we have a digital divide in developed countries at present.
  • That we are at a unique point in human history in the post-technology revolution period where we need to design, build and extend the digital worlds where we will live and work for the next centuries.
  • That ‘localization’ of work and living will change demographics as city are regenerated with people living and working locally – and new ‘hybrid communities’ that are neither countryside or city but where people live and work but where their earnings come from a global marketplace rather than their local area.

Then it happened. I described this evolving digital world of work and living as like a dot we see in the distant dark universe, gradually coming closer.  Eventually we can see that this dot is a new planet, one we had not noticed before and it is moving closer to own planet. Eventually it comes to rest but close by, in our gravitational field, in relationship with us, connected somehow to us. How big is it? Will it come even closer? What is it terrain?

I said that is what is happening now in the digital workplace and digital worlds we increasingly inhabit. This new planet is not visible or physical but is present. The engineers oddly did not boot me out for “losing the plot” but seemed to really connect and be moved by this metaphor for what was happening.

Then my call to arms: “Here at Microsoft and in the other large technology firms you have a huge opportunity and responsibility to design and build the digital world we will then all inhabit – this is a once in a lifetime chance. What you shape will change how we work and live – what do you want to create, how would you like to live and work?”

They were a passionate and reflective group, they left intrigued and inspired I think but most importantly they left with the capability to explore digital workplaces, experiment, learn, design, think, correct, enhance, test, launch, improve. Google may have just overtaken Microsoft in market value but at around $250 billion each, who cares who is ahead really. Fact is from what I see and the people I met there yesterday, the company has a clear commercial and moral ethic and wants to make this “digital planet” coming into view a productive, enjoyable and fulfilling place where we can live and work.


7 Responses to “Briefing the ‘digital astronauts’ who are colonizing the ‘virtual planets’ where we will all work”

  1. Sam
    October 5th, 2012 @ 2:31 pm

    Great audience to talk to Paul. Microsoft has a significant role to play in shaping the digital workplace, especially through things like Lync, Surface and (more experimentally)Kinect. Any insights into their take on the DW? Do they see it in the same way? Are they still talking about Hybrid Organizations (as per their white papers a couple of years ago?)

  2. Paul
    October 5th, 2012 @ 3:03 pm

    Hybrid organizations yes – part of a wider view they have on some mega trends sweeping across the world as they see it – fragmentation, human-centered, localisation to name a few. Oddly they seem to have a similar sense of what the digital workplace means for us all – and the opportunities it offers in terms of both efficiency and value. They did refer (rightly I feel) to some products they invented like “free/busy” that can help with time zone management but have got lost in the mists of time.

  3. Angela Pohl
    October 5th, 2012 @ 2:39 pm

    Sounds like an inspirational session, Paul- congrats! I’m like the ‘digital planet’ metaphor but I’m not picturing that physically coming closer to our own planet. I’m thinking it’s more like like an alternate universe you enter into like in The Matrix. I was disappointed that Second Life didn’t really take off for the business world like some thought it would a few years back. Do you think it’s just a matter of time before somebody does creates something purpose-built like this for the corporate world?

  4. Paul
    October 5th, 2012 @ 3:09 pm

    Good reminder about “Second Life” and it was a vital and brave experiment but I think the idea of creating one world, however rich and user friendly, where we all work seems unrealistic. However I do feel that the different digital workplace services such as live communication and collaboration will become more engaging and more akin to the gaming world (not that I am a gamer). Your alternate universe concept is neat but the close by plant has a gravitational pull that reminds me of how the digital affects us today, drawing on our energy when we don’t want it to – such as on holiday!

  5. Angela Pohl
    October 5th, 2012 @ 4:07 pm

    Your gravitational pull comment is really fitting, as I am officially taking a vacation today and yet found myself sucked into your blog post and commenting back instead of cleaning out my physical office space like I’d meant to do today.…

  6. EphraimJF
    October 5th, 2012 @ 7:28 pm

    I see Microsoft’s role as very important, and as a double-edged sword.

    On the one hand, the company needs to make sure it crafts a seamless digital experience rather than a number of digital products. Sam, you mentioned Lync Server, Kinect, etc, which are specific products. In the past MSFT has tended to first create products individually and then knit them together as an afterthought. The result can be a jarring user experience.

    On the other hand, if MSFT creates a complete digital landscape, can smaller companies afford it? I’ve seen plenty of SMBs that can’t afford the full suite of MSFT products and servers, so end up with intranets/digital landscapes that are missing key components.

    From what I’ve seen the question is not so much about improved products, but integration of different applications and data sources with personal, contextual information.

  7. Paul
    October 7th, 2012 @ 11:43 am

    Great point Ephraim. With the huge tech firms like Microsoft having the resources to create the major digital pathways what about smaller players – and smaller customers? I think the lower cost entry points will happen as the market is there – small amounts all add up. But the barrier to entry is rather like the railways of the past – built by giants of the time. But then tech tends to create upstarts from nothing – lesson this week when Facebook passed 1 billion users after launch in 2005.

Leave a Reply