Briefing the ‘digital astronauts’ who are colonizing the ‘virtual planets’ where we will all workAuthor: Paul | Date posted: October 5, 2012
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.