At the start of November 2016 I made my way to Aarhus, Denmark for the 12th J. Boye conference. The event is highly rated, bringing together digital practitioners principally from Scandinavia and Germany, but with attendees from the UK, Canada and USA among others. It was refreshing to have a non-UK perspective on the digital landscape.
This year’s theme was digital leadership, a topic I touched on in my own presentation at the event, discussing the changing role of intranet managers.
What piqued my interest most were the presentations on what’s just around the corner – whether technology, or cultural change. Are we ready for it? Because it’s coming whether we like it or not.
Michael Bednar-Brandt, from Oracle, had the slightly unfortunate keynote slot the morning after the delegate party, and did a sterling job of reviving everyone with a wide-ranging speech highlighting tech that’s either just arrived or will be here soon. Robovan went down well, though there was some scepticism about the practicalities: how does it cope with potholes, for instance? What would stop it being chucked into the River Clyde by miscreant youths?
The ‘smart fridge‘ (which seems to be the only current mainstream Internet of Things device with slick marketing apart from central heating controls) was also covered, and again, the practicalities for me outweigh the usefulness. It’s got a camera so you can see what’s on the shelves – but let’s face it, how often do you clean the inside of your fridge? The beautifully ordered, pristine shelves on show suggest smart fridge owners have exceptionally high hygiene standards, and probably don’t cook very often.
Flippancy aside, highlighting these technologies led on to a discussion of automation, and the use of robots. It’s likely that driverless vehicles will be mainstream in 2-3 years, given the weight of the tech giants behind the technology, and the fact that governments have started to issue licences for their use. (This clip of one of Tesla’s automated car journeys was published on 18 November 2016.)
This will have a huge impact on those employed in logistics. Will drivers find employment elsewhere? Or will they need to change their skills as a result? The relentless push to realise the next technological step has inevitable repercussions, sometimes in unforeseen places. Michael cited the impact that digital cameras had on traditional film manufacturers, and now camera manufacturers themselves are feeling the pinch because of the prevalence of smartphones for taking pictures. Will the fact that your smartphone has a torch sound the death knell for traditional flashlight makers?
Afterwards, speaking with other delegates, there was appreciation of the ways in which digital technology is being used but there was unease, too, about the implications for employment, and the ethical issues bound to arise from using intelligent machines in the future.
We need to talk about data ethics
The evening prior to Michael’s presentation, Pernille Tranberg talked eloquently about the increasing importance of – and need for – data ethics. She highlighted that most of us aren’t in control of our online data, and the way it is being used by companies should certainly give us pause for thought, if not cause for alarm. She highlighted that those who have grown up in the digital age are much more tuned in to how their data are being used, and are far less willing to hand over their details without question.
For a long time, companies could more or less rely on us not reading terms and conditions, and as we blithely ticked the tick boxes we freely gave those businesses carte blanche to reuse and hawk our data as they saw fit. But the generation that is growing up in an online world, and knows the value of personal data, is not so ready to give up its details for free.
In our digital, data driven culture, those companies who are ethical in how they gather and use our data are likely to gain competitive advantage. For instance, those who now practice a ‘zero data’ policy, which means they retain no personal details, can use this as a key selling point to differentiate themselves from competitors.
What about the future workplace?
What are the challenges for the future workplace? Jonathan Phillips, in his presentation Tomorrow’s Workplace, highlighted changes to types of work, the physical workplace, and workers themselves.
Demographic issues in developed nations mean companies will have to cater for potentially wide-ranging needs amongst their employees; as people work longer we will see 50 year age gaps between oldest and youngest employees. What will that mean for health provision for employees? We’ll need accessible workspaces – both physical and digital. What impact does that sort of age gap have on organisational culture?
Cultural challenge is also inherent in ways of working that are now becoming mainstream, such as ‘handovers’ to a different team in another part of the world to maintain a 24/7 service. Similarly, where there are skills shortages, these are likely to be plugged with employees based in different countries. The technology allows us to connect easily – but working across timezones and cultures can be tricky.
And the practicalities of our workspaces themselves are under scrutiny. The loss of productivity in an open plan space, for instance, is considerable, to the extent that workers need to find quiet space, or use headphones, to filter out distractions in order to be fully productive. But this needs balanced with the fact we are social creatures, and often enjoy the interaction with our colleagues. Face to face discussion is still valued and valuable.
How can a business cater successfully for these different challenges? It’s enough to make you feel sympathy for all the CEO’s out there.
Can we keep up?
One of the final sessions of the conference was an ad-libbed debate where the speakers had to come up with a pro-or-con argument based on the question they’d only just been asked. Coming after a fairly intense three days it was a fun way to finish, though one of the questions struck a chord. It asked ‘are you already too late for the next channel?’, i.e. is the rate of change so rapid that it’s impossible to be ahead of the game? The room was split, but there’s no doubt that what seemed futuristic only two or three years ago is either upon us, or shortly round the corner. Watching what happens next won’t be dull.