Robots or Real People: Working in the Connected Age

Robot ReceptionistDid you follow Google I/O last week? I’ve been cramming my brain full of info on Google and other Cloud companies. I just finished reading The New Digital Age by Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen; I’m listening to In the Plex, by Stephen Levy and was totally fascinated by Robert Scoble’s video blog about Google Glass.

Eric Schmidt calls this the Digital Age, but it’s more. This is the Connected Age, where, unless we choose to disconnect, we are always in contact with our extended communities. One friend posted on Facebook that she had family in Moore, OK, where a swath of tornados sweeped through. She shared that her sister left her workplace, looked behind as she was driving away, and, within a blink, her workplace was obliterated. Within minutes, she received scores of messages expressing concern and support. Facebook is the frontporch of our global neighborhood.

There is no “those guys” anymore. I have friends in all corners of the world, people I work with in India, people I went to school with who returned to live in Asia, and South America. I care what happens to them. I keep in virtual touch thanks to many cloud tools: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, the Google-verse, email and Skype.

Success in the Connected Age will come from leveraging technology to bring us closer to one another, not to create distance. This has huge implications because we often use technology to create walls, to keep people at a distance. This is especially true within the workplace.

In the olden days (some might say the Dark Ages), we had dedicated workers (mostly women) who answered calls at a switchboard, then transfer those calls to someone’s secretary (also a woman), who spoke with the caller (to decide the priority of the caller in her boss’s world). Mad Men is set in that world, if you want a quick sense of how things worked. However, a real person, was handling the interface, which gave you the opportunity to make a connection, who could make the connection happen.

Today, we have Interactive Voice Response or IVR to handle incoming calls. We have voice mail to screen our calls. We have technology to buffer us from the demands of customers, employees, and management. We have been able to work in a robotic environment. What is fascinating to me, however, is that for those who are coming into the workplace, who’ve grown up texting on cellphones and playing with friends on Xbox Live instead of in the neighborhood, technology is the way they connect to one another. And as technology interfaces become more “human,” as tools like Google Glass become available, the way we work will change just as dramatically as the way play has changed.

Technology: to automate or engage?

Efficiency experts, cost accountants, and others who look at ways to increase worker productivity have largely focused on technology to automate tasks, to get workers to do more faster, with fewer errors, etc. However, there are two shifts that have created what I call the Connected Age: miniaturization (nanotechnology) and mobilization offering connections to everyone, even the poor in the developing world.

There are two levels of how we deploy technology. There is technology in the workplace, where we think workstation, or desk, where our concept of work is connected to a physical place, and there is the integrated technology of our lives, where we are in constant contact, if we choose to be, able to communicate real time with people hundreds, even thousands, of miles away. Smart organizations are thinking about how to change the way we work to leverage our collective brilliance. They are thinking about how to transcend robotic thinking to become transforming and talent driven.

We are living in the Connected Age. It’s not the future. It is now. Who is talking about how the workplace will have to change? Who is thinking beyond how to keep employees from tweeting and posting stupid stuff? What will we do to accommodate new ways of working?

I would love to hear from others who are thinking about this. Please comment on this post, or email me.Futuristic Receptionist

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