A network of networks: the future work unit

Digital technologies including the Internet of Things (IoT), cloud, and mobile could render 40 percent of companies in the world today irrelevant within a decade[i]. Automation could clearly compound this since the digital replacements may naturally lend themselves to requiring less human labour. This would clearly impact a huge swathe of the labour force and further encourage already visible signs of rising freelancing, new SME formation and new forms of employment. 1 in 4 students and 1 in 3 working professionals already want to start their own business[ii]. It is more than plausible that with most activity automated, most remaining roles will be mission critical and require a range of skills not typically found in any single example of today’s professionals. Teams, therefore could become the dominant model.


The infrastructure for more ‘team’ based employment is already being established. PwC has already established an internal marketplace for extra work tasks, whilst tech tools are evolving to facilitate better collaboration between professionals. Colony Beta is a tool for teams wishing to create their own collaboration network space – ‘a place to work with, incentivize, and track the contributions of a network of collaborators.’ It combines task management with “payments” and tracking[iii]. Bain predicts that by 2027, most work will be project based, with teams blending internal and external expertise to provide the required skill-set[iv]. Under this scenario, it is possible that formal mentors will appear – helping guide employees from one project to the next. The wider ‘gig economy’ talent platforms could themselves become a tool for increasing employee power, much as unions have traditionally done for manual workers. Whether or not membership of such ‘guilds’ is monetised or paid by via consumer data access could depend very much on the benefits on offer.

The transition to an agile team or network based work model could also provide an opportunity to disrupt the traditional (and fraying) employment benefits link. France, for example, is considering the implementation of a new benefits system with the aim of helping prepare for a new economy. Under the proposed scheme, the so called Individual Activity Accounts (IAAs) given to each adult member of society are designed to accumulate points in a manner not unlike airline miles. Work in both the private and public sectors are said to contribute points, whilst volunteer or pro-bono community service work could also be factored in. Points would then be used to finance an array of (personalised) benefits as well as lifelong education and training[v]. Such systems could be moderated or even initiated via new work platforms and networks (as could in theory universal basic income).

[i] http://www.businessinsider.com/former-cisco-ceo-500-billion-connected-devices-by-2025-2015-11

[ii] http://bit.ly/2jz95yz

[iii] https://blog.colony.io/colony-beta-product-summary-2121a357d61d#.95reikhrz

[iv]  http://www.bain.com/publications/articles/firm-of-the-future.aspx

[v] https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/individual-social-benefits-account-economic-efficiency-by-jean-pisani-ferry-2015-10

Future of learning: decentralised and self-guided?

There is often a lag between the emergence of disruptive factors and an industry undergoing transformational change. Fifty years passed between the emergence of canned food and the can opener, for example. For these fifty years we had the means of preserving food but not a modern way of extracting it. Although today’s gaps are in many cases shorter, they can still prove hazardous, not least because we tend to discount technologies and mediums that have appeared but not yet changed the world. Technology and education stands out as one clear example of this.


The internet may have already reduced a few critical barriers to change of educational models – access and availability as well as cost, but quality has generally remained an obstacle. MIT has recently added an adjunct certification process onto its MOOC offerings[i], helping to boost both the program’s financial viability and removing another barrier to the type of continuous learning advocated by many urging change in our learning and education systems.

Commentators often look for a big-bang change moment to confer shifts in paradigms, but the evolution of MIT’s MOOCs suggests that several waves evolution will be enough to confer radical changes. In effect the new model delivers value for money, efficiency in time and is more targeted than traditional length degrees. Indeed, David Gelernter, the Yale computer scientist suggests that ‘…over 90% of U.S. colleges will be gone within the next generation, since students demand value for their money and society demands colleges that work[ii].’ In its place, he suggests a wave of alternative credentials certified by a range of gatekeepers could emerge, with A.I presumably playing a key role in determining where gaps exist in an individuals’ education or learning and suggesting optimal – and not necessarily standard – ways to fill them.

Indeed as the pressure for continuous learning grows, both as a result of automation and companies’ demand for ever more adaptive workforces, the need for on-demand learning experiences will grow. Thomas Frey of the DaVinci Institute even suggests that ‘…by 2030 the largest company on the internet is going to be an education-based company that we haven’t heard of yet[iii].’ Whilst many companies are struggling to integrate external learning platforms into their learning opportunities, they are at least in some cases exploring new ways of putting the employee in charge of the learning experience[iv]. This would seem prudent in both developing a learning culture and organisation as well as allowing individuals to maximise their career opportunities in an era soon to de defined by white collar automation. A personalised approach to learning could similarly inform a new public education discourse. Unlike the wait for the can opener, the key technologies for unlocking this potential are already with us and evolving quickly.

[i] http://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2016/09/06/learning-2-0-and-the-future-of-the-disrupted-university/#3cc81d4c2fe9

[ii] https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/technology-and-learning/david-gelernters-scary-vision-future-higher-ed

[iii] http://www.businessinsider.com/futurist-predicts-online-school-largest-online-company-2016-12

[iv] https://dupress.deloitte.com/dup-us-en/focus/human-capital-trends/2016/fostering-culture-of-learning-for-employees.html


The rate of artificial intelligence (AI) development is quickening across a range of typologies and an expanding range of applications now includes even management. McKinsey has already noted that between ‘…25-30 percent of current activities (at the C-suite level) can already be automated using currently developed technologies,’ let alone the rapidly evolving suite that is threatening to take over further.


Increasingly, with AI influencing management decisions via provision of evidence-based models, the idea of such AI generated insight being fed to workers via fully AI mediums will become science fact rather than science fiction in coming years. Corporate visions are already appearing; Bridgewater Associates, a $160 billion hedge fund, has suggested that it would like artificial intelligence software to make 75 percent of all management decisions by 2022[i].

The idea of AI bosses may seem implausible to some, but once you disassociate the notion of jobs from their constituent tasks, it makes more sense. A job will continue to evolve in what it does and how it does things after automation. Bank tellers still exist (although at reduced numbers) in 2017, decades after the introduction of the ATM IN 1969, but bank tellers now have a different skillset and purpose than they used to.

Looking at the chokepoints of business productivity is also instructive. Office workers are estimated to spend a third of their time in the workplace collecting and processing data but AI could streamline and even eliminate the need to spend time on this[ii]. If management is thought of as, in part, the diffusion of tasks designed to help the company meet its objectives, arrived at via the gathering and processing of data and then acting upon it then it becomes clear that AI could have a role. The role, scope and skillset of management would need to evolve as a result, as would greater organisational structures. Flatter structures may be inherently more agile but the transformation of many legacy organisations into such a structure would inevitably place change management and organisation design at a premium.

Ultimately, as we suggest in our free What’s Hot in Technology 2017 paper, the move to robo-bosses would require the creation of a robust and flexible data infrastructure. AI relies on data and could, in some circumstances, accentuate and spread the negative impacts of low quality data. Strategically implemented however, robo-bosses could usher in new work forms, new forms of value and a boom in productivity.

[i] http://www.nextbigfuture.com/2016/12/160-billion-hedgefund-want-artificial.html

[ii] http://blogs.opentext.com/top-tech-trends-2017/

Zero UI

The notion of zero UI (user interface) is increasingly accepted as we move away from screens. The emergence of automatic and predictive technologies coupled with ever decreasing sizes mean that the next step could involve humans becoming the next UI[i]. Although the early iterations of Google Glass failed to take off, they are indicative of the drive for ever more accessible, augmented and ‘natural’ data and information retrieval and creation. With examples of making our skin the interface for computing, we are indeed on the verge of a long lasting and profound change.


Zero UI will expand beyond voice tech such as Alexa; first into chatbots and voice biometrics, and later in to face recognition technology, gesture control and haptic feedback[ii]. Haptic feedback is already evident in various guises; for example Google’s Project Soli makes ‘your hands the only interface you need,’ by using radar to detect fine movements[iii]. The impact will extend beyond the consumer sphere; the world of work could be upended- from office design and requirements to the skills needed for a range of job tasks.

Ultimately Zero UI is both a customer experience and data issue. Intrinsically this makes it a design issue and one that will need to account for interoperability between many systems in the future[iv]. Design thinking can help ensure that the focus remains on the consumer experience rather than the interface.

Zero UI can also help in both leveraging data and, perhaps more fundamentally, understanding user intent. The importance of the latter lies in the ability to then design and build personalized experiences that are not only relevant but able to anticipate user needs. Zero UI can also create new experiences that help connect the digital and physical worlds – providing a new medium for media, entertainment, commerce and a host of other industries[v].

For additional information on Zero UI and what it means for organisations, check out our free What’s Hot in Technology 2017 paper. In addition, the paper features a range of other technologies that are set to impact organisations in the coming year and beyond.

[i]  http://www.fastcodesign.com/3048139/what-is-zero-ui-and-why-is-it-crucial-to-the-future-of-design

[ii]  http://www.techradar.com/news/beyond-voice-control-the-future-of-the-zero-user-interface

[iii] https://blogs.adobe.com/creativecloud/zero-ui-designing-for-screen-less-interactions/

[iv]  http://www.techradar.com/news/beyond-voice-control-the-future-of-the-zero-user-interface

[v] https://blogs.adobe.com/creativecloud/zero-ui-designing-for-screen-less-interactions/

Wearables 2.0

Wearables 1.0 are reasonably entrenched consumer goods, despite the ostensible failure of Google Glass, although albeit in mostly prosaic forms such as fitness trackers. As the range of applications rises and the data generated increases, these devices are likely to become ever more interlinked and, thanks to machine learning, adaptive and personalised.


Health is one prominent area of wearables application, with bioengineers creating sweat-based sensors to monitor glucose[i]. Other wearables have been developed that monitor both biochemical and electric signals in the human body[ii] and even provide (as a skin implant) 16 years of birth control.

As the field of neuroscience develops, mental health and wellbeing could become the dominant part of the health ecosystem. Researchers have developed temporary nanotechnology ‘tattoos’ able to map emotions[iii] whilst new devices have been created that purportedly stimulates the brain to boost both academic and athletic performance[iv].’With allusions to productivity and hitherto unexplored areas of neuro-management, it is perhaps unsurprising that 81% of CIOs believe wearables will perform in the workplace and that retailers see wearables as forming a key part of their future immersive retail vision.

As a result, products that create a tailored experience for both enterprise users and consumers are likely to emerge, channelling and compiling input and data from multiple wearable devices and generating actionable insights. The ever widening range of wearable utility along with the sheer growth in the number of both wearable devices and the IoT traffic they generate could easily overwhelm individual consumers, as well as the information infrastructure/architecture of many businesses and organisations looking to capitalise on such data. Developing a hub for controlling, correlating, synthesizing and extracting key-takeaways is clearly of import.


Whilst the smartphone is likely to feature as such a hub in the short term, the emergence of virtual personal assistants not bound to a screen are likely to proliferate. Virtual, augmented and mixed reality combined with haptics hold potential for displaying data in a more meaningful and personalised way that can be done with a screen. With numerous wearables including contact lenses able to take photos and provide social media updates, already in the labs – the human body is set to become the next interface, rather than the screen. All of which begs the question – at which point do wearables in all their diversity – implantables, ingestibles and injectables become part of us, and no longer ‘wearable?’

[i] http://phys.org/news/2016-10-bioengineers-sweat-based-sensor-glucose.html

[ii] https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2016-05/uoc–etf051916.php

[iii] https://techxplore.com/news/2016-07-nanotech-tattoo-emotions-muscle.html

[iv] https://www.fastcompany.com/3058464/startup-report/a-new-device-stimulates-the-brain-to-boost-athletic-performance

Energy and business: an operational perspective

The economics underpinning climate change and the future of energy are in the midst of a fundamental change that will heavily impact businesses; even those not part of the energy ecosystem. Unchecked climate change is forecast by Citi to cost the world $72 trillion by the middle of the century. It is also suggested that ‘…the world can spend $2 trillion less in total on energy infrastructure and ongoing fuel costs than it would in the business-as-usual scenario[i].’ Overall then, the case for an energy revolution would appear to be clear – not only could we save $2 trillion but in addition avoid losing up to $72 trillion in economic activity. Simon Dietz of the London School of Economics notes simply, that ‘…long-term investors…would be better off in a low-carbon world[ii].’ There are signs that businesses are aware that they would do better in a low-carbon world too. Nine out of ten executives see climate change as an urgent priority.


Changes in the generation, capture, storage, distribution and use of energy now allow businesses to not only meet their shared environmental mandate, but strategically adopt better processes. Indeed, the energy ecosystem is already emerging as a key area for optimising business outcomes – from partner choice to financial risk and attracting talent. It is not only possible, but necessary for a much broader range of business leaders to implement a strategic energy and electricity plan. Within it, new possibilities will almost certainly exist as well as the ability to better match demand and supply.

Over the coming decade, the emerging energy landscape will undergo considerable shifts. A hybrid of large and small scale elements already visible in over half of large U.S businesses generating a percentage of their own electricity on-site, is likely to evolve further. Ikea is notable for its renewable energy plans and its refusal to rule out selling excess energy to local customers through localised microgrids.  Buildings indicating this imminent opportunity are already appearing, led and exemplified by the Edge in Amsterdam. Its solar panels create more electricity than the building uses – and while the Edge is packed with some 28,000 sensors, it uses 70% less electricity than the typical office building[iii]. In time the concept of solar panels may become antiquated with transparent solar glass already in the labs.

It appears that the main technology components of microgrids are reaching maturity, with energy storage technologies making dramatic leaps within the past two years and set for further gains. As they enable networking and the sharing of resources to match loads, microgrids can play a role in realising greater utilisation of existing generation and load resources. In time the concept of energy-as-a-service could pose serious issues to utilities ill prepared for change, and cement businesses’ place in the local community.

[i] https://hbr.org/2016/04/the-data-says-climate-change-could-cost-investors-trillions

[ii] https://hbr.org/2016/04/the-data-says-climate-change-could-cost-investors-trillions

[iii] http://www.bloomberg.com/features/2015-the-edge-the-worlds-greenest-building/

Compete or collaborate?

As recently as decade ago, the idea of collaboration, including with competitors being a prescription for an increasingly competitive business set-up may have seemed absurd. That is not to say collaboration didn’t happen but instances of it relating to key legislation, global standards and the like are giving way to a far broader array of issues on which competition and collaboration are merging. There is a growing appreciation that collaborating to solve the toughest business problems will require building relationships and tapping into new ecosystems for ideas, talent, and potential solutions. For example, ‘…Amazon and LinkedIn have welcomed competitors onto their respective platforms, recognising that expansion of their network was its own reward[i].’The mechanisms of collaboration, curation and crowd creation will therefore become critical skills and processes for businesses – and how to organise technologically and culturally for this will be critical.


Any future approach to collaboration is likely to feature talent. Given the breadth and speed of technological development in comparison to relatively slowly changing educational curricula, it is unlikely that any single organisation of size will be fully able to meet its future digital or STEM skills demand. Talent platforms and trusted third parties from within a businesses’ ecosystem are likely to feature as businesses identify and engage outside firms or individuals that can round out their existing skill set. Collaboration is also permeating processes for industries less advanced on platformizing their offerings than Amazon and LinkedIn. Some 60% of European financial service providers have open innovation initiatives and studies show that the success rate emanating from open innovation is some three times higher than traditional in-house R&D.

There is, however, a reason to suggest that efforts to collaborate externally may be limited by internal structures. Some ‘…25% of market-share leaders fear that company-wide collaboration can lead to tension among company departments[ii].’ Can businesses be expected to collaborate effectively externally without being able to do so internally? There are signs that employees desire it – of the 86% of unauthorized cloud apps in an average organisation, the majority are used for collaboration[iii]. A key problem is that less than one in ten companies report being very effective in their alignment of business and I.T goals. If this cannot be achieved internally, it could be harder to craft meaningful and effective external alignment. Or, perhaps free of legacy constraints, external collaboration could become a key driver and template for internal renewal? Either way, the balance of competition and collaboration -both internally and externally- looks set to help determine the winners and losers in the emerging connected economy.

[i] http://knowledge.insead.edu/operations/managing-the-challenges-of-coopetition-4813#wK0vCXMIeu0BYIRL.99

[ii] https://www.eiuperspectives.economist.com/strategy-leadership/fostering-collaboration-0?utm_source=TheEIU&utm_medium=Twitter%20&utm_campaign=BTS

[iii] https://www.ibm.com/blogs/social-business/2016/03/31/seeing-shadows/