2016 Workforce Communications Narrative

I’m announcing a few upcoming report projects from Gigaom in the next few days. One is the long-awaited 2016 Workforce Communications Narrative:

Workforce communications is a class of message-centric work technology that is principally geared toward the modern mobile workforce, especially geared toward enabling communications between workers in retail, manufacturing, transport, security, and construction. These are mobile-first applications, although they also support other enterprise functions, but with an emphasis on the efficient functioning of the mobile worker, often working outside the typical workplace, and in particular, often without access to PCs. They incorporate elements of messaging, chat, social media, and file sharing, as well as more workforce specific capabilities like shift scheduling, calendaring, task management, and other functional tools.

Here’s where workforce communications fits in the broad spectrum of work technologies (note that the chart below does not include all work technologies, just a few categories):
Screen Shot 2016-06-08 at 11.19.25 AM
We will be scheduling briefings with vendors in the space — including Avaamo, Fieldwire, Lua, Red E App, Sitrion One, and Zinc (formerly Cotap) — in the coming weeks. If you are the representative of another vendor, please contact me.
I am also looking to work with at least one other analyst on this report, so please contact me (@stoweboyd) if you are interested and you have a background in work technology and analysis.

‘Work Processing’ and the decline of the (Wordish) Document

I’ve been exploring a growing list of web-based tools for the creation and management of what most would call ‘documents’ — assemblages of text, images, lists, embedded video, audio and other media — but which, are in fact, something quite different than the precursors, like Microsoft Word and Apple Pages documents.
The big shift underlying these new tools is that they are not oriented around printing onto paper, or digital analogues of paper, like PDF. Instead, they take as a given that the creation, management, and sharing of these assemblages of information will take place nearly all the time online, and will be social at the core: coediting, commenting, and sharing are not afterthoughts grafted onto a ‘work processing’ architecture. As a result, I am referring to these tools — like the pioneering Google Docs, and newer entrants Dropbox Paper, Quip, Draft, and Notionas ‘work processing’ tools. This gets across the idea that we aren’t just pushing words onto paper through agency of word processing apps, we’re capturing and sharing information that’s critical to our increasingly digital businesses, to be accessed and leveraged in digital-first use cases.
In a recent piece on Medium, Documents are the new Email, I made the case that old style ‘documents’ are declining as a percentage of overall work communications, with larger percentages shifting to chat, texting, and work media (enterprise social networks). And, like email, documents are increasingly disliked as a means to communicate. And I suggested that, over time, these older word processing documents — and the use cases that have built up around them — will decline.
At the same time, I believe there is a great deal of promise in ‘work processing‘ tools, which are based around web publishing, web notions of sharing and co-creation, and the allure of content-centric work management.
Screen Shot 2016-06-08 at 11.19.25 AM
Chat-centric work management, as typified by Slack-style work chat, is getting a tremendous surge in attention recently, and is the now dominant form of message-centric work technology, edging out follow-centric work media solutions (like Yammer, Jive, and IBM Connections).
Workforce communications — relying on a more top-down messaging approach for the mobile workforce — is enjoying a great surge in adoption, but is principally oriented toward the ‘hardwork’ done by workers in retail, manufacturing, transport, security, and construction, and away from the ‘softwork’ done by office workers. This class of tool is all about mobile messaging. (Note: we are planning a market narrative about this hot area.)
Today’s Special
Today, I saw that David Byttow’s Bold — a new work processing app — has entered a private beta, with features that line it up in direct competition with Google Docs and the others mentioned above. Bold raised a round of $1 million from Index Ventures in January 2016.
The competition is hotting up.
Work Processing Will Be The New Normal
What I anticipate is the convergence on a work processing paradigm, with at least these features:

  • Work processing ‘docs’ will exist as online assemblages, and not as ‘files’. As a result they will be principally shared through links, access rights, or web publishing, and not as attachments, files, or PDFs, except when exported by necessity.
  • Work processing apps will incorporate some metaphors from word processing like styling text, manipulating various sorts of lists, sections, headings, and so on.
  • Work processing will continue the notions of sharing and co-editing from early pioneers (Google Docs in particular), like edit-oriented comments, sharing through access-control links, and so on.
  • Work processing will lift ideas from work chat tools, such as bots, commands, and @mentions.
  • Work processing will adopt some principles from task management, namely tasks and related metadata, which can be embedded within work processing content, added in comments or other annotations, or appended to ‘docs’ or doc elements by participants through work chat-style bot or chat communications.

I am pressed for time today, and can’t expand on these ideas with examples, but I plan to do so quite soon in a companion post to this, called Work Processing: Coming soon to a ‘Doc’ near you.

IBM buys Ustream: is it a workforce communication play?

IBM has added Ustream to a long list of video technology company acquisitions in the recent past — like Clearleap acquired last month — buying the streaming video vendor for around $130 million (according to Fortune). The company had raised $50 million in venture funding, and was the sole video partner involved in the launch of IBM’s cloud marketplace in 2014.
The typical analysis is that this rounds out a spectrum of technologies that now make IBM a player in corporate streaming video, particularly targeting customer contact and marketing activities.
But I’m betting that IBM’s primary focus will be — although not be limited to — workforce communications.
Marcia Conner makes my case in a tweet.

Ustream Align is an inside-the-company video ‘collaboration’ — or ‘workforce communication’ — product built on the Ustream platform.
Even though there’s a broad market of offerings from companies like Google, Microsoft, Unify, Cisco, and so on, no one has become the dominant player in video-based workforce communication, which may be the most natural solution for an increasingly mobile world.
The Ustream acquisition is another indication of the rapid transition to video in workforce communications, where it is destined to be the major medium for work communications.

What’s My Agenda: the Future of Work and Work Technologies, or Work Futures

People tend to think of not knowing as something to be wiped out or overcome, as if ignorance were simply the absence of knowledge. But answers don’t merely resolve questions; they provoke new ones. – Jamie Holmes, The Case for Teaching Ignorance

The central line of inquiry for my work as an analyst and researcher over the next year and beyond will be the future of work and work technologies, or ‘work futures’, for short. Before breaking that down, let me try to clarify what those terms mean. I will do so by asking a few questions, with Jamie Holmes’ observation, above, in mind.
On one hand, the intent of the phrase ‘the future of work’ is obvious, just like any other ‘future of’, such as ‘the future of dentistry’ or ‘the future of the European Union’. But the reality is that the meme of ‘the future of work’ has developed a strong connotation related to a specific set of progressive ideals about work, and an underlying implicit criticism of the state of work today, and the preceding era, as well.
‘The future of work’ is an academically-oriented domain of discourse, with a strong lean into new theories of humanist business management, and with closely related ideas of economics and organizational development.As a simplification, I have been using work futures as a shorthand or synonym for ‘the future of work and work technologies’, and will do so for the rest of this post and going forward in general. [In fact, work futures was the name of the consulting company that I created when the old Gigaom shut down in March 2015.]
The growing interest in work futures has arisen as a central area of discussion about organization, management, and adaptation to new technologies, especially those which are based on the form and function of social networks and social media. This is an expansion and absorption of the discipline called social business, that started in the early ‘00s and had been drained of emotive force by 2010, principally due to the blur caused by vendor marketing that has drifted back into the ‘right information to the right people at the right time’ vein, and lost the thread of a more humane workplace and the aspiration for people to find meaning and purpose in work.
The first wave of social business was principally an adoption of technologies like blogging, wikis, forums, intranets, community software, and various sorts of messaging. This was an early phase, much of which predated social networks like Twitter and Facebook.
The second phase of social business tech was more of an aspect of Web 2.0 era technologies, transitioning to software-as-a-service, and increasingly mobile. However, it was principally a desktop-based era, and newer solutions and practices have emerged which are much more mobile at their core, and less likely to be deployed behind the firewall on company servers.
Enterprise 2.0 was a school of thought that was strongly technology centered, based on the parallelism with the term Web 2.0.  It was a school of thought that took the ‘tech’ side in the perennial debate about ‘which is more important, the technology or the people side of social business?’ Andrew McAfee of MIT is perhaps the leading advocate for the term, but it has been displaced first by ‘social business’ and now by ‘the future of work’ and ‘digital transformation’.
Digital transformation can be thought of as an industrialization of the thinking behind the research and practice of work futures, building around the growing popularity of customer experience as a unifying metaphor for customer-centered business thinking in an increasingly digital world.Just as fast as social business has been eclipsed by work futures, in turn work futures is rapidly being crowded out in entrepreneurial and existential management and tech circles by digital transformation. Digital transformation can be thought of as an industrialization of the thinking behind the research and practice of work futures, building around the growing popularity of customer experience as a unifying metaphor for customer-centered business thinking in an increasingly digital world.
Here’s a definition I used in a recent presentation:

Digital Transformation: A new operating model of business – based on continuous innovation – by the application of digital technologies and the restructuring of operations around customer experience to better engage with customers, the company ecosystem, and the greater marketplace.

Note that the work futures content is buried mostly in the ‘restructuring of operations’ phrase, and the shape and tenor of those changes is in service to the need to get onto a digital footing in relation to customers. The focus on humanization and democratization of work in work futures discourse is shifted to customers at the center of the digital transformation weltanschauung.
I threw out the terms ‘entrepreneurial and existential management’ above, and they warrant some unpacking.

Entrepreneurial management is the branch or thread of management thinking and writing that extols entrepreneurialism above other approaches, venerates start-up culture, and which advocates for the application of practices that have come from that quarter for other, and older, companies. This includes lean and agile practice, data-centered management, and valuing experimentation and learning over tradition and institutional knowledge. There is much to admire in entrepreneurial thought, but there are aspects of this body of thought that carry forward questionable practices from the past, such as the central role of consensus building which can lead to group think and the suppression of innovation and diversity.

Existential management takes entrepreneurialism and macro-economic ideas–like Christensen’s disruption theories–and casts the challenges of business into a zero sum landscape shaped by arguments to induce management to operate through a sense of  impending doom, that without new principles of business their companies will crash and burn. To the good, there are times when raising the spectre of a dangerous future can help focus attention, but this is easily overused.

I am not making light of the core truths of some of these ideas, such as the potential for companies to disrupt established industries or markets, as Apple, Google, and Uber have done, or the vast potential of lean and agile practices for business. However, the tendency toward hyperbole, and a deeply sententious, and sensationalist writing style by many in these threads often obscures the foundational value of the core ideas being expressed.I am not making light of the core truths of some of these ideas, such as the potential for companies to disrupt established industries or markets, as Apple, Google, and Uber have done, or the vast potential of lean and agile practices for business. However, the tendency toward hyperbole, and a deeply sententious, and sensationalist writing style by many in these threads often obscures the foundational value of the core ideas being expressed.
At the highest level, those exploring work futures blend cultural and economic criticism, advocacy for a more humanistic set of principles for the management and operation of business, and the scientific insights coming from fields like complexity theory, cognitive science, behavioral economics, and social psychology. As I said in a recent keynote, the shared premise of those investigating work futures is the application of new understanding about human interaction, motivation, and drive, and to embody that understanding in a new way of work.
In the months and years to come I will continue to explore and research the threads that make up the fabric of work futures, including these:

  • Tools for Work Communications: ‘Social Collaboration’, Work Management, Work Chat, Working Out Loud, and Workforce Communications — I will be closely observing the shifting landscape of the tools being applied for work communications, and the many diverging and competing theories of management that are buried in their architectures.
  • Culture Management — The tools and techniques being used to create an organization climate where higher levels of feedback and greater degrees of quantitative assessment of engagement lead to a better understanding of the sentiment and orientation of all involved in the workplace.
  • The New Social Contract — I’ve started a new series on Gigaom Research focused on the changing social contract: the operating premises that underlie the relationships between employees, management and the extended workforce of part-timers, freelancers, and independent and dependent contractors. The new social contract is also influenced by issues like diversity, economics, regulation, and the role of government and other non-corporate actors, like unions.
  • AI, Robots, and The Ephemeralization of Work — The rising power of  robots, artificial intelligence, and algorithmic processing of data is leading to many occupations being taken over in whole or part, with humans having to find work elsewhere. This is one of the most critical trends in work futures. wrote in the Pew Research report AI, Robots, and the Future of Jobs,

    The central question of 2025 will be: What are people for in a world that does not need their labor, and where only a minority are needed to guide the ‘bot-based economy’?

  • Fast-and-Loose Organization and Culture — A great deal of the smoke and heat in ‘the future of work’ is about new forms of organizations relying on different cultural foundations. This includes the democratization of work in general, and the adoption of new approaches — like Holacracy — that rework the notions of business management. The emerging consensus is that organizations are moving toward lateral and bottom-up networks and away from top-down hierarchies. (Note that hierarchies are networks, too, but ones with slow-and-tight forms of communications and control.) Today’s companies are becoming fast — agile, flexible, resilient — as opposed to slow — stable, rigid, unchanging. To become fast, you have to become loose: relaxing the strong ties of hierarchic controls. I will be tracking the advances made in this area closely.
  • Leadership and Management — Even management gurus have been suggesting that management has to be rethought in light of the changing conditions for organizations, today. Gary Hamel described the need to move away from bureaucracy in The Beyond Bureaucracy Challenge: Creating Inspired, Open, and Free Organizations, and asking the questions that will shape my investigations in this area:

    Managing is largely about controlling and coordinating — the question is, can the work of managing be pushed out to the periphery of our organizations? Can it be automated? Can it be dispensed with entirely? Is it possible for an organization to be highly decentralized and precisely synchronized? Can you get discipline without disciplinarians? Are there ways of combining the freedom and flexibility advantages of markets with the control and coordination advantages of traditional hierarchies? Can we reduce the performance drag of our top-heavy management structures without giving anything up in terms of focus and efficiency? To what extent can “self-management” or “peer-management” substitute for “manager-management?”

    Lamentably, bureaucracy lives on, where the few rule the many, and hierarchic management is still accepted as the norm. Entrepreneurial management is becoming the norm, but that may not be going far enough.

  • Innovation, Creativity, and Learning — Central to many discussions about work futures is the premise that increasing innovation in established companies is problematic, but unleashing the creativity of employees is essential for companies to compete and survive in times of rapid change. As a result we see a great deal written about practices to increase innovation, such as continuous learning, and the selection of people with certain psychological traits — like curiosity — as a precondition of increased innovation.
  • Cognitive Science —It’s interesting to see that cognitive science has recently shed light on common fallacies about learning, such as the notion that we learn better by focusing on a single skill at a time (see Cognitive Science Upends Conventional Wisdom About Studying). Like that example, there’s a long list of new findings from cognitive science that should have major impacts on business, management, and how we perceive behaviors at work: others and our own. However, much of these findings haven’t found their way into the workplace.
  • Work/Life Balance and the Costs of High Performance — Recent discussions about the costs of high pressure work environments — including the buzzfest about the New York Times exposé of Amazon — have brought the tension between ‘high performance’ workplaces and work/life balance to the forefront. I will be at the forefront of those discussions.
  • Open offices, remote work, and the mobile workforce — A revolution has taken place in business in just the past five years, driven by the rise of mobile devices and ubiquitous connectivity, we’ve witnessed wholesale changes in the physical layout of offices and the diaspora of workers from the old notion of working nine-to-five at the same desk for twenty years to a way of work that would have been unimaginable ten years ago.
  • Incentives, Meaning and Purpose — Moving past the extrinsic motivations of money and benefits, one of the major themes in work futures is interleaving intrinsic motivations — like meaning and purpose — into a larger mesh, in which human striving can be better understood.
  • Digital Transformation — Digital transformation is gaining greater weight as a result of growing awareness regarding the ‘digital customer’ (which might be better considered the ‘connected customer’). The premise is that businesses have to basically turn themselves inside out to engage customers who are migrating away from traditional forms of media consumption, and are now connected at nearly all times through mobile and other digital devices. This is associated with the growing role of new marketing thinking — based on reaching the customer at all ‘touch points’ along the ‘customer journey’ — and the declining power of the CIO and IT. Companies undergoing a digital transformation often appoint or hire someone to act as chief digital officer, which may be a stint while the company is being transformed, or may be a replacement for the CIO.

You can be sure that I will be trying — over the course of the next year — to create new questions, not just answer the ones I am starting with.It is, I realize, a broad palette, and I am sure that I am setting myself a stretch goal to included all of these topics. On the other hand, considering how these topics inevitably influence each other — or better said, are inherently tightly linked to each other — it would be pointless to enumerate only a few of these and to pretend that the others can be ignored.
I will be crafting a series of surveys in the coming months, working to get at the hopes and fears of the workforce, management, and the individual worker in these areas. If you are interested in shaping the direction of my line of inquiry — or simply would like to remain informed of our efforts — please sign up here.
You can be sure that I will be trying — over the course of the next year — to create new questions, not just answer the ones I am starting with.