One of the biggest barriers to higher office productivity was articulated best by the late Lew Platt, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard: “If only HP knew what HP knows, we’d be three times more productive.” Most knowledge-intensive organizations, in other words, do a lousy job of capturing relevant information and sharing it among all the people who could benefit from it. But digital tools that address Platt’s frustration have gone from inadequate to industrial-strength in the past few years. These tools include blogs and microblogs, social-networking software, and wiki-style tools that allow collaboration without tightly constraining it. They give individuals a voice, allow groups and communities to form easily and spontaneously, and help knowledge both accumulate and spread. They will be a major force shaping office work in the coming years.
For that to happen, however, devices and data need to be secure. The growing prevalence of tablet computers and smart phones presents a double-edged sword. People often grab these devices first thing in the morning, and much of their life—including work—revolves around them. That means an employee can get work done anywhere, but the flip side is that company data goes wherever the worker goes, and the company can’t easily control it. A manager wants to be able to lock you out of your mobile devices if you are fired, so you can’t pilfer anything. And a chief information officer doesn’t want you downloading malware. For some companies, the iPad model solves the latter problem: no application can run unless Apple reviews and blesses it. Internet-freedom purists may not like that, but CIOs do; they want to sleep soundly at night. In the near future, however, the major mobile platforms will probably introduce some interesting solutions that preserve the benefits of mobile and social computing while imposing some access and security constraints that limit the risk to company data. And when the security issues get sorted out, we may finally achieve the full potential of the distributed workforce.
Even as technologies proliferate and their problems are overcome, offices—no matter how virtual—remain collections of people. In my work, I’ve seen a positive feedback loop between what we do when we get together face to face and the ways in which we reinforce those relationships digitally with new tools. And it’s important to remember that even in this world of freelance and part-time contractors, companies are still desperate to hire good people and retain them. That’s not going to change anytime soon, no matter how many snazzy digital tools we get. The office of the future might have fewer people in it, but the ones who are there will matter more than ever.
Andrew P. McAfee is principal research scientist at the Center for Digital Business at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and author of Enterprise 2.0: New Collaborative Tools for Your Organization’s Toughest Challenges.