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The fast-forward future

July 2, 2004
Related Topics: Future Workplace, Featured Article

For anyone who grew up with The Jetsons and 2001: A Space Odyssey, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the future just isn’t what it used to be. We’re still waiting for our jet cars, a manned mission to Jupiter and sassy robot maids like the Jetsons’ Rosie to keep house for us.

    Still, versions of those fictional futures have materialized in our time. We have hybrid cars. Robots explore Mars for us. And if we don’t have Rosie at home, we at least have the Roomba to vacuum for us.

    As the future unfolds, business tries hard to stay ahead of the innovation curve. One organization that scans the horizon for trends is Les Fontaines, Capgemini’s business learning forum, based in Chantilly, France. Its Trends Consortium, a group of forward-looking companies, develops a twice-yearly "24-Month Future Scan" report--40 pages of stuff you can’t imagine ever happening until you read the "evidence" section for each trend. The future is arriving faster and faster, and as the report says, "the half-life of a business trend has been shrinking rapidly."

    In the next two years, according to the Future Scan, we can expect these trends, among others, to have a significant impact on business:

  • The use of sensor networks, which create real-time feedback to upgrade and update the systems in which they’re embedded. They will be found, for instance, in a ventilation system that must be shut down in response to a biohazard and a human heart that needs an adjustment in medication to keep it healthy.

  • The rise of the "Surveillance Society," in which tiny, inexpensive cameras and location trackers monitor us all to create "global visibility."

  • The growth of ad hoc collaboration, in which corporate boundaries become more permeable, "enabled by a new generation of collaborative technologies."

    All of these trends have workforce-management implications, even though they might not be readily apparent, says Crystal Schaffer, director of knowledge and development for Capgemini.

    Take the sensor networks, for example. The continuous feedback of information should make it easier for companies to respond to all kinds of customer needs. But it only works if employees can manage the data streaming in to them, understand it and know how to act on it. Sensor networks carry with them the possibility of greater job complexity and data overload, she says.

    The surveillance trend is already causing an uproar in workplaces. Camera phones are verboten in some businesses; they can compromise trade secrets and set off sexual-harassment lawsuits. GPS tracking has cost workers their jobs when they were revealed to be someplace other than where they told the boss they were. "HR will find itself caught in the middle," between corporate demands for surveillance and workers’ outrage at being big-brothered, Schaffer says. "Now is the time to work up policies" to address the issue, she says.

    Ad hoc collaboration technologies like blogs, internal bulletin boards and social-networking Web sites allow people to make work connections based on their own needs rather than physical location, departmental boundaries or the dictates of an org chart. Informal networks can also hasten the spread of bad news and misinformation, and Schaffer recommends that human resources leaders resist the urge both to squelch the chatter and to ignore it. Get in the game, she says. "Someone posts a message that says, ‘My company stinks; it just fired 10,000 people.’ Instead of panicking, you’re there to say, ‘Here’s what’s really happening. We laid 100 people off, but not 10,000,’ and tell the HR side of the story."

    There’s nothing in the Future Scan about jet cars or space travel. But there is robot news. When they’re inexpensive enough, robots will be used for light manufacturing--and food preparation, according to the report. It doesn’t mention anything about a propensity for sassy comments, but I think that’s just a matter of time.

Workforce Management, July 2004, p. 10 --Subscribe Now!

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