THE BLOG
07/14/2015 02:00 pm ET | Updated Jul 14, 2016

The Future of Work and Importance of Digital Proficiency

The future of work is going to be the ability to make decisions on what to do, and what not to do, based on near real-time ubiquitous access to relevant and actionable information. The future of work will require a lot more intelligence built into our software tools.

"We are going to have personal digital assistants that are going to help us figure out what it is that we should be working on. The digital assistance are not going to be fully automated, they are not going to be responding for you, and they are not going to be doing your job. Computers are not going to take over. But imagine if you could prioritize your email inbox or prioritize your calendar based on far more information that you can process on your own.

What if you could look at your email inbox prioritized based on CRM data -- not priority based on the sender's name or title, but rather the highest priority customer (based on historical purchase or potential new business) linked into your CRM system. That level of intelligent sorting and prioritization is hard for a person to do, but an algorithm can do that, " said Alan Lepofsky.

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Alan Lepofsky, VP Analyst - Constallation Research

For 20 years, Alan Lepofsky (Twitter: @alanlepo) has been working with collaboration software, studying company cultures and technologies behind how employees work together to get their job done. Lepofsky career spans product management and marketing, research of next generation collaboration technologies, and social networking in the enterprise. Today he is a vice president of research covering the area of 'future of work' for Constellation Research -- an award-winning Silicon Valley-based research firm passionate about how business models can be transformed by disruptive technology. Constellation Research was founded by R. Ray Wang, with a passionate focus on what comes next. Lepofsky's research is focused on future of work and collaboration tools that people use to get their job done.

Lepofsky says:

If we look to the history that sort of led up to here, we started with email platforms and then we added instant messaging, blogs, wiki's social networking, and file sharing tools. Where do all those tools mesh with all the people that are using them? Where is the future going?

I don't think the future is actually going to be that dramatically different than what we have today.

Employees don't go to work to be social or use the next great new tool and technology. Employees go to work to do sell, market, engineer, build, design, or run IT. So the future of work is still functionally job based. We still have things we have to do.

Lepofsky views tools as supporting structures for what people have to do -- instead of viewing software products as being important to people's day. His view of collaboration software is like electricity or plumbing in our homes, or like special effects in a movie -- you don't even notice it. "The future of work is all going to be about how can we get better at connecting to people. How can we get better at connecting to content? How can we get things done more effectively? How can we get things done more efficiently?' said Lepofsky.

Fundamental technologies that changed the way we work: Cloud Computing and Mobile

Lepofsky points to two fundamental technology changes that have occurred over the last couple of years that significantly impacted the way we work -- cloud and mobile. Lepofsky does not include social as a standalone entity. Cloud computing has changed the way we access information but more from a behind-the-scene perspective, meaning the average user doesn't get the importance of that. They don't know if the company's infrastructure is a hosted service in the cloud or on premises. What the end user knows is that they can get access data in more ways now without having to be logged on, from any computer, and from anywhere.

For the end user, the biggest change has been mobile access. "We live of those devices and he no insert statistic here you know, 70 percent of your mail is read on a mobile device, or most of your interactions for status updates are on mobile devices, that has slowed dramatically change the way we work," said Lepofsky.

Mobile does not equal phone or tablet

Lepofsky is very specific about the definition and use of the word 'mobile'. And although the popular use of the word mobile is used to describe computing, transformation and use of devices, the term mobile is not equal to smartphones, tablets and laptops.

Mobile means the ability to work well in transit. Mobile is the ability to work anywhere, anytime, not tethered to your desk. Mobile could be a kiosk, mobile could be on airplanes, mobile can be changed display was in your favorite brands store. Mobile just means we can now work when we are not in those set static locations.

In the future information will be projected onto your kitchen counter-tops. So you're able to swipe information. During the midst of doing something and an important message comes in, and it's displayed right there. It wasn't on a wearable, or a tablet, but rather the surface of the device that I was currently looking at.

Imagine three, five, 10 years from now whenever it happens to be, where the physical structure of the device disappears and we can look at information on anything, whether it is augmented reality information, or our walls and surfaces and curved objects, dashboards in our cars -- all of these things are going to become screens for information.

What is the Future of Work?

When discussing the topic of 'future of work', there is always this battle between technology and culture. People love to get on the Internet and debate academically about which is more important -- culture eats strategy or technology for lunch and drivers of digital business transformation.

Lepofsky's view is not centered on culture or technology but rather purpose.

If you don't have a set reason for doing what you're doing, let's look at the two other elements. You don't have a reason for doing something, but you have the best culture in the world. So all the people who share and collaborate and are open, but they don't have an end goal so it doesn't matter.

Or you don't have a purpose for what you're doing, but you have the world's greatest holographic, mobile software device -- still doesn't work.

If you start with the "why" -- we are trying to close more sales deals, we are trying to improve customer service, we are trying you know get a product to market faster -- then you are purpose driven. The 'why' is what I want customers to focus more on. Then the supporting elements for the why, are the who and the what. Who being culture, what being the technology -- so the why is supported by who and what.

When Lepofsky is working with his clients, he specifically asked for the purpose of each project. For example, when asked about digital business transformation projects, he will ask: Is this to improve brand awareness? Do you want to improve employee engagement? Are you looking to improve supply chain efficiency? The goal for him is to define the 'why?' Ultimately, the goal is to define a purposeful project, the owner and stakeholders and a 3-5 year outlook. What is the future for work for your employees? Once this is defined, the team can figure out how to use the technology and how to improve the culture.

For cloud and mobile technologies the purpose is perhaps easier to articulate and define. So why is it that social networking and collaboration technologies have had slower adoption in the enterprise?

We've had collaboration tools for 20 some odd years, give them whatever name you want to, today we talk about communities. Well there was forums you know, bulletin board systems and things. We've had ways to collaborate for 20 years, and as someone who has been marketing those solutions, I look back at the phrases we used to use 20 years ago -- seamless, borderless, time zone free experiences, communicate, collaborate, and coordinate. That's exactly what vendors are saying today, so why haven't those tools worked? We still have a vendor after vendors after analyst survey, after everything saying, adoption is low. How do I improve the usage of these tools? Employee engagement is at a low percentage. Customer engagement is low.

So we've improved tools, and we've improved culture, but still in 2015 almost every article is about failure. Of course there's millions of great outliners, we have great case studies. But honestly, if we look at the media everything is about how this stuff doesn't work.

Purpose drives greater adoption

Lepofsky believes that upper management must define to employees what is that they are bigger part of. What does the use of technology or process mean to the individual employee? If management can explain the benefits to customers, organization and the employees, then companies can drive faster adoption of technology solutions.

Business benefits, key outcomes, everybody wants return on investment measurements. They want KPI measurements. You know a buddy of our Sameer Patel, I think is one of the best in the industry about talking to people about how to focus on key business outcomes. As you know, he's done a great job over at SAP, you know really focusing their social business, not around the tool but around how do you bring it to a business outcome. How do you close the loop at the end of the day?

Jive Software does a great job with their purposeful places, you know building templates for things. You have vendor's like Salesforce and SAP and Oracle who are building a social into their tools. IBM that's building analytics into everything, so you can measure how stuff gets done, that's where I'm excited about because I think we are at the cusp of a brand new era in productivity software where we are finally going to start really looking at how does it help us get our job done.

Right now, the marketing story is, how do you connect to your customers better? How do you create multichannel communications? How do you make sure that customers feel listened to? Employees, how do you feel you can get your job done?

Lepofsky believes that organizations are finally starting to recognize and communicate how people are getting the business value of all these new technologies. Is it easier to sell new technology to digital natives (employees who are born digital) versus digital immigrants?

It's not age, but rather digital proficiency that mattes

Digital adoption is less to do with age and more to do with digital proficiency, per Lepofsky. Digital proficiency consists of two vectors -- skill level with technology and comfort level with technology. To access an organizations digital proficiency, Lepofsky with work with leadership to a matrix of skill level and comfort level, and map employees onto the matrix. The matrix can help answer questions like: What this percentage of your employee base are going to be the best sharers? To goal is to identify opportunities to training, promotions and change-agent recognition. Companies can develop workshops to foster greater collaboration and adoption of new technologies.

Part of enhancing digital proficiency is accessibility to useful information. Lepofsky also points to the importance of the availability of information and the key difference between displaying information versus making it accessible. "I actually like that information is created and shared in a way that should be searchable, it should be discoverable, but it shouldn't always be visually displayed. I think that's the next generation of nirvana," said Lepofsky.

Adoption of collaboration technologies requires clear demonstration of user benefits

What tool inside a company has 100 percent adoption? The payroll system. Everybody has to use it. Lepofsky believes that collaboration tools need to reach that same level, where you're not aiming for 40, 50, 60 percent adoption. "There's no happy medium. For something to be successful you need 100 percent adoption, and to accomplish that it has to be a part of the workflow. It has to be the way that that process is done, not an optional way," said Lepofsky.

To achieve the widest possible adoption of any new technology or process, leadership must be actively engaged and leading the change effort.

You need to make it simple enough that people see a benefit for themselves. You need to teach employees that they will benefit and not the company will benefit.

Too many adoption projects fail because I see posters on the wall about you know, the company is going to become open and transparent and everybody is going to be able to share. I think you need to attack people's minds at an individual level. I think you need to say, guess what, you'll get your job done better, more efficient, more effective if you follow the following rules.

If you can make employees lives, their jobs, their success, their reward, their recognition better, they're going to be more efficient and effective employees. Putting the tools in place and cultivating the culture of adoption is important, but all of this has to be driven by purpose.

Human Resources (HR) is well poised to lead the collaboration revolution

Although historically IT has played a significant role in championing the adoption of new technologies, things are starting to change within the enterprise. There is a shift from IT being perceived as the 'evil gatekeeper' of new technology to a friend and an ally to line-of-business.

Lepofsky has noticed that the communication (marketing) and HR organizations are often leading the collaboration initiatives. "It's pretty cool that the HR Department actually has a stake in it these days. Why? Because of the people aspect if these tools are working, guess what? People are getting rewarded and recognized, and part of social is the humans involved and who better to manage that aspect of the business than HR Department. And so they actually have a lot more stake in the game than they had a decade ago, " said Lepofsky.

Microsoft, Google, IBM -- what are their strengths with regards to 'future of work'?

We asked Lepofsky to share his point of view regarding the big companies in the future of work space -- the big three IBM, Microsoft and Google.

IBM's strength these days has firmly revolved around the analytics capabilities of what the IBM portfolio can do. You look at kind of their catchphrase names like IBM Watson. IBM is looking at how can we implement analytics into everything that we do? How can we make email more intelligent? How can we make social collaboration tools more intelligent? How can we bring data mining to the average employee with IBM Watson and analytics? So IBM strength is really intelligent.

Microsoft's strength is around that core office environment. We all live off of Word and PowerPoint and Excel still, and that runs businesses as much as we want to say it doesn't. So Microsoft hasn't rested on their laurels. They haven't just said, we're going to sit back and let our cash cow of Office run the company.

Microsoft has completely evolved Office to be (a) primarily cloud-based. So Office 365 is absolutely the hottest thing you know customers are asking me about and it's the number one thing that we are probably getting queries about. But they haven't just sat back and let Office 365 be the products that we know and love today. Microsoft has introduced new products like Delve for finding information, it's the new conceptual search tool. They've added Sway, which is the next generation way of creating -- I don't want to call it power points, but creating content.

Microsoft is still focusing their business on creating content and creating the information we need. And then Yammer, and Skype, and email allows us to share, but let's say Microsoft's strength is still the core sort of belief of creating content.

Google's strength around that we are the next generation, you know email, cloud-based, Android running on mobile device. Google is cloud only, there is no such thing as a Google server on premises. So they really gel with companies that are thinking, you know we're going to go 100 percent cloud. Google has done a phenomenal job at seeding their future customer base by being very strong in universities and school systems and charities.

Google has done a very good job in that medium business space, at seeding future executives that are going to want to use Google products. They are doing lots of things that we live in our everyday life. Who doesn't use Google for search? Who doesn't use Google maps to find their way around? They're implementing the best of Google's tools, into Google for work.

So imagine if you're familiar with Siri on IOS, you may know Google now on Android. Imagine if you have Google now capabilities, but in Google for work. And so we are starting to see some really cool things there.

Lepofsky concluded our show with examples of what the 'future of work' may look like in 5-10 years. To learn more about predictive analytics, the role of wearables and Internet of Things in the enterprise and use of analytics and gamification to improve employee engagement, you can watch Alan Lepofsky's full video here. Please join me and Michael Krigsman every Friday at 3PM EST as we host CXOTalk -- connecting with thought leaders and innovative executives who are pushing the boundaries within their companies and their fields.