Time Will Tell

By John Parkinson  |  Posted 07-19-2002

Redesigning Work for a Tech-Savvy World

Back in the early 1990s, long before all the excitement surrounding the Internet, I spent a weekend with an old technology buddy in Ann Arbor, Mich. The plan was to help him install a new personal computer, but the real "ah-ha!" of the weekend came from observing his seven-year-old son play Super Mario Brothers and watch cartoons on TV at the same time. The amazing thing, at least to me, was the boy's ability to engage fully in both activities, and to be able to answer, albeit somewhat tersely, adult interruptions without losing either the boy's place in the game or his enjoyment of the cartoons.

I can see no way that I, or most people my age, could do what these kids do without having to think about it. I can certainly learn to play video games. But interrupt me with a question and I'm lost. I can watch TV and more or less interact with others at the same time, but I soon lose track of one or the other. And I see a lot of teen-oriented TV as nothing but noise—especially the music video genre. It's not that I don't like the music; after all, I grew up with rock and roll. It's the presentation I can't get used to.

I'm a technologist from way back. I built my first computer in 1966, and I've been writing code since about the same time. I actually know how things like TV and mobile phones work, not just how to make them work. But I didn't grow up surrounded by video games, MTV and the like. In the world of technology, I'm practically a first-generation immigrant, while the kids I've watched over the years are natives—and that makes a big difference.

Now fast-forward a decade or so to a world full of dazzlingly complicated video games, multiple channels of jump-cut entertainment, and PCs everywhere. Then add in instant messaging, chat rooms and mobile phones with short messaging services. The teenage children of my friends and colleagues use all of these technologies on a daily basis. Not only do they intermix them in complex ways, they are inventing a whole new set of languages as they do so. Depending on your point of view, their interactions with the technology and with each other through the technology are either richly complex or bewilderingly trivial—and perhaps both at the same time.

Time Will Tell

Time Will Tell

As I watch my five-year-old daughter, who has had a computer since before she was three, rapidly re-create her generation's ability to interact with the current glut of technological toys and surrounding infrastructure, I wonder what she will be able to do a decade from now. And that, in turn, makes me wonder how we will create working environments that today's teenagers—read tomorrow's work force—and the generations following them will find sufficiently engaging. Can we learn to leverage their multitasking capabilities to create the next big surge in productivity? (We'd better: For at least two decades, fewer workers will be supporting more retirees, and that productivity boost is going to be badly needed.)

I've worked in both line and general management for a long time, both before I became a consultant and since. A part of being a general manager involves the ability to switch our attention from one context to another as we deal with multiple aspects of our work. Although we keep a lot of things in play at the same time, we generally focus on just one thing at a time. In that sense, our behavior at work is essentially linear. General managers simply change "lines" more often than their subordinates. Our information systems and business automation approaches and processes are designed to support this requirement, organizing tasks linearly and packaging information into constrained datasets that can be assimilated rapidly and used in a specific context.

Our children seem to be able to do better than that. They seem to start out with the skills of general managers and then add a distinctly non-linear dimension to their abilities. I hesitate to call it a "networked" approach—perhaps "associative" is a better analogy. It makes me wonder about several aspects of our current working environment that we need to think about changing.

Making Predictions

Making Predictions

First of all, we are pretty certain to have a much richer user interface within the next few years as we deploy voice recognition, machine vision and perhaps haptic capabilities (touch and gesture recognition). If my admittedly unscientific observations are indicative, our children will quickly intermix these capabilities to create a highly personalized user interface that will be difficult, if not impossible, for others to understand. Judging from the typical teenage mobile phone conversation, which is already mostly incomprehensible, how will we know what they are actually doing, even as we watch them do it?

Second, with the kinds of multitasking skills our children exhibit, all work might come to be seen as "knowledge" work, and work structures might need to become much more flexible. This goes beyond the evolution of production lines into flexible manufacturing, perhaps requiring truly self-organizing systems. We will need a new set of technology and systems architectures to cope with the change.

Third, work may have to become more like play. Already, much of the leading edge of personal technology is occurring in the areas of games (especially multiplayer games) and entertainment.

Fourth, more work might get done at home or at some convenient "community" place that combines the workplace with other pastimes such as sports, hobbies, entertainment and so on. Such a shift would bring with it obvious security implications, but with highly personalized user interfaces, security and confidentiality would no doubt become less of an issue than they are now.

There are some clear pluses to a more adaptable work force. Flexible working and the management of variable resources become much easier. The assimilation of complex tasks, rapid reskilling and continuous performance management should also be easier. The work force will come from a generation that is used to competing against arbitrary performance models (the sociology of interactive games) that are nevertheless peer-group normalized (it's pretty clear among the players who is really good) and broadly accepted (everyone plays).

Facing Obstacles

Facing Obstacles

There are also some potential negatives. What constitutes organizational loyalty? How do you motivate workers? What makes the intergenerational management process effective when the intergenerational behavior and even communications processes are increasingly out of joint? Will we need new forms of automated translation to convert the semantics of business our generation uses to the semantics of task structure our children create on the fly? How will we validate work processes when we can't perform them ourselves? Remember Clarke's Law: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Will we be comfortable when most of our workers become highly accomplished magicians?

Perhaps I'm worrying too much. After all, the education we give our children, particularly in high school and beyond, seeks in part to renormalize their behavior into a model that we (and their teachers) are more comfortable with. By the time they enter the work force, we may have slowed them down to something closer to our level. Every generation tries to do this to its children to some extent, but no generation succeeds entirely; otherwise, we would never make any progress at all. I wonder how successful we will be in maintaining our current model of the workplace and the linear structure of work. I wonder what we, as managers, technologists and leaders will need to do to keep work—even work that is supported by the increasingly sophisticated technologies at our disposal—from being unbearably dull to the next generation. And finally, I wonder when and where the tipping point will be, when we finally lose the ability to undertake the work of the enterprises we manage and, like every generation, have to trust our children to get it right.

Should be an interesting decade.

John Parkinson is chief technologist for the Americas at Cap Gemini Ernst & Young.