I write this on a sweltering evening in a packed locals' bar in suburban Prague. I’ve taken leave of the contemporary hotel where Orange Business Live is being held, if only to taste a little of the local cuisine. I cannot speak Czech, I have no idea what I have just ordered to eat (it was described as “devil meat") and I'm tip-tapping away at my iPad mini.
Twenty-five years ago, this charming bar would have been hidden behind an Iron Curtain. Today I have 5 bars of mobile coverage, access to my company Dropbox and am Skyping my colleagues. I may not work in a business as large as those attending Orange Business Live but in my own way, I am part of a connected enterprise, collaborating in real time with my colleagues, customers and audience. I can do this any time, any place I choose to work (well, almost).
everyone, everything is connected
This concept of "connectedness" is the meme of this year's event Orange Business Live (and it's the seventh OBL I've attended). It's about technology that is already around us, transforming the workplace for those in corporations, small businesses, consultants and for customers. It’s about how connectedness is fudging the boundaries between work-life, big-small, inside-outside, fixed-mobile, criminal-lawful and human-machine. Connectedness can bring efficiencies, cost-reductions, can make use more human, but it can also expose us to threats that range from negativite publicity or outright theft.
Today connectedness is just about manageable, but tomorrow it could lead to a cacophony of complexity, warns Steve Prentice, VP of Research at Gartner. As keynote presenter, he gave us the Gartner big picture view of the future. He argued that devices, Cloud computing, social networking and thinking machines are leading us to an unrecognizable business landscape where, unless we can ride the waves of technologies, we will be drowned by them. You can find a good summary of his presentation by Remi Kerhoas.
Prentice’s premise is that we are only just beginning to tap into these four technology spheres. Consider connected devices: mobile phones, one example, now outnumber toothbrushes (although not in my house). By the end of the decade there may be 50 billion connected devices, many of which we have barely seen before. He gives the example of nascent ocular enhancement where not only are impediments cured but we can be made superhuman with vision beyond the normal range, e.g. ultraviolet or infrared. Patches could be sent over the air to update the ocular filters.
A similar transformation is happening in social networking: it's not just Twitter and Facebook demanding that you share and connect. Countless numbers of apps want you to share pictures, locations, emotions, whitepapers, presentations, heart rates, company gossip and your last meal. What happens when all of your countless devices share your information or status? All of this data is collected, distributed and, if you are unlucky, stolen/leaked/manipulated/used against you.
And on the not too distant horizon lurks thinking machines which can outsmart a human. These are sensors in the physical world connecting to big processing power inside the Cloud. These “machines” may not be alive, or even attempt to fabricate consciousness, but they can make decisions or recommend causes of action. By being smarter than us, they will probably do things better than us (e.g. drive a car) so we will live longer and be healthier. But this is not without its risks. For instance, consider a supercomputer like IBM’s Watson, used to diagnose cancer and recommend treatments. What happens when the physician disagrees with the course of recommended actions: would he dare argue with a supercomputer for fear of litigation if he is wrong. Would we end up trusting machine intelligence too much?
Market leaders will harness the proliferation of these disruptive connected technologies (devices, information and machines), know how to understand what information is useful, what is not.
In the less distant future, Near Field Communications (NFC), unified communications and devices combine to deliver a new working environment. We saw a live demonstration of a worker approaching their office. He swipes his NFC-enabled mobile device over the door entry pad. It recognizes him, grants access. A second NFC reader can assign a deskspace. He reaches his desk, drops his tablet into a dock, and a virtual desktop (VDI) fires up. The only thing on the desk are a keyboard and screen, he doesn’t even need a PC. The tablet only needs enough processing power to handle Citrix. He can move away from the dock and the session switches to the tablet screen. He instant messages a colleague, which turns into an impromptu video session. The immersive video room is already booked, so he finds a quiet area in a café, and patches in a customer and another colleague. The multi-way video session is federated over different networks (Orange, AT&T, BT), on different technologies (Ethernet, LTE) and different devices (telepresence room, Androïd tablet, iPhone). The entire workflow has been conducted in Microsoft Lync. The workspace and workplace are benefiting from seemless connectedness.
Connectedness is also a theme in customer care. Giancarlo Duella, a consultant director in Orange Business, told me it is vital for brands of all kinds – B2C and B2B – to think of the 360 degree customer experience. “Social media is a great boom when customers like what you do, they help to promote your brand. But when you do something wrong, look at the damage it can do.”
One example of this is the American Airlines experience with Dave Carroll's guitar. Exceeding customer expectations is vital and that means multi-channel contact for the "connected customer". The customer should be able to choose how and when they want to connect – online, a forum, Web chat, email or call center – and the enterprise should be able to record and recall all of those interactions, from enquiry through purchase to delivery and then support.
And finally, I saw another flavor of the connected enterprise in the keynote from Mischa Glenny, journalist and author of a book on cybercriminals, Darkmarket. (It's a fascinating insight into this shadowy world). Glenny warns that the cybercriminals only exist because most people are lax with their digital hygiene: users don’t know what is insecure, they loose their unprotected devices and more often than not, succumb too easily to phishing attacks. He says, “despite the digital world becoming more complex, the threats we face are the same as 10 years ago: crime, espionage and warfare. What’s new is how they are merging... What companies need to understand is that cybercrime is beginning to be the biggest threat they face. Just look at Booz Hamilton."
It's been a dizzying couple of days of being connected. Time to switch off and enjoy that cold beer.
I've been writing about technology for nearly 20 years, including editing industry magazines Connect and Communications International. In 2002 I co-founded Futurity Media with Anthony Plewes. My focus in Futurity Media is in emerging technologies, social media and future gazing. As a graduate of philosophy & science, I have studied futurology & foresight to the post-grad level.