looking at a smart watch
Blind faith in smart technologies will risk creating new versions of dumb workplaces rather than the intelligent ones we seek PHOTO: Crew

For hundreds of years, paper was the medium of choice for storing and transmitting information. 

We designed our workplaces around the fact that people had to be physically located with the information they needed. An army of clerical workers housed together in offices provided the human computing power necessary for information and data processing. 

Following in Paper's Footsteps

Technology advances did little to change that fundamental approach to enabling knowledge work. For example, the invention of the filing cabinet in the late 1800s provided a more efficient system for storing information, but did nothing to change the nature of clerical work. 

More recently the photocopier and fax machine provided rudimentary methods for distributing information in a cheaper and quicker way than before, but we were still just moving the information to where it could be processed further.   

Even today, the standard digital tools of trade for knowledge workers — email, word processing, spreadsheets, presentation software — are a reflection of this paper-based era in the workplace. 

A great deal of human capacity continues to be wasted processing electronic information, because we treat the digital medium in the same way we managed paper-based information. 

A Fundamental Shift Is on the Way

But this is about to change. A fundamental shift is coming which moves us away from the prevailing document-centric way of working towards a new kind of intelligent workplace. 

This new way of managing information will bring with it opportunities and challenges, but either way it will irreversibly change our relationship with information and data. 

The new intelligent workplace tools will have the information embedded within, using software robots to automate information processing tasks, predictive systems to bring information to our attention as we need it, and artificial intelligence to mediate how we interact with information through conversational and visually immersive interfaces.

These intelligent systems will be essential. Because while the intelligent workplace will reduce the need for information processing by humans, we will experience an even greater increase in the volume of available information about people, things and places. 

We might think we are already experiencing an unmanageable level of information overload, but we have yet to see the firehose of data that enterprise wearables and the industrial Internet of Things will bring.

The Intelligent Workplace: Enter with Open Eyes and Minds

Knowledge workers stuck in a mindset that information can only be captured and distributed in static documents will be unprepared for this emerging, dynamic information environment. 

Handling the underlying data or information will become increasingly unnecessary or even undesirable. Searching for enterprise information is still primarily about finding documents. But in the intelligent workplace people will seek insights, connections and context as much as they will content. 

Asking questions and manipulating information to look for patterns or incongruities will replace the act of searching.

In turn, this human-layer of the intelligent workplace will grow in dependency on systems that enable work to be observable, narrated and ultimately continuously rewritable. 

The more we use intelligent systems to mitigate the flood of enterprise information, the more important it will be to orchestrate serendipity and encourage diversity in thinking, so that we can deal with the opportunities and threats that our digital assistants cannot predict or tell us about. 

Sooner than we think, a document-centric view of the world will no longer be fit for purpose. Information overload will eventually make traditional information management systems inefficient and difficult to maintain. 

But having blind faith in smart technologies will raise the risk of creating dumb workplaces, rather than enabling the intelligence we hoped for.