Stowe Boyd, digital workplace leaders

Analyst and futurist Stowe Boyd examines the tools we use to work today while also exploring how the very nature of work itself may shift in the years ahead.

He’s been watching the enterprise collaboration space for over 15 years, charting the rise and fall in adoption of waves of software. For Boyd, 2017 is when work chat software like Slack starts to become a dominant technology. As curator and editor-in-chief at Work Futures, a global council of work futurists, he identifies the forces at play in redefining work.

We Shouldn’t Think About a Single Future

Boyd has already experienced the world of work from a variety of roles including computer science researcher/professor, software executive and head of research at the relaunched Gigaom. He cautions companies not to focus on a single safe future, rather to “come up with a bunch of different fictions” in order to try to better understand what might lie ahead. 

Boyd quotes philosopher Alfred North Whitehead: "It is the business of the future to be dangerous."

Boyd will be speaking at CMSWire and Digital Workplace Group’s Digital Workplace Experience taking place June 19 through 21 at the Radisson Blu Aqua hotel in Chicago. He will give the morning keynote address titled, “Work Technology Is the Answer. But What Was the Question?” on June 21. 

We chatted with Boyd about why the fragmentary nature of today’s work apps market isn’t a wholly bad thing and his take on the future of work.

Today’s Tools Focus on the Need to Work in Teams

CMSWire: Are today’s workplace technologies helping or hindering us in becoming more efficient? What can we learn from earlier collaboration tools?

Boyd: There are active shifts going on in the market, for example, the rise and the fall of enterprise social networking tools like Yammer and Jive, which held great promise in 2010 and 2012.

Email is still central to our world although social tools were supposed to eliminate it. The lesson is those social tools were not really oriented to solving the issues people had with doing their work, they were more about broadcasting content. Email is very good at broadcasting to everyone.

People are migrating to other tools like work chat, which are organized around the needs of people working in teams, only secondarily around the needs of management to broadcast things.

CMSWire: Where do improvements need to occur with today’s work chat tools?

Boyd: We got past the interoperability issue with email. We just haven’t done it with other solutions. I think potentially there will be some subset sharing of the APIs. The reality is people are amazingly good at dealing with a fragmented work technology environment.

I have 27 apps on my iPhone. It doesn’t bother me that Twitter is a different app from Flipboard. That’s what people are doing in the workplace. They don’t want one solution like a giant Swiss Army knife with 120 different blades on it.

CMSWire: How do companies ensure they provide technologies to support different individuals’ and groups’ preferences for communication and collaboration?

Boyd: Successful tools have most likely already tried to set that flexibility up with built-in chats, comments, direct messages and email notifications. They’re adding more and more functionality to make those interactions richer and so are likely to be better as time passes. They will support the possibility of even more fragmentation.

So you use a tool like Slack, but you’re actually connected to 37 different apps. However, it all looks like you’re in Slack the whole time.

CMSWire: When looking at the future of work, what advice would you give to organizations to ensure they’re well positioned for the changes to come?

Boyd: Work is increasingly going to be distributed and decentralized as well as dehumanized with the rise of AI and robots. We’re going to have to learn how to dance with the robots. We will have to make sense of working with robots in the same way we have learned to work with apps and to work with other humans. It will be a world in which AIs communicate with each other to get things done theoretically on our behalf.

Then, there are societal factors like growing inequality, shifts in the political and regulatory landscapes. In a world with 195 or more countries, each of which might have its own regulations on many issues including where you can and can’t store data, it’s very difficult to imagine it will get simpler.

CMSWire: When talk turns to the increasing use of AI, robotics and other forms of automation in the workplace, there’s a lot of fear expressed. Where do you stand in this debate?

Boyd: In the recent Pew Research survey, “The Future of Jobs and Jobs Training,” I was in the 30 percent of those surveyed who believe that AI and robots are going to have an enormous impact — leading to a future where joblessness is the norm. There will be very variable differences, people can only train (and retrain) for work where they are. I’m really concerned about it. 

The government is going to have regulate the rate at which they allow AI to replace humans. As someone else in the survey [Mike Warot, a machinist at Allied Gear] said, "We’re going to have to end up with a Basic Income, or revolution."

CMSWire: As a futurist, which historical period would you like to have lived in and why? And who would you want to be?

Boyd: I would like to live in the future, not the past. Something like 150 or 200 years in the future where some of the things that are of great concern to us now have been resolved. I’m still Stowe Boyd in the future, I would’ve lived this life and then I’d also be there. I’d find out if we get around climate catastrophe, if we learn to dance with robots, if we decide to share the commons of earth.

Editor's note: Learn more about the Digital Workplace Experience hereRegister today.