When Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas A. Watson spoke with each other on Oct. 9, 1876, across a three kilometer telephone wire stretched between Cambridge and Boston, the concept of the "digital workplace" was born. The two men did not communicate in the same physical space but did so in a virtual world. 

That’s 140 years ago. Enriching this "first stage digital workplace" with richer services and deeper connections has — until recently — been a painfully slow journey.

Moving Past Telephony

But once the technological revolution took hold in the 1970s, the pace of innovation accelerated and a range of digital experiences in work started to spread through the workplace – email, teleconferencing, shared servers, intranets and HR systems. We're now seeing a quickening of the rate of innovation as it moves through the gears, accelerating.

I began using the term digital workplace in 2010 to describe an evolution from a digital world of work dominated by intranets to a deeper and more wide-ranging set of enterprise services. Yes we knew and understood the physical workplace but increasingly where we spent most of time working was within digital worlds; within digital workplaces.

During my career, my focus has grown from making intranets better to include broader areas of unified communications, mobile services, collaborative worlds and applications. In my view while intranets were essential, the digital workplace was transformational, enabling work to shift from work in a ‘fixed place’ to ‘everywhere,’ from somewhere you go, to something you do. Work was being liberated from the physical constraints.

Next Generation Digital Workplace

Now in 2016 we are seeing a next generation digital workplace coming into being that makes the first iteration look pale and limp in comparison. In this next chapter, an entire digital geography of work becomes imbued with intelligence.

Take a standard audio and video call — whether through Skype for Business or WEBEX or Citrix. This call enables teams and individuals to connect, discuss and share content, ideas and knowledge irrespective of distance and place. Remarkable and useful when it appeared, but still just an expression of the first generation digital workplace.

In the next generation of the digital workplace, we will be part of a virtual reality world where our brains ‘think’ and believe we are physically together. Gestures, facial tones, nuances, tactile sensations will enable work to happen in hyper-real digital environments as enterprise versions of Oculus Rift, Halo and other virtual reality devices take hold. 

What will make these experiences even more compelling and useful will be the ability we will have to summon data, information and expertise at will as the digital reality we inhabit listens to us and equips us with what it thinks we need and will find helpful.

Or think of a field sales force. The current, fairly static provision of accurate and timely customer and marketplace details for an insurance company will evolve such that the "system" watches and interprets our diary, travel and notes and provides insights and suggestions that aid our work. Perhaps this ever-more intelligent digital workplace will eventually perform tasks on our behalf as in, "shall I send a copy of this news item or special service direct to customer Y to save you time?"

Get By With a Little Help From My (Intelligent) Friends

It's true that organizations large and small are still trying to get the fragmented digital workplace to deliver a smooth and universally portable service to its workforce. But innovation has its own momentum and all the major technology vendors — as well as the 600 plus smaller enterprise software companies — are working in a world that they know will be saturated with artificial intelligence, marking the next stage of the digital workplace.

Human beings must adjust and understand how to work with what we, inside DWG, call "our robot." That catch all term applies for every digitally intelligent assistant, device and piece of software that we use in our daily work. We treat every DWG team as having its own robot. And while sadly we human beings are not getting smarter, the "robot" is building its intelligence by the day.

Hollywood scenarios may create narratives where AI grows and then crushes us like ants but what will happen in my view is far more nuanced, as we develop skills and patterns that allow us all to work alongside (and in collaboration with) ever smarter technologies.

The industrial revolution turned us into efficient machines as we carried out tasks for the industrial world. 

The digital revolution has the potential to turn us back into human beings, working in collaboration with hyper intelligent systems. 

It is up to each of us and the organizations where we work, to seize this opportunity to create ever more human and ever smarter worlds of work.

Title image "Robot" (CC BY 2.0) by  Plutor