Digital technology has transformed the workplace, especially the office, where computers and the software and algorithms that run on them now undertake many of the tasks that were once done manually.
Far from slowing down, the pace of these changes continues to accelerate, driven by trends such as the consumerisation of information technology and BYOD (bring your own device), the rapid migration to cloud services, big data analytics and the mobilisation of business processes made possible by devices such as smartphones and tablets.
At the same time, the introduction of new technologies such as high-definition desktop videoconferencing, unified communications, desktop virtualisation and touch interfaces such as Microsoft’s Windows 8 operating system are poised to bring in the next wave of office productivity gains.
“We are at an interesting inflection point – a time when many of the scenarios we have been talking about for a long time are almost becoming reality,” says Jackie Fenn, fellow emeritus in business innovation and emerging trends at Gartner, the IT consultants.
For example, the technology industry has long talked about scenarios in which any service or function is available on any device, anytime, anywhere. “This is being fuelled by the consumerisation trend,” says Ms Fenn
Today, companies as large as Intel, the US chipmaker, and SAP, the German enterprise software vendor, have embraced BYOD and encourage their employees to bring their own devices to work, provided that security requirements are met.
Analysts say the change has come quickly. Rather than seeking to block BYOD, corporate IT chiefs, backed by business leaders including chief financial officers, are looking for ways to make such programmes work.
Even banks – among the most cautious companies from a security perspective – have begun quietly to support BYOD programmes. For example, while Bank of America has not yet officially adopted BYOD, Cathy Bessant, the bank’s head of global technology and operations, acknowledged in a recent Information Week article: “BYOD is something our associates have been asking for and is a huge positive. We are moving strongly in that direction.”
Initially targeted at consumers, iPads have found a ready home in enterprises. They are being used by sales teams for mobile sales support and by business managers to display business intelligence research and enterprise software dashboards. Directors are also using iPads to replace the paper-based board books they once needed to read before each board meeting.
For example, the sales teams at Edmunds.com, the online vehicle information and sales service, now travel with iPads loaded with a customised business intelligence software package that enables them to provide potential customers with more timely and accurate information and research.
Similarly, smartphones have become indispensible for many knowledge workers, not just for mobile email but also to access the hundreds of thousands of apps that are available for all the major operating systems and a growing number of enterprise apps written specifically for mobile devices.
Some companies have even set up corporate app stores that enable employees to download software tools that they need for their jobs, or to access self-service portals to update benefits information, file expenses or book meeting rooms.
The trend towards BYOD has had other important repercussions in the workplace. A growing number of employees are using Apple iOS-based devices rather than Windows-based desktops. This has fuelled demand for desktop virtualisation software, such as Parallels and MokaFive, that enable Mac users to run Windows applications, including Microsoft Office.
Ogilvy, the advertising group, and Brandlogic, the brand consultancy, are on Parallels’ growing list of corporate customers. MokaFive, meanwhile, provides added security by using client virtualisation to create a Windows virtual desktop, called a LivePC, that can run on any user hardware – Mac, PC or “bare metal” (with no operating system).
Employees who have become familiar with consumer-based cloud services such as webmail, data storage and streaming music are also demanding access to similar run-anywhere services at work and on the road.
As a result, Google with its Gmail service and cloud-based Docs office productivity tools has begun to eat into a market once dominated by IBM with Lotus Notes and Microsoft with its Outlook/Exchange email software and Office suite. Microsoft has responded by putting its software, including Office, in the cloud.
Office 2013 and the companion Office 365 subscription service include a wide range of collaboration, social media and mobility tools and shift seamlessly between local and cloud-based apps and storage.
That means documents and settings are accessible from any internet-connected device. “Sign in to your account and your Office applications, documents and personal settings are right there, just the way you left them,” says Julia White, senior director of Office division technical marketing at Microsoft. Work can be saved to a Microsoft SkyDrive [storage service] or SharePoint [a collaboration tool] server, where “it is easy to access, edit and share on the go”, adds Ms White.
These features, coupled with tighter integration with collaboration tools such as SharePoint and unified communications tools such as Microsoft Lync, are likely to appeal to small and medium-sized businesses, and to larger enterprises with big mobile workforces.
Microsoft’s recent acquisitions of Skype, the online telephony service, and Yammer, the cloud-based enterprise social media service, and IBM’s purchase of Kenexa, the human resources software provider, highlight another trend that is changing the way companies communicate internally and with their partners and customers.
Just as social media services such as Facebook have helped consumers connect with each other, business leaders are to generate value through the use of social technologies to evolve their front-line operations.
Alistair Rennie, IBM’s general manager of social business, noted when he announced the Kenexa deal: “The adoption of social business technology is supporting the growth of big data and the need for analytics in the enterprise.
“Every company, across every business operation, is looking to tap into the power of social networking to transform the way they work, collaborate and out-innovate their competitors.” According to Forrester, the research and advisory firm, the market for social enterprise apps will grow 61 per cent a year up to 2016.
If that figure is correct, social business, along with the cloud and the consumerisation of corporate IT, could be the next big wave that shapes the future of the connected office.