The Future of the Handshake in the Copper Conference Room
by Barry McKinnon
of Mc2Systems Design Group
The Future is coming! The Future is coming! Familiar cries these days amongst those at the thin end of the leading edge. And further back in the wedge, we hear about all the possibilities, and what we should be preparing for. Aside from the unlimited choice in entertainment promised in the 500 channel universe, we are being promised new ways of working where technology will free us from the constraints of travelling to and from the workplace. Since every stone tossed in the waters of our tightly interlocked North American economy creates ripples, this promised future will do more than affect the way you work, it will affect the market you work in.
For instance, if you work in the transportation sector, supplying materials or services to support cars, buses, trains, and aircraft, you may wonder who will be travelling on your products if everyone is sitting at home in front of their virtual office machine. If you are in the service industry, providing food and refreshments for the masses of people that flood into the business districts each day, you may wonder who you will serve if your customers are spread over thousands of acres of 'burbs. If you work in the retail trade, selling to the downtown crowd, what will happen when everyone is wired into the internet taking advantage of the home shopping possibilities. If you are a systems contractor, suppling audio/visual equipment, specializing in boardrooms, meeting rooms, training rooms, and convention facilities, you may wonder if there will eventually be no requirement for a physical space to hold meetings as the business world moves towards the Copper Conference Room. (I know the Fibre Conference Room is more 'tech', but it sounds like a dietary seminar room, how about the Silicon Conference Room.) Some estimates quote the number of Americans that already work out of their home at 40 million, that's quite a chunk of the work force. That is expected to grow, especially as the work place shifts from conventional employment to more contract-based employment, and tele-commuting becomes more common.
Some things won't change in the new workplace environment, there will still be a need for meeting and conference facilities, and the exchange of information that takes place there. That information exchange may be from one person to many, from one person to one person or from many people to many people. At this time, the presentation technology is there to support the person or persons delivering information. In the future the technology may become the delivery space for the information, but there will always be some information that is best delivered with physical presence. Since we are primarily concerned with people in the systems contracting market, we'll look at the factors that may influence the direction that meeting and conference facility market will take.
There are some safe bets; we can assume that multimedia computer systems will increasingly be at the centre of most presentation systems in meeting facilities. The convergence of computer based audio, video and data will continue (Our office is working at combining computer room modelling, auralization, hard disc audio recordings and presentation software for client presentations.). Software based presentations can be much more effective and efficient than more conventional paper or acetate based presentations, once you develop either; a) the templates, or b) the restraint to do what you have to, instead of all that you can do. Beyond the software presentation is the digital meeting, the high tech compu-conference. High tech still has a lot of appeal for applications such as presentations, but the promise is for technology to be more involved in every day work applications, like the Monday morning department head meetings. Technology keeps promising to become ubiquitous, and less obnoxious. That step will be an important part of this future workspace, with the current state of computer interface, there is still too much attention required just to deal with the digital office. Its too much like having to put your office door back on the hinges, or replace a fluorescent tube, just when you were starting to get some work done. This market will not be driven by the technology alone, and we shouldn't limit our thinking to that one variable. If you like, the crystal ball that we need to view the future has to have a view from every angle (it is a sphere after all). We need to look at as many of the angles as possible to ensure we get a well-rounded (pardon the pun) view.
If we rotate the crytsal ball from the Technology axis to the Economics axis, we may see a different view of the future of our Copper Conference Room. For the corporate world to embrace this technology, it has to be cost effective. There are a lot of costs to consider, not just the installation cost of the hardware. There are already large-scale users of teleconferencing and video teleconferencing; national and multi-national corporations who can connect people half way around the world by a real time satellite video link for a tiny fraction of the cost of moving people between locations. For regular contact of reasonably large numbers of people across significant distances, the cost of installing and operating video conferencing technology is a small fraction of the travel expenses and salary costs associated with six-figure personnel. The same economic advantage applies to regular in- house training that would otherwise require large groups of people to be travelling to some central training centre. If this is already cost effective when paying for satellite up/down link time, it will only get better as a continent wide fibre-optic network is put in place.
The next level is the technology of distributing a big portion of the corporate workforce across a large geographic area, while still allowing collaborative work efforts. This has some significant cost implications. As anyone who has installed an office LAN can appreciate, the cost of developing and maintaining a network is not always readily predictable. The added cost of hardware, software and network management required to make it work when it is miles between the individual nodes and the central plant may be larger than anyone wants to consider. If the corporation were able to have all of its employees work at home, it could save the costs of real estate by having an office sized to accommodate the computer system and the network management people.
That isn't the way it will work of course, any corporation will need to have a mix of office staff and tele-present staff (or is that tele-absent?). That will mean there has to be a cost effective way to have the real and virtual office people communicate. Can the electronic meeting room be made cost effective? Collaborative wordprocessor and drawing board hardware and software exists now. The support hardware exists now in form of whiteboards that output to the computer, and computer video boards that allow images of people and objects to be sent and received at remote locations. At this time, collaborative computing can be cost effective for projects where workgroups across the country or around the world need to be connected regularly. Is this approach going to be more cost effective than having people in the same urban/suburban areas meet physically? That question may be harder to answer. We may see increased demand placed upon the available copper trunks in bedroom communities by a substantial increase in the data traffic as people stay home to work. Until the bedroom communities get more fibre in their phone diet, we could move the traffic jams from the road to wires. The corporations will have some increased hardware costs associated with the setup of the networks, and may have some increased operating costs per employee. It may become cost effective for the employers if the corporations modify their pay structure so that tele-commuters are paid less on the premise that they will save hours per day of commuting time and expenses, and, in return the corporation would provide the hardware and network management to make it possible. This is moving us away from the Economics axis of our crystal ball to the Business Philosophy Axis.
There may be some corporate markets and structures that are better suited to this future view of a wired work place. It is significant that as we move toward this new approach to the work environment, great effort is being put into making it familiar. This is not always a good thing, if we are developing a new work paradigm, the last thing we want to to do is drag old baggage along into it. One of the biggest advantages is the possibility of improved productivity (I know a 1/2 hour at home can be as productive as 2 hours in the office). As the emphasis is put on increased productivity offered by the technology, there seems to be an equal effort put into non-productive comfort and indolence factors. With the wired virtual tele-commuter office comes the Electronic Watercooler, and the virtual hallway stroll, allowing the social contact that is part of a workplace environment. The social environment aspect of computer systems has always been associated with the computer geeks and hackers, but the fact is, the workplace is a significant social environment for most of us regular people. We spend a third of the day asleep, a third of it at work and, so it seems, the remaining third travelling between the other two thirds. The wired workplace will have to acknowledge that social aspect of wired working life to avoid turning workers into keypunch automatons. This will be especially important for corporations where some creativity is required of the employees.
The social context of the workplace is not limited to the inner workings of a corporation, the market place contact has a social aspect to it. Suppliers, clients, end-users, and corporate brass all develop a social context for their business. There is a limit to the amount of mediation you can put between people who are operating in that social context. The question of the future of the handshake in business is not a trivial one. The expectation that virtual business environments will ever replace face-to-face contact in the marketplace can only be based on gazing down a single axis of the crystal ball. Our world is increasingly mediated by the electronic media. The immediatism of direct business contact is not about to be replaced by electronic media.
If you think of what you experience with a tele or video conference, you hear or see what the media transmits. You cannot tell who is present or what may be happening behind the scenes, out of the view of the camera. For people involved in sales or negotiation, this lack of sensory input will not be corrected by increasing the fidelity of the transmission. The problem lies in the mediation of the medium itself. When you collapse all the human sensory awareness down to those which fit through the media, you strip the people involved of important information. Subtlety of body language and other factors can be lost in a video link, no matter how wide the bandwidth. It would be safe to say that even in businesses where the focus of the corporate output is media related, such as TV advertising or video production, there is not complete reliance on client contact that is mediated by the limits of the medium. That may be a commentary on the credibility of the medium.
This also outlines a new requirement for the successful systems contractor. Keeping up with the latest technology may not be enough. The implementation of technology is creating new multi-variable problems that must be solved. We're already well past the point where the technology alone can define the use of the technology. When the client wanted a meeting room sound system installed, there were a limited number of likely uses and possible solutions. By adding video requirements to a meeting room, a new set of variables is added with a significant number of possible outcomes. Add a media control system and you have many more questions regarding possible, and likely, scenarios. Another dimension is added to meeting facility design if you look at something as reconfigurable as a computer system, and a computer network, and an interactive computer work or learning environment. The time required to evaluate the client's needs, and produce solutions, increases as the complexity of the systems increase. The systems contractor cannot ignore the other possible axis' of the crystal ball. The technologists must be able to think as economists and business philosophers as well. In the long run, the systems contractor will have to add other skills, such corporate communications, computer applications interpreters, and business management and development consultants. These are becoming intertwined in the system design and sales packages that will be provided by the communications giants (the phone or cable companies, whichever is left standing when the bell goes in the final round). It is important that the systems contractors keep up with the reality of the "infobahn" and the internet, not just the hype, which is virtually limitless (pun intended), but the realistic and likely applications. This means enlarging the reading list to include books like Nicholas Negroponte's "Being Digital", and maybe even a reread of Alvin Toffler's "Future Shock" and "After Shock". These can help dust off those unused portions of the crystal ball.
It certainly appears that there will be an increasing need for the systems contractor to have knowledgable people in the areas of computer systems, ancillary hardware, networks, and perhaps most important, the ability to get related software to work in a timely manner. The more complex the system, the more important it will be to get it working quickly and efficiently if the contractor is going to keep their profit margin. Most contractors have probably already experienced the joys of troubleshooting software run on mostly compatible computer platforms. This will likely get worse before it gets better, at least until the operating systems become more user and application friendly. The hardware and software interfaces are the battlegrounds for the profit margin, this is where the job can go from a decent profit margin into an endless struggle to acheive what is apparently impossible. This is made more onerous by software that apparently never gets beyond the Beta test stage.
In the near future, there is no sign of the sudden leap to totally virtual meeting and working environments. The technology convergence will certainly have an effect on the kind of products that will be installed in meeting facilities, and the kind of capabilities that are to be offered. Technology density can be expected to increase in most meeting, presentation and work environments The likelihood is that the systems contractor won't be trading in a pair of leather work gloves for Power Gloves just yet.
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