What would the workplace be like now?


I’m not entirely sure I want to reopen that whole conversation about measuring or demonstrating the benefits of enterprise social computing. My suspicion is that world views can’t be changed easily in this debate.

However, The Dynamo and the Computer, an academic essay by Paul A David that was published back in 1990, raises some interesting and (I think) still valid points. “Dynamo” is the historical term for the early electrical generators used in factories in the late 1800s and into the early 1900s. David’s paper compares the slow impact of this early era of industrial electrification on productivity with the criticism of another general purpose technology, the computer.

David outlines the reasons why it was not immediately profitable to replace legacy technologies, which in his view relate to both the need to redesign factory structures to take advantage of the dynamo and also access to people with the skills and experience to design and build these new factories.

In fact, what we see during this transition is the use of the new technology combined with the old. However, once new factories could be purpose built to take advantage of the flexibility that electrical power offered over steam and water we start to see a number of important benefits and process innovations that only lighter, single story factory construction could enable. However, it is the indirect benefits of electrification that interest me as much at the direct benefits – particularly those that brought improvements to working conditions and the relationship between electrification and other industrial innovation. While David doesn’t discuss this, I also think all these physical changes in the design of the workplace must have also impacted how we managed them.

You may recall that Nicholas Carr also wrote a book, The Big Switch, also talks about dynamos in a similar context. David is on the other hand carefully not to overstate the analogy between the dynamo and the computer. Like David, I’m also a little cautious, but I think we should at least consider what impact enterprise social computing might have once we move beyond layering it on existing organisational structures and systems (which is what many of us are doing right now, to retrofit the new with legacy structures):
  • What changes to physical and organisational structures need to be made to fully take advantage of Enterprise 2.0?
  • What direct benefits would these changes, rather than the technology itself, offer?
  • How will this benefit employees and the broader community?
  • What specific applications will it enable that are not possible currently?
Or to put it another way – at the turn of the previous century what did they imagine the workplace would be like now? Now think about how unfamiliar the future workplace might yet still be.