Design, technology and productivity: The year ahead

Like the weather, predictions tend to be... unpredictable. Instead, a better aphorism to use is what Alan Kay, pioneer of object-orientated programming and the GUI famously said: ‘the best way to predict the future is to invent it’.

With that in mind, we at BrightStarr think there are three key themes that stand out this year and should help businesses large and small plan for the year ahead: importance of design, the growth of choice in technology, and a renewed focus on productivity.

This year, with continued widespread economic uncertainty, many businesses and organisations remain under pressure to make use of their existing investment — in technology, process improvements, and in infrastructure — instead of kick-starting new investment in products and services.

How companies operate and invest in new technologies will affect their performance, growth, and culture over many years to come. Specifically, by focusing on well designed software and processes, together with making better choices of which platforms and tools to use, will place intranets, portals digital workplaces at the forefront of how to deliver more business performance and productivity. 

One: Employees expect better designed tools

Much has been said of organisations who have invested heavily in design to attract customers, shore up their brands and placating ever impatient shareholders. The financial sector being no exception. With reputations to rebuild, banks like Barclays have been at the forefront of building in-house design teams and developing innovative mobile apps. They have also unsurprisingly, like others, redoubled their design efforts internally. The consensus is that employees have needs too! Take IBM’s massive investment in design for instance. Once unusual for such a technology-led business, IBM now have one of Europe's largest design teams, that is focused on how to improve large organisations bottom-line with better designed tools and simpler processes.

Other big consulting firms are not far behind as more companies place digital services at the heart of what they do. In an era when many employees (including those pesky millennials) expect better tools, software and processes, not forgetting having everything available on their mobiles (just like in their personal lives), the pressure is on companies to live up to these promises, without losing staff to a more attractive competition. Design is becoming not just a point of differentiation, but is also playing a key role in helping organisations simplify what they do. This is apt when for many, the incumbent IT department is being slowly but surely edged out by the need to spend less, standardise how tools and processes are procured, and importantly widen access to how tools, data and services are shared across a business. 

Two: Technology choice trumps inflexible software platforms

Just as design is becoming a more significant signpost for internal investment, it follows that companies are benefiting from a better choice of which software -- specifically mobile and cloud-based apps -- they choose to work with. Here, the one-size-fits all approach of similar enterprise social applications such as Yammer is changing. Rather, as Microsoft have now publicly stated, the trend is for a much more relaxed attitude — enabling companies to be in command of a much wider mixture of apps, software and tools that are interoperable with one another, using the same underlying technical platform (like Microsoft) without any conflict of interests. In this sense, we are likely to see a lot more ‘mixing it up’, encouraging companies to choose the best-of-breed tools most suited for their specific requirements. For example, as an alternative to Yammer, they can now work with tools like Slack or Chatter in combination with Office 365. This is a huge sea of change in approach and will likely positively affect employee productivity as they will be empowered to choose the right tool that suits their way of working.

Apps themselves are moving towards a more sophisticated and integrated approach too. Given how social apps like Facebook, WhatsApp and SnapChat, are adept at offering in-app purchasing, tools and additional functionality, we will see the same widening of features helping employees too. Take for example the recent announcement that you can now hail an Uber taxi from inside Facebook messenger. For organisations planning their technology roadmaps — and thinking about how to help employees with more choices in how they collaborate — will move away from the TINA 'there is no alternative’ software model.  

Three: Solve the productivity conundrum by working with the right technology

In the UK and in many other Western economies, there is pressure on companies to perform, grow and remain productive — often from investments made years earlier – with  productivity down to levels not seen since early 2000s (even after the period of rapid technology dotcom investment).

The decibel in productivity remains a conundrum: it's not all about technology. It is made worse by another hard statistic:there remains weak overall investment in basic R&D needed to innovate with wholly new products.The UK overall, as an example, invests a paltry 1.8% of its GDP in R&D.In such straightened times, many businesses and organisations are intent on making what they have work harder — otherwise known as sweating your assets – as evidenced by the growth of the so-called sharing economy. 

This year will be no exception. While many organisations are building up their innovation capacity (often outsourcing this job to designers and externally funded labs), more often than not, much of this thinking is about squeezing more productivity out of existing products, or improving their processes and services. How technology can help bring this about will be a key focus this year. There will be investment in internet infrastructure, with capital spending will lead the way. Indeed, for many companies, this also means that conversations we’ve seen many times over around technologies and enterprise social collaboration tools, are through the prism of attempting to raise productivity, are now more likely to have a tangible meaning (instead of suffering from a solution-looking-for-a-problem syndrome). How companies choose to invest in and utilise their knowledge networks and digital workspaces will be a critical ingredient to helping bring about productivity improvements.

Our one recommendation: keep it simple 

Through the prism of trying to figure out how to encourage more productivity — by no means an easy task that can become clouded by bad technology — portals, intranets and digital workplaces will be back in the forefront of how companies deliver against their business goals. This renewed focus will also breathe new life into already tired discussions such as how to foster collaboration. With a clear business focus, social collaboration tools have a much better chance of success, instead of remaining as an awkward solution looking for a problem. 

Similarly, a focus on productivity that helps employees in their work will more likely aid other initiatives such as encouraging wider employee engagement and improvements in company culture too. If you’ve caught the attention of employees by helping them to be more productive (for example through better access to tools, targeted content and so on), they are more likely to be receptive to other kinds of communication through a better perceived digital workplace. 

We think the year ahead will be a challenge but an exciting one. Not least because intranets, portals and digital workspaces will be more influential and impactful than ever before. 

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Martyn Perks Head of Customer Insight

Martyn is a business consultant with wide ranging experience in both public and private sectors. His expertise is in helping world-wide and small organisations improve how they communicate, share knowledge and innovate internally — aiding their growth and competitiveness. He works with senior leadership to front-line staff advising and mentoring them with compelling insights, recommendations, prototypes and business cases. Because his background is in design, he uses these skills whenever possible to help make complex ideas simple, in tandem with tangible and insightful analysis.

In addition to his consultancy work, Martyn regularly speaks, produces debates, and writes about a wide variety of topics including about privacy, big data, social media, innovation, design, 3D printing, behaviour change, usability, architecture, and artificial intelligence. Publications he has written for include The Independent, International Business Times, Telegraph business, the Guardian, Big Issue, Core77, Design Week, Netimperative, spiked, Web Designer Depot and CMS Wire. He co-authored Winners and Losers in a Troubled Economy: How to Engage Customers Online to Gain Competitive Advantage (2008), contributed a chapter on online communities to The Future of Community: reports of a death greatly exaggerated (2008); founded the Big Potatoes: The London Manifesto for Innovation; and conveyed the Big Potatoes: Manifesto for Design group.

He has spoken at debates across Europe and in America including at the Cheltenham Science Festival, Battle of Ideas festival, Design Exchange at the London Design Festival, Anglo Israeli Association in Jerusalem, Zurich Salon, Dublin Salon, Hellenic American Union in Athens, London College of Fashion, and at the private members club Home House. He has appeared on R4’s PM radio news programme debating whether blue-skies thinking is a management fad with FT’s Lucy Kellaway, and more recently debated whether artificially intelligent machines will take over humanity on SkyNews’ lunchtime #SkyDebate. Thankfully, he said they are still lightyear’s away from being as smart as us!

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