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Managing the bionic worker

Tom Cheesewright

Tom Cheesewright

Glasses can see virtual reality and we’re all wedded to our smartphones – so surely cyber-enhanced managers can’t be far off? Tom Cheesewright asks what the future will be like when we’re all bionic

“Sorry, I can't come in today. My work co-processor is offline with a virus.” This could be the sick note of the future.

We are all bionic now. I am enhanced by my devices and cloud. They make up for my terrible memory and completely absent sense of direction. All the time I have them this is great. But what happens when they are lost, stolen or offline?

Today the interface between me and my technology remains fairly clunky, much though it has improved over the last thirty years. As a result the integration between me and my technology is limited. Even so, I am (and I feel) impaired by its occasional loss. The frustration at not having answers at my fingertips, instant access to the means to communicate internationally, or the ability to find my way to my next meeting – all things utterly unavailable just a decade ago – is incredible.

Imagine what it will be like when the interface is much more natural. Wearable technology is coming, and with it much more subtle, diverse means of transferring data between humans and machines. Ten different flavours of touch, audio signals carried on your bones, and visual displays distributed around the body. The gap between man and machine will get very blurry, even without anything being embedded under the skin (something I think will be a matter of choice rather than necessity – rather like tattoos).

Take the smart wig for example, a recent patent by Sony. It sounds like a niche product, to say the least. But imagine a personal satnav that gave you discreet instructions on which way to turn with a gentle vibration on one side of the head or the other. Very quickly that would start to feel like an extension of you rather than a discrete piece of technology.

Wearables in the workplace

Wearable computing is already in the workplace. Brother's AirScouter headset gives engineers and warehouse packers a computer display over one eye so that they can see instructions while completing their tasks. It doesn't yet feel very integrated with the person; it's very much a piece of technology. But that change will come.

Advance a few years into the future and where do we get to? Employees equipped with very personal computing devices that become a crucial part of their value to the business.

Think of a communications executive with their finger on the pulse of social media debate – almost literally. A series of physical actuators using heat and vibration to tell them in real time about the character and volume of online discussion about their business, market and competitors. The same types of interface could give a city trader a real feel for market conditions.

Imagine a salesman with a deal assistant wired to a discreet heads-up display. He could have instant recall for any fact about the product. Scripted lines to answer any problem. A live calculator could allow him to juggle margins to make the sale. And he could have real-time insight into the supply chain to offer precise delivery times.

How about a physical-world shop assistant informed about a shopper's preferences based on their online profile? Their augmented reality display could suggest items from the store that might be appropriate. Suggestions whispered in their ear could prompt questions. For example, an upcoming wedding for which they might need to buy a new outfit.

Bring your own device

None of this is technically far off; social factors will be more of a barrier to its adoption. But I believe it's coming. 

When it does, current debates about IT in the workplace will be amplified tenfold. Who will own the technology? Will it be expected of the employee to be equipped? Or will the corporation require employees to adopt its standard tech? What happens when the two part ways? The hardware and software will undoubtedly be personalised to the user to some extent. Who owns that personalisation? Who owns the data when some of it is essentially the worker's own memories and acquired knowledge, albeit digitally stored?

And then there will be the issue I started on. If you and your computer are intrinsically linked, when your computer gets a virus will you need to take a sick day?

These are all challenges to be faced by you as a manager of the future. But don't worry: your wearable computer will help you to answer them.

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