Imagine you step up to your workstation ten years from now. An array of projects, actions, customer issues and conversations are displayed before you – like a field of labelled water coolers around which groups assemble to converse. You can see there is a live conversation about a customer trouble ticket that concerns you. Using Hypervoice technology, you can flick through the highlights of that recorded conversation, at speed. You then sidle up to the group, and jump in to add your own thoughts.
Now compare that to today.
It’s three minutes before the hour. You are busy trying to extricate yourself from a corridor conversation with a colleague, so you can find a quiet place to work. Out comes your laptop, and slowly it boots up. Wait. Wait. You open Outlook, and scribble down the conference call access number and code. Quick! You’re already late.
“Hi, it’s Peter.”
“Yo, Peter – we were waiting for you to join us.”
Then the other participants begin to talk among themselves, your eyes glaze over, and your mind wanders towards your email inbox. Minutes pass, but your attention is not really required on the call. Other departments are discussing clients and issues that aren’t really related to your role.
We’ve all been there, enduring the “presenteeism” of the conference call. There is a subtle assumption to these calls, one that is rooted in an industrial-era mentality of organisation and productivity.
We typically schedule conference calls, fixing them in time, and select the invitee list in advance. We have an inventory of hour-long slots in our calendars, and we ‘spend’ them in advance by committing to a particular conversation. This is a very inflexible structure, and one that is characterised by a ‘stock’ model of our time.
The committed time in our calendars shields us from the anxiety that we might want a conversation, but would find there was nobody available to converse with. That would leave us idle, and in the world of work such idleness is taboo. Thus to keep us busy (or the pretence of being busy), and to shield us from the anxiety of idleness, we buffer our working week with calls.
Many commentators have observed that our economy is shifting away from a ‘stock’ model towards one based on ‘flows’. For example, in lean manufacturing, the just-in-time phenomenon is about maintaining flow with the minimum of stock. This kind of approach requires greater coordination between the parts of the value chain, but is ultimately is a much more efficient use of resources.
The reason we fix these conference calls in our calendars is because we lack the tools to dynamically coordinate conversations. It isn’t too hard to conceive of a new Hypervoice-enabled world where those constraints no longer apply.
In this new world, there is a constantly shifting set of “offers to communicate” attached to particular subjects or workflows. A variety of synchronous, semi-synchronous and fully asynchronous conversations can be seen attached to those issues. You step in and out of those flows of conversation, and escalate some to real-time voice. This is a 'flow' metaphor for managing our time. We may not have any official 'calls' scheduled in the day, but we have computers assisting us to find conversations dynamically where our intelligent input and decision-making capability is required.
In some ways, this world sounds remote and fanciful. But think back to how you worked in the early 1990s or before (if you are blessed with such age), in a pre-Internet/ pre-mobile/ pre-Web world. Today’s working practises would seem equally alien.
Re-inventing voice communications remains one of the great untapped opportunities in technology, and Hypervoice is at the heart of what may come to be seen as a monumental shift in how we collaborate.