IT for business
Technology's social, visual future
Last Updated October 24, 2007
The author is a Canadian freelance writer specializing in technology.
For an example of someone with a high dependence on (and borderline addiction to) personal computing technology, look no further than Chris Thorne, vice-president of Toronto-based consumer market research firm Maritz Canada.
Thorne is a three-device person who is using technology all day long, whether it's a notebook, a BlackBerry device or a cellphone. He has, on average, one major appointment a day that almost always involves a presentation on his laptop. And when that's over he feels like he has to rush back to his office, where he goes back to work in front of his computer.
"I am plugged in everywhere," he says, which doesn't make him all that different from most of today's professional workers. But Thorne, who also has written books and lectured about the marketing of technology, doesn't just focus on how plugged-in workers have become — he thinks we've only seen the beginning of a trend.
"I think we [the professional workers] have yet to reach the total immersion point," Thorne says.
Social networking combined with cheap online video is about to shake up the workplace in a serious way, according to some industry observers. And this additional technology will blur the lines even more between work done in the "real" versus the virtual or online world.
Take a tool such as Live Meeting or video conferencing, for example, and combine it with a product of the social networking phenomenon like Facebook, and it could give people one less reason to connect in person. Think of how e-mail displaced phone conversations as the primary means of communication. Will video eliminate the tradition of in-person live meetings altogether?
As workers get even more connected through this technology, it's going to force us to revisit some old questions: Does technology make life easier or more complicated? Does it enslave or liberate us to pursue more leisure activity? Are we really more plugged in to each other, or quite the reverse, more detached from real, live connections with each other?
Funny, those same questions have been posed for as long as I can remember, and I am a veteran IT journalist whose career has spanned almost 25 years.
Most of that time has been spent writing for a highly specialized technical audience, the IT professional and the business user — people who use technology to make businesses run more efficiently. I've also dabbled in writing for a consumer audience, where the focus is more on recreational use (gaming and internet surfing), and where it's all about catering to gut emotional appeal and the wow factor of new technologies. And those same questions — how technology will affect how we work, entertain ourselves and relate to each other — continue to be the common theme in many of those stories even when the technologies involved are very different.
And then there is that third distinct, perhaps overlooked group: Business professionals, typically owners/entrepreneurs, consultants, lawyers, doctors, engineers and architects. This group easily adds up to millions of users in Canada alone.
Their profile? Business-savvy and well-educated, but lacking patience when it comes to learning how to use software or hardware. Most are well beyond being enamored by the technology and prefer at all costs to avoid the arcane world of programming and complex IT systems. So it's a group that needs business-grade gear and support, but which has an approach to technology that's more like that of a general consumer than a corporate IT specialist.
Social networking is an interesting force, in that it promises to stir things up across all three of those broad market segments: Corporate, professional user and consumer.
Each of those groups has traditionally had its own distinct product groupings and nomenclature when it comes to technology that helps people communicate and share. It was so-called collaborative software suites for the corporate office, tools such as LinkedIn for the professional set, and Facebook and YouTube took off in the consumer crowd.
Then it all started to blur with executives now looking at how they can embrace elements of Facebook and YouTube in their corporate strategy. For example, what better way for a marketing department to effectively engage an entire group of consumers than to make use of the same tools those people are already comfortable with? That has executives thinking of how they can use video and social networks as part of their marketing strategies.
"I'm part of this [executive] group," says Yogi Schulz, president of Corvelle Management, a Calgary-based IT consulting firm and a noted speaker and author on topics related to technology. And he can see real changes coming.
"As a catchphrase, social computing doesn't sound very business-like," he says. "But social computing is all about compelling and effective social interactions. Isn't that what effective work teams are all about? When we collaborate on business projects or problems, share ideas, or comment on the work of others, we are using the same social computing concepts at work that teenagers use at play."
And that's precisely the premise for this column. Social networking isn't just changing the way we play, it's penetrating into every aspect of work. For example, rather than embark on an expensive targeted marketing and advertising campaign, why not reach out to groups of consumers using news groups or chat sessions, or other forms of relatively inexpensive, online communications?
A case in point: Maritz's Thorne describes one software application that enables thousands of potential buyers to "vote" on product features online before the product is released to manufacturing. Think of it as beta testing in real-time, a radical concept tied to social networking and creating an online community that directly involves your customers in your business.
In the coming weeks this column will look at the many different ways business professionals are productively using personal computing and communications devices, and the types of services being offered — from so-called Web 2.0, to social networking, to live meetings and video conferencing (think of it as YouTube for your work group).
I think Chris Thorne has a good point when he says workers have yet to reach the total immersion point — just when you thought technology had permeated our lives, it seems poised to penetrate even further into our daily activities and interactions. Video and social networking will be the next big thing no matter what type of company you work for, so in a very literal sense, stay tuned.
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