Training wheels to protect you at the office: a vision for the future
Could a future application one day help people get along with one another at work?
A story about a meeting from the future
The time is 8:25 AM on a workday, years from now. We join the weekly global team video-conference underway at a successful consumer-products company. I’ll spare you the busy agenda, but point out some novel highlights from your meeting:
- As the discussion dives into the details, you wonder when they will stop peppering you with questions. You think distractedly about another cup of coffee and your busy day ahead. But before anyone notices your fading attention, the application boosts your trailing-off voice. A lovely, engaging, lifelike, face catches your wandering eye. It steers your gaze to meet your boss’s attentive eye. Good save!
- Someone mentions Mumbai, and you remember that your EVP entrusted you to alert the India team to her forthcoming visit. You clearly state what she will expect of her hosts in Mumbai. You distinctly hear the India office head affirm “yes, yes, yes!” so you’re sure he got it right. But after the meeting, the app prompts both you and he to follow up in writing.
- A guest expert stops her rambling and cuts to the chase. You wonder whether the app’s cartoon coach silently signaled her to wrap up her remarks.
- Finally, the agenda reaches the one item that you’ve been waiting for. You straighten your back and speak up but are interrupted by a new rival. Your jaw clenches and eyebrows rise in anger. Then, before your eyes, a relaxed, smiling image of your own face appears against a cloud of blue, icy air. You remember to cool off, and suppress a sharp remark. After less than two minutes you wonder why you were so worked up over what now seems like nothing.
- You peer, perplexed, at the Investor Relations rep who joined the meeting from Finance, and then at the other participants. Are you the only one who feels confused? She suddenly pauses, and supplies the missing context, so it all makes sense. Did a cartoon character prod her to clarify herself?
- No one has noticed that every time conversation slowed, a silent participant from the Taiwan office sat up and parted his lips. Then he paused and deferred. Was he waiting for a chance to speak up? Good thing that the meeting leader is silently reminded to invite the Taiwanese gentleman to speak.
More about the vision
You just saw an application do something that no technology does today: It helps people listen to one another and get along better. Have you ever been in a meeting where things went wrong, and people spoke without connecting to one another? You saw here how the app directs people’s attention to one another. You saw how it bridges language and cultural gaps that can trip you up. The app benefits employers, but it’s all about you: When you speak you get the full attention of your peers and leaders. You get your point across concisely, and others actively respond. You avoid embarrassing miscues. Like an executive coach, the app trains you to make good eye contact. To engage others with your facial expressions, and to adjust the tone of your voice to the circumstances. Like a good coach, it makes sure you confirm that you were well understood. Beyond preventing conflicts and misunderstandings, it makes meetings more engaging. But that’s not the main point . . .
What did not happen in the meeting
This vision is not so much about what happened during the meeting, as what did not happen.
- Thanks to that lovely, engaging face, you answered your boss’s question without missing a beat. You did not look up from your distracted thoughts in panic. You did not miss his important instructions while you recovered from your embarrassment.
- You avoided a petty spat with your rival. The two of you learn to collaborate. Later you both share the credit for getting a highly visible project back on track.
- Instead of writing a dry memo, the hesitant guest from Finance lights up with excitement. She tells your boss how to win the support of an important investor.
- The soft-spoken rising star of the Taiwan office declines a lucrative job offer from the competition. He speaks up, wins the confidence of headquarters, and puts his ideas into action. Within months your company reverses its dipping sales in the Asia-Pacific region. Soon it outpaces its arch-competitor there.
- Thanks to that follow-up message, the EVP moves up her visit to Mumbai, and meets in person with the key partners. The India business head proactively mends the partner relations. He even uses the EVP’s visit to demonstrate the top-level, personal commitment the partners desperately sought. The successful visit makes his boss look good and prevents a crisis that would have taken additional visits to iron out.
This vision of the future assumes that technology will determine what actions are good for us and urge us to take them. You may wonder how hard could that be? After all, we already get “friend” suggestions from social media. Already, when we type the word “attachment” in a message, we receive a helpful reminder to add that attachment before the message goes out. The answer, though, is “not so easy”. Our vision of the 8:00 A.M. global meeting involves complex processes. Those processes must operate on a large and varied set of inputs. They must then produce context-specific outputs. Future blog editions will explore the steep challenges to realizing this vision, and the implications of its success. For example, we will explore:
- Which components already exist in some form or are “almost here”? Which new advances are still needed to realize this vision (or elements of it), and by when?
- Beyond technology, what drivers and inhibitors will influence if, when, and how this will happen?
- What implications does this vision have for businesses, and, more widely, for individuals and society? What opportunities and challenges might follow?
- Check whether this vision suggests new use cases for any technologies you are currently researching or developing. As you see the elements of this vision beginning to coalesce, cautiously incorporate that potential into your business case for R&D investments.
- Decide whether the vision of technology helping people get along better would spark the interest of investors and customers. Use this vision, or your own version of it, to tell the story. Take pains to state clearly which elements are available, which are almost available, and which are still speculative.
Disclosure: This work is my own current opinion. I wrote it. No one paid for this work and I have no vested interests in any of the firms mentioned here.