Feb 262013

I don’t think anyone would refute me if I said that we are living in a rapidly changing environment, that stability and security are nice fantasies, and that moving from industrial work to knowledge work has changed the structure of business organizations. Figure 1 shows that communication, collaboration, social technologies, the cloud, and mobility are the factors impinging on business today.

Figure 1

Figure 1 — Changing the nature of busines organizations.

Add to this the ability of some companies to utilize crowds for microtasks and various new technologies, not only for increased productivity and collaboration, but with the additional ability to change the physical nature of the workplace. If you also incorporate the effects of Gen Y and the Millennials, we not only have different organizations, but a different workforce. A couple years back, at NewWOW Symposium 8, a VP at Cisco said that over the next five years, only 1% of the company’s workforce will be Baby Boomers.

Couple this with a flood of new devices in the enterprise (helped by policies such as BYOD — bring your own device), the rapid pace of technology advancement, and the use of crowds as a business means, and you begin to see that the future of the collaborative workplace may look nothing like our current view.

Collaboration will be part of any future workplace. In fact, one of the top five issues on CEO surveys for the last five years is “improved collaboration.” But I don’t think everyone means the same thing when they use the term “collaboration.” In Figure 2, I make a distinction between other words/behaviors that people often mean as “collaboration.” The point I am trying to make here is that people may say “conversation” but actually mean “collaboration,” and we can see that collaboration requires a much higher level of commitment and a clearer focus on a specific goal.

Figure 2

Figure 2 — Levels of collaboration.

One view of the future work organization is what I call the “networked organization.” This type of organization usually has a small core, say 100 people, that deal with company management, marketing, product management, R&D, operations, and coordination of outside contracting groups for IT, HR, sales, and the supply chain (see Figure 3). Many of the other departments may be outsourced to other organizations that have proved their merit and have longstanding relationships with the core.

Figure 3
Figure 3 — Future organizations will outsource sales, IT, HR, and many other functions.

Such an organization has much lower overhead and is more agile and more competitive. The groups outside the core may be other companies or even freelancers, but they all have an ongoing and intimate relationship with the core. Some of the technologies discussed earlier can enable this kind of future.

As an example, the core can select groups of people that work best on specific tasks (through tracking of brain function). Information on each of these groups is available to core members through augmented reality when they are negotiating with the distributed subcontractors. Productivity is increased for the core as they are able to shape their work environments to fit their needs instead of trying to fit into a standardized work environment. Those who want the “cone of silence” can have an office that has one, or they can create one when it is needed. Although the workspace may be wherever you are, the core organization is envisioned to be small enough that people can interact with each other on a regular and as-needed basis.

The Future Workplace

Given that organizations and technologies are changing rapidly, what does the future workplace look like? If you can create most anything you want in any kind of space you want, the future workplace is not only collaborative, it can also be more private. One innovative workspace designed in France features a lot of light, trees, and plants, as well as curved furniture to convey the nature orientation of the workspace. However, workers can also be isolated in cones covering their desks (see, for example, “Fresh and Natural Ideas Design Bureau – PONS + Hout Office“).Another workspace in Finland looks more like a café than a traditional work environment (see “New Project: TOTI — User-Oriented Office Spaces“.

The idea here is to have a variety of differently configured workspaces. Some are more social, like the big table, and some are more isolated, like the guy with headphones (sound isolation) typing in a corner cubicle.

Dan Rasmus, a futurist, author, and friend, uses the following list to describe some of the characteristics of future companies:

  • They are a cross between long-term commitment and free agents.
  • Managers are mentors focused on project teams, not functional areas.
  • Employees negotiate work commitments with project managers.
  • Employees commit to interests and time available.
  • Project managers define roles and resources and recruit/manage the team.
  • Employees manage their own hours.
  • Everyone gets reviewed (templates, organizational goals, and values are metrics).
  • Executive tasks are earned based on size and number of successful projects.
  • Bigger budgeted but less risky projects can be chosen; all projects are vetted through a process.
  • Smaller budgets but more innovative projects can be chosen; customers are part of projects.
  • C-suite survives, as it is needed for overall direction, to instigate projects, and to arbitrate between teams.

Much of the work around collaboration in the future will be focused on processes. Not just any processes, but critical processes that have a collaborative component.

I’ve written more on the future workplace in the Cutter Executive Update, “The Future of the Collaborative Workplace.” If you’re not a Cutter member and want to see it, email my colleagues at Cutter and they’ll send it to you.


David Coleman

David Coleman has been involved with groupware and collaborative technologies since 1989.


  9 Responses to “What Does the Future Work Organization Look Like?”

  1. avatar


    Thank you for the interesting blog post. I would appreciate reading your piece on the future if the collaborative workplace, thank you.

  2. I’d love to see a copy of the article “The Future of the Collaborative Workplace.” too 🙂

  3. avatar

    David, Thanks for that interesting article and I would like to read on. I’d love to see the article too 🙂 Thanks, Christa

  4. David,

    Interesting article. I can appreciate the time and effort it takes to create a thoughtful piece on the subject.

    Do you have any opinions on the very recent changes to the structure of work at Yahoo!? The message that most people are receiving from the recent “Work from home not allowed” memo was their belief that a distributed work environment was not as productive or innovative as a cubicle farm at one location.

    Regards, Scott

    • Scott,

      I have been asked that very question by several people for the last few days. Let me sum up what I have heard, One of my colleagues (Dave Gardner) wrote a recent post about this at http://businessexecution.wordpress.com/2013/02/27/marisa-mayer-orders-telecommuters-to-the-office/. In his article he discusses the fact that Yahoo morale has been down for many years, and so low productivity follows.

      Other studies show that telecommuters can also be very productive, but this productivity only comes when managed, and we are not sure that Yahoo has been managing these telecommuters. Dave believes that reining in the telecommuters is a step towards their management, and that once things are on track, telecommuting may be instituted again.

      From my point of view Marissa Meyer is a new mother and to turn around and eliminate telecommuting will probably drop the morale of women working at home who have kids. As a matter of fact I think many of them see the writing on the wall and are already polishing up their resumes.

      Other critics say that Yahoo is already sinking lower, and that eliminating telecommuting (which is some what the norm in Silicon Valley) will not help attract new mellenials to Yahoo, so they may be shooting themselves in the foot. On the other hand
      Yahoo has gotten quite a bit of publicity out of this, so maybe that was the intention all along?

      Most of my friends that worked at Yahoo have long ago left, so I don’t really have any inside sources there anymore. Like you, I can just look in from outside… and shake my head.

  5. Great approach! I’d like to read the article as well, really interested in this field!


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