Forward to the Future

Wednesday, October 1, 2008 - 09:47

New technologies are crossing over into mainstream organisations quicker than ever. Chris Sheedy looks into the systems and gadgets that are giving leading companies the edge.

On April Fools' Day around five years ago a major Australian metropolitan newspaper ran an ad spruiking a website that people could visit in order to download free electricity for use around their home. The website crashed several times because so many users surfed in to claim their free electricity.

Five years ago, the site was set up as a joke. After all, apart from plugging into a power socket there was no other way to receive electricity. But what a difference half a decade makes!

Welcome to the 21st century, a brave new world in which 'power over wireless' or 'WiTricity' - the ability to charge laptops, mobile phones, office machinery and so on without ever plugging them in - is soon to become reality.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are currently perfecting various methods of transmitting power through the air, and when they finish, the truly wireless office will finally be realised. It's just one of many fascinating new and current technologies that are changing the way organisations work, improving staff productivity, offering better work/life balance and increasing efficiencies of systems within companies.

"As far as I'm concerned, the most amazing change over the past few years is wireless remote access," says Jacques Saupin, Director of network and security specialists Matrix CNI.

"You can now dial into your workplace from your home, cafe or car and access every application you would have at your own desk. This technology was originally just for people in IT departments, but as security has improved in the past few years it has rolled out to other staff. Five or six years ago everybody used to talk about real 'teleworking' or 'telecommuting' as a thing of the future. Well, now it's here."

Wireless broadband technology has, indeed, changed the way many organisations and employees do business. Every expert interviewed for this article agreed wireless broadband was a serious force of change within organisational process, from the use of BlackBerry and other email-capable wireless devices to the implementation of major wireless networks. It has affected everything from the organisation itself to the home lives of the staff.

"To put in a full day of work you no longer have to be in the office, and in fact you can probably work more productively from home," Saupin says. "You have access to everything you would in the office, and if you go out to meetings, and say there's an hour to burn between two of them, you can sit in a cafe and get your work done."

Rob Hacker, Director of Customer Solutions and Services at Optus Business, says those organisations that offer their staff wireless connectivity now have a clear advantage over those that don't. "It enables you to respond more quickly if you've got a wireless device," he says.

"If there's a call from a customer, for example, that is maybe a little bit non-standard, and a sales-person has one or two things they need to check before getting back to the customer, that person can do the checking, bring together the information and get back to the customer before a competitor can. So they make the sale."

Videoconferencing
While wireless technology offers options for an organisation, there's plenty more going on to tickle the fancy of technology junkies. Videoconferencing, for instance, was once considered to be a technology so powerful that it would mean staff no longer needed to travel. But its often frustrating user experience meant most videoconferencing systems quickly became expensive dust collectors.

Now the clunky experience of videoconferencing has been turned into a smooth, user-friendly, delay-free, high-definition technology commonly known as telepresence. Hewlett Packard's (HP) 'Halo', for instance, was designed by DreamWorks Animation film studio (creators of the movies Shrek, Shark Tale and Madagascar) in partnership with HP, and it truly allows meeting attendees from around the world to feel as if they're in the same room.

"If you go back a few years videoconferencing was always a step down from being there in person," Hacker says. "It never became one of those things that was core to running a business. The higher-definition video and audio of telepresence changes the experience into looking and feeling like you're actually in the room with the other person. It's also very easy to use: it's a single-button set-up, and with the audio you don't need to project your voice. It saves time and money as people don't have to go to the airport and fly, and there's the environmental benefit also."

Videoconferencing units aren't the only old machines receiving a major technological overhaul in the name of productivity. The humble printer and photocopier can now do much of the document management work that once took up most of the time of an average office employee.

"Photocopiers these days have the ability to electronically archive documents to files, to scan documents, [and] to put them away in an archival system that suits the organisation," says Tony Wills, Senior General Manager for Canon Australia's Business Imaging Solutions Group. "You can delegate a lot of tasks to the device, such as allowing or restricting access and charging specific cost centres such as people or departments or clients.

"A company can specify to a large extent how they want to set up their own architecture and can embed a heap of different technologies into a machine, helping to manage its operating costs. Document creation and production adds up to 1-3 per cent of the average company's total turnover. If cost reduction is important then this is the best place to start looking at."

Canon, in conjunction with Stratatel Group, has also developed software called SoftLog.Enterprise that allows a business to track, analyse and allocate the cost of every document that has been scanned, copied, faxed, printed or emailed from its devices. It's particularly useful for those who bill in incremental time units.

"Effectively, when a person goes to copy, scan or print a file then it gets recorded and logged against a particular client or individual's file," Wills explains. "So at the end of the month when you do your billing it distributes all of that output. Then you apply your mark-up, whatever that happens to be. It also works within a phone system to keep track of time on specific client phone calls. Previously staff had to keep manual records or take a guess in terms of billable hours. Now everything is recorded and you just have to go into the file and ask for the information."

Better user experience
On the topic of useful software, reports from independent technology and market research company Forrester Research say all future software is going to have to be "designed for people and built for change" (see break-out box, left). In corporations, software is regularly built by the IT department and is often unattractive, not compelling and not highly usable. Staff spend a great deal of time clicking between applications to do their daily tasks.

Then, of course, those same staff go home and use a site such as Facebook, which is visually attractive, entertaining and has everything they need - instant message services, blogs, calendars, friend finders, games and more - all in one place. And they enjoy it! This, Forrester Research argues, is what business applications need to emulate. They must improve and streamline the user experience.

Simplicity and user experience, Hacker says, is key to the success of almost every technology. Early videoconferencing units were not only an unsatisfying user experience, they were also extremely complicated to set up and utilise on a day-to-day basis. The new telepresence systems, however, are far simpler. It's the same story with email capable devices such as a BlackBerry.

"In the early days of the technology there were some difficulties in being able to synchronise a BlackBerry with your email system," Hacker says. "There were a number of steps you had to go through to synchronise, using a cable attached to the computer and so forth. People who were a little more technically savvy were able to do it, but for most it was very difficult. Over the past few years the advancement of the BlackBerry and the seamless versions of Microsoft email devices mean there's a real ease of use. This is what makes it a technology that a lot of people can't do without."

The next future
So if the future is already here, what's in the real future? "I keep wondering 'where is it going to stop', but really I just hope it doesn't," Saupin smiles. "All of this new technology means that if you and I decide to take up stockbroking when we retire up in Noosa then we can do so with ease, and we can still do everything that we would do if we were in the centre of a major city."

Saupin sees the popularity of well-built, secure wireless networks continuing to gain in popularity as it means companies can change shape, size, staff numbers and location with far greater simplicity than when every employee's equipment was wired to a specific desk.

Hacker sees far greater freedom for staff as wireless connectivity allows them to work remotely and to fit work into their lifestyles. This, of course, also means that employers will lose less staff when valued employees are forced to take time off due to relocation pressures or the birth of children. "I have my own example of a technical expert who needed, for health reasons, to move to a warmer climate," Hacker says. "Thanks to technology, we didn't lose him."

And Wills is most excited about technology that will increase the speed of new technological and physical product developments. "One of the problems we have is the time [it takes] to take a concept and turn it into a product," he explains. "You've got to go through a number of stages to do that, including design, development, prototype, refining, testing, then you eventually manufacture something.

"Canon is experimenting with something called 'mixed reality'. It's almost like we're taking Xbox-type technology to a new level. In theory we will be able to experience the product in a simulated environment without having to build it. A product is built, if you like, within a computer and you can experiment with it in a digital situation," he says. "I've heard the time saved will be anywhere between 20-40 per cent from concept to market. It's an awesome idea."