Futurology is a tricky business. A quick Google search for the phrase “predictions for 2017” will turn up a vast amount of sage advice and insights that turned out to be…well, let’s say not quite on the mark. And 2018 will be no different, as both technology and business communication pundits weigh in predicting the apps and platforms that they believe will be key to your digital future.
So how do we sort through the hype to get a clear, pragmatic picture of what 2018 has in store for communicators in terms of technologies? From my experience, the best way to approach planning your technology professional development and your communication strategy in the coming year is to look at the ongoing trends that are driving enterprise technology choices.
One quick note before we begin for those of you reading this who identify as working in companies that are “digital laggards”: Keep in mind that while not everyone is moving at the same speed, we are all moving in the same direction. In the early 1990s, science fiction author William Gibson (inventor of the word “cyberspace”) said in an interview: “The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.”
As consumers enjoy more and more innovation at home, they will continue to press for similar tools in their roles as employees, managers and entrepreneurs. And we are living in an era in which dramatic changes are becoming more accepted—even expected—when it comes to both our personal and professional lives. Many companies are discovering that new technologies for all business processes, including communication, will be a necessity if they want to compete and thrive.
Here are a few trends I have been seeing over the past 18 months that I think will continue and accelerate in 2018. Watch these trends—rather than the hype about the latest company or platform—to guide your technology self-training and tool selection in the coming year.
Trend 1: The distributed, conversational enterprise
With only a few notable exceptions, most companies today are steadily moving toward a new era of employees working anytime, anywhere. Computing technologies have advanced sufficiently that we are no longer tied to our desks and can collaborate, communicate and create just about anywhere. If you have a smartphone, tablet, or lightweight laptop with a wireless data connection, you are ready to be productive in an ever-increasing array of jobs. And workforces around the world are ready for the transition. Over the past two years, messaging apps have become far more popular than the “big four” web-based social platforms (think Facebook and friends) that we have come to know and love. Today, we’d much rather converse than post a question or run a search. This preference is also accelerating the development and use of chatbots and other intelligent assistants to help us get to work done. Ask yourself: Would you rather search the intranet for the corporate news that affects your team, or ask a co-worker for the latest?
Technologies to watch: App-based everything, conversational agents that can talk (think Amazon Alexa as a co-worker), text-based chatbots on every social platform (and maybe even your corporate messaging system or enterprise social network) and fewer enterprise tools that require a full computer or even a web browser to work.
Trend 2: Data drives everything
Measurement consistently ranks as one of the most persistent challenges that both public relations and internal communication professionals face. In 2018, measurement is likely to come to every corner of the enterprise as both cloud-based tools and machine learning make it easier to both capture data and turn it into actionable insights.
Intelligent tools like Salesforce’s Einstein are working away at large sets of data and coming up with real-world, useful insights. It’s only a matter of time before service providers targeting the communication industry add AI to the mix as well to help you understand who’s reading your messages, how they are taking in the corporate narrative and other insights beyond just who’s clicking on what in that email message. And with information freed from the confines of that spreadsheet or presentation file, using cloud-based services like Prezi Business and Airtable, your data is more portable, visible, and analyzable than ever.
Technologies to watch: Cloud-based services are not new—many are entering their second or even third generation and adding features like AI analysis and code-free customization. Watch for collaboration and data analysis tools baked in to the cloud-based tools that you are already using, and tapping in to enterprise data in new ways.
Trend 3: Experiences edge out interfaces
If you know anyone involved in website design, virtual reality, or even sales and marketing, you’ve probably heard about experiences. The customer experience is the first journey that marketers are trying to map out and augment with leading-edge technologies, but the employee experience isn’t far behind.
While 2017 did not turn out to be the “year of augmented reality” as many predicted, the technology has made a lot of progress. So much so that along with artificial intelligence and interactive voice technologies, experience design is ready to reinvent the way customers, employees and other stakeholders connect, influence, learn and communicate. Why? Because the software tools behind AI have advanced enough that now, rather than humans needing to learn how to interact with an interface to technology like a website, technology is “smart” enough to start learning how to interact with humans.
Technologies to watch: Commercially available augmented or “mixed” reality technology is now making a splash with next generation development tools and headset-based toys, but it is rapidly advancing. A number of practical business applications are already being piloted around the world. Intelligent agents and assistance frameworks are springing up to walk you through processes, automate tasks and help you navigate data. Plus, one essential technology is in high demand: storytelling. Experiences delivered through voice, artificial worlds, intelligent agents and interactive overlays on your workplace reality collapse without a coherent narrative.
Mixed reality, chatbots, machine learning-driven virtual assistants (like Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri) and immersive video experiences will be part of every communicator’s daily work life in the near future. Some of us are implementing these technologies right now. But as Gibson noted, the future is not yet evenly distributed. For most of us, 2018 will be a transitional period where the past and the future of business communication will coexist. Conversational and message-based networks like Facebook’s Workplace or Microsoft Teams are running at some companies right alongside SharePoint 2010 intranets. Slack communities are emerging as a popular mobile collaborative platform inside companies where Yammer groups are languishing. And yes, we’ll all still be sending and responding to a lot of email.
But for some of us, the future is already here. Someone you know will soon start speaking to their computer about your company strategy and get back meaningful, relevant answers. And sometime this year, I’m willing to bet that one or two of your co-workers (perhaps in IT, perhaps in marketing, maybe even your CEO) will be regularly putting on an Oculus, Magic Leap or Microsoft HoloLens headset to explore how mixed reality can change your workplace and support your corporate narrative. The rest of us will be catching up soon, and as communication professionals, you will be on the front line of introducing and using these new technologies in the workplace.