Telepresence today refers to multimedia systems that give a user enough audiovisual feedback to feel present in a remote location with the person they are meeting and conversing with. A company using such systems can already cut business travel costs by a large margin and allow home working for a significant number of employees.
Future telepresence systems are likely to include full-body avatars and tactile feedback in immersive virtual environments for which participants wear headsets and gloves. Augmented with voice command for machines, instant translation for other people, and direct thought reading for real-time process control, telepresence has the potential to transform the world of work.
The journey from present systems to such future scenarios can be taken in many small steps. Done right, each step can improve a company’s revenue-cost equation and hence win the approval of bean-counters. This means that our evolution in the direction of more telepresence is all but inevitable. Anyone who stays ahead of the pack in terms of ideas and implementation can earn big winnings.
The first big step is likely to meet the immediate and urgent need to reduce the mass use of cars for commuting. The public need here is so clear – in terms of environmental damage, oil usage, daily commute time wasted, and infrastructure costs for roadways, intersections, parking lots and so on – that telepresence will certainly be sponsored heavily by governments until it becomes viable for any enterprise.
Once the technology becomes pervasive, companies will reap secondary benefits. As with many new technologies, first adopters will pay a higher price – but this is where government subsidies will help. The biggest secondary benefit will be the opportunity to downsize offices and factories. Office workers will need their own telepresence cubicles, plus restaurants and so on, but not many meeting rooms. Many office workers will do at least part of their work from home. Some factory workers, too, will be able to work at a relatively small central facility instead of scattered among the machines. Robotized factories will run largely under remote control. Infrastructure in remote locations, like dams or windmills, will need no physical on-site presence at all.
Virtual companies will spring up like mushrooms once telepresence is pervasive. Workers with their own telepresence infrastructure at home – assuming worldwide standards for interoperability – will be able to work for any organization that can generate a workflow and an income stream, wherever it is based. Since the virtual relocation costs can be arbitrarily low, workforce flexibility will increase by leaps and bounds. With the right regulatory environment and social security provisions, changing jobs will become painless, and companies will come and go more freely than now.
In a world of pervasive telepresence, the most successful companies will be focused at least as much on their people as on the work they do. A world in which most work is either done by robots or based on ideas and knowledge in people’s heads will feature rapidly changing work requirements and relatively routinized generation of cash flow from the work. The hardest part of maintaining the flow will be keeping the people on task, facilitated and motivated, with the right tools and knowledge. Companies will be companies of people, organized and ready to do whatever work comes next.
In my view, this virtualization and hence routinization of cash flow will have further consequences. Communities will be companies of companies, and countries will be communities of communities. People-oriented companies will be the building blocks of the entire human community. People will live and work physically in relatively fixed locations, but live and work virtually in a globalized world, where everything changes much faster than we could now tolerate.
Where does this leave SAP? To be ahead of the game, we need to embrace telepresence developments as fast as we can and to ensure that all our products remain as accessible for telepresent operation as possible. Fortunately, our entire portfolio is about as telepresence-ready as a product range can be, so this will be no great problem. More to the point, we need to embrace the fact that a company is a company of people, who can telework elsewhere if they choose. SAP needs to continue to do what it has always done so far, and treat its employees as its greatest asset.