Over the past year I’ve been fascinated by the way business interactions and processes weave their way in-between the on-line and off-line worlds. Digital has become the default format for the majority of business data as so much of our interaction and data creation now happens on-line (even if that is mostly via email). That said, it still seems to be that the most important business interactions are still the ones that happen off-line. So, how does information make its way between these two worlds? That was the topic of my session at the Dell B2B Social Media Huddle, which Heather Taylor did a great job of live blogging. ‘Thank you’s to Neville (@jangles) and Kerry (@Kerryatdell) for bringing together an incredibly knowledgable crowd.

The short answer to the question is that the transitions happen badly today. The keyboard still remains the primary interface for converting off-line conversations into on-line knowledge. Of course, it isn’t really the keyboard, ultimately it’s the human that makes the conversion between the two worlds take place. That brings a good deal of fallibility to the process, but it is also what makes it inherently personal, human and social, and what makes social software so well suited to tackling the issue.

Blogs and Wikis have long been used to capture the essence of meetings and events, to make them more broadly available to the organisation – although I continue to be shocked by how few meetings are minuted, or even have actions recorded (as Penny was). Milestone Planner has made that process a habit for me – typing a line of text and clicking on an avatar is all it takes to record an action. The simple act of creating a digital record of the off-line event has a dramatic impact on the likelihood that it will be followed up and actually happen. When that action is ‘socially’ accountable – by being made visible on-line to others – the likelihood goes up even further (that’s one of the main concepts behind Milestone Planner).

The interface between on-line to off-line data has also been a narrow one. The office printer is still the main way that digital assets get back into the physical world. There is the occasional nod to the meeting room projector, that makes our PowerPoint creations appear as a fleeting flash of light, but the piles of printed paper that seem to gather by any office printer bear testament to the device’s dominant role in creating ‘real’ things from our digital machinations.

The narrow paths between on-line and off-line in the business world seem ridiculous when you look at the technology we actually have at our finger tips: Phones to capture pictures and video, or even audio, conference call systems that can record and transcribe speech, virtual world environments, speech to text software, augmented reality, … the list goes on. Many business folks are already using these tools – mostly the ones that move in social media circles I note! – but they are a tiny minority in a sea of literal monotony.

Mobile devices, be they phones or tablets, have a central role to play in smoothing the transition between the on-line and off-line lives of business data. That is partly due to the amount of technology they pack into one space, but it is one of the things to fall out of the inherently personally nature of the interface between the two worlds: Mobiles are inherently personal, privatised and individual. We keep them with us, much more than laptops, and they have a much better sense of our place and identity, through features such as GPS, and their ability to create and store video and photos that represent our daily experiences.

Unsuprisingly then, mobile devices have lead the charge in enabling better ways of switching between the two worlds. Possibly one of the most clunky ways this is happening is in the use of QR codes, little square of digital magic that can be printed, then viewed by reader software and used to jump to a web page. Though many question their usefulness, 14 million Americans in the month of July used a QR code – that’s a lot of interactions. Where do they fit into the business process? How about putting a QR code on a meeting room door, with a link to the on-line booking system, or adding them to your meeting documents to give attendees a link back to the project plan or documentation? Although they are effectively a progression from bar codes, they don’t have to be boring. The built in error correction allows marketers and designers a lot of creative freedom.

QR Codes are just one way that the divide is being bridged, there are plenty more exciting ones. On one side, virtual reality systems have been building out from the virtual world, on the other, augmented reality systems have been building out from the physical world. The main thrust of a recent Digital Surrey event at CSC’s offices was that the two will become increasingly blurred. Businesses like Layar have be creating digital layers of information over the physical world, so that you can interact with information around physical objects. You might already have seed the Arcade Fire video, that has a great example of using video and HTML 5 to create a personalised video that draws in the physical world. Another example is Blue Mars Lite, a 3D virtual world platform that draws on Google’s street view data. It enables you to gather people into a virtual space, based on a real world environment, and chat and explore that space online.

Social technology, and the developments around it, can blend on and offline, easing business processes and making them both more human, and less fallible. So much valuable business information is still transient and offline – corridor conversations, customer meetings, conference calls. The majority of that information is undiscoverable , unsearchable, and ultimately lost – those who couldn’t be right there, right then, loose the benefit of the interactions, often resulting in repeated conversations and decisions made with inaccurate or out of date knowledge. To paraphrase an old sci-fi programme: We have the technology to fix this, we can rebuild it. The barriers are not the technology any more, they are resistance to change, and a lack of application.

There is a lovely video from Microsoft doing the rounds, which paints a picture of better ways of interacting with devices:

I have to admit to being a bit disappointed to see a QWERTY keyboard in the video, but other than that, it is an exciting vision.  As Steve commented during the event “Providing a friction free way for teams to collaborate significantly increases likelihood that they will do so.” – We are already starting to experiment with the ways touch can be used to create better business applications, and in the next few weeks we’ll be adding QR code support to aspects of what we do here. There is much to be done!