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9/19/2006
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The New Workplace

For awhile now I have been thinking about what it is we are striving for here with collaborative technologies. I have never been satisfied with the use of the word collaboration. It is too ambiguous and can apply to just about any application that facilitates an exchange of ideas or information. In addition, "collaborative technologies" takes too narrow of a perspective by making technology the focus.

Last week I attended a webcast led by Tom Austin of Gartner and hosted by Interwise. A full recording of the event is available on the Interwise website. The title is "Beyond Cost Control: How IT Creates Competitive Advantage in a Radically Changing World". You may need to download and install the Interwise client application before listening to the presentation and viewing the slides. However, the time you spend preparing for and listening to this recording will be well spent.

Tom's presentation made several great points but I came away thinking:
1. Many IT organizations don't recognize the opportunities to dramatically enable business growth that are sitting right before their eyes.
2. The foundation for the new workplace (Tom calls these "Birthright Workplace Tools") is made up of the many tools we now call collaborative technologies but also encompasses other technology areas such as personal productivity, and knowledge sharing.
3. The new workplace has the potential to simplify the end-user experience by bringing task-specific information and data into the workplace.

Today, the attention of most IT organizations is focused on optimizing application performance, reducing operational cost, and minimizing risk. In other words, we have an application-centric perspective that is based on tight controls.  

Tom's presentation refers to this as the "Systematize" tasks of IT. He believes there is a complementary, and counter-balancing, set of tasks under the title of "Innovate" that IT also needs to address. This reminded me of what John Seely Brown said in his CTC keynote in June. JSB called these two aspects of the enterprise "Authorized" and "Emergent" and said "But ironically, most IT tends to support the authorized, not the emergent. And that is where ideas get created & shared."

In my opinion by only focusing on the "Authorized" IT has left the end-user to deal with numerous siloed interfaces and other artificial barriers. As a result IT is slowing the pace of work leaving end-users looking for alternatives to improve their productivity.

This runs counter to the evolution of the consumer Internet where people are becoming increasingly more productive and innovative due to the open and social nature of Web 2.0 technologies. As technologists dealing with collaborative tools from companies like IBM, Microsoft, and EMC we sometimes like to ridicule the quality of low-cost or free tools available on the Internet; like blogs, wikis, or even, what some have called, the limited functionality of tools from Google. I think this point is debatable, but even if it is true then how can we account for the level of innovation occurring on the Internet outpacing that of many corporations in spite of the quality of the tools? Maybe the tools don't matter as much as how they are deployed, used, and controlled?

At one point during the presentation Tom referred to stories of college graduates turning down jobs with companies that are limiting their choices of tools and work methods by tightly controlling their use of things like instant messaging. Now that is making a vote of no-confidence with your feet. When hearing this I recalled Bill Jensen's book "Work 2.0" and "Rule 2: Build My Work My Way" where he says:

"The workforce has watched how you focus on returns on investment. They are doing the same thing. From this point forward, R-E-S-P-E-C-T includes better use of the assets the workforce brings with them. They want less wasted time, energy, and talent. And better returns on those assets.

That’s gonna take more than making sure people feel appreciated and telling them that the work they do is important. You need to change your plans, focus, and priorities fast enough so that the infrastructures you build, the hierarchies you establish, the tools you create — everything that they use to get work done — demonstrate that you respect their time, attention, and energy."

The opportunity sitting before us is to enable a new form of computing infrastructure; maybe we call it the new workplace. This is built on all of the things IT has delivered to-date but the goal is delivering dramatic improvements in how we work individually and with others. Unfortunately, there is no single business process owner for these tools since all business processes benefit and no single organization believes it is their responsibility to invest in them. Later in the Gartner presentation Tom provided some perspective on solving this issue by outlining seven steps for getting support for the new workplace.

In summary, collaborative technologies is but one (albeit, large) segment of workplace tools required to enable new levels of business growth.  Intranet strategists should be focused on how their solutions are supporting or enhancing the new workplace.


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