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The Future of the Future:
The virtual workplace is a “must,” not a “should”

This article appears in the issue June 2010 [Volume 19, Issue 6]


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In our previous article, we discussed how KM and cloud computing were converging to form the knowledge cloud. As we were writing that piece, the Washington, D.C. area was recovering from “Snowpocalypse,” the blizzard that managed to shut down the offices of many U.S. government agencies for four days, at a cost of around a half-billion dollars.

Little did we know that only a month later we would be participating in a panel with four other experts specializing in business continuity, telework, workplace culture and cloud services. Although the initial topic was the need for organizations to move aggressively toward creating virtual work environments, it quickly expanded to include those other areas. Held at the George Washington University Virginia Science and Technology Campus and sponsored by the Dulles Area Transportation Association, the seminar even captured the attention of U.S. Congressman Frank R. Wolf (R-VA), who addressed the attendees and expressed his support.

What transpired was the realization that while each area of specialty of the individual experts has been the sole topic of various seminars in the past, we were hard pressed to find any precedent for bringing all of them together into an integrated whole. The results of doing this for the first time were an eye-opener, one of those moments that make you wonder what took so long to realize something so obvious. Here are some of the panel’s main findings and recommended actions.

Findings

  • Lack of a business continuity and risk management strategy puts an organization at serious risk.

Numerous examples were given, including businesses that folded or nearly folded as a result of sudden disruptions such as natural disasters and cyber attacks. Examples were also given of how organizations with business continuity and risk management plans in place were able to absorb the effects of a major disruption to their operation, including the events of 9/11.

  • If a disaster occurs and you are not already implementing telework, your business likely will not be able to recover.

We learned that you can’t really talk about business continuity without also talking about a virtual workplace strategy, including telework. In the case of D.C., almost half a million federal workers and contractors drive into an area of approximately 60 square miles each work day. Terrorism, pandemics and natural disasters notwithstanding, even the closure of one or more traffic arteries can wreak havoc. Each year in D.C. alone, commuters spend a total of 18 million hours sitting in traffic jams, in addition to their normal commuting time.

Besides the lost productivity, the absence of a telework strategy limits an organization’s ability to attract qualified employees who increasingly demand greater flexibility and work-life balance. Incoming millennials in particular are less inclined than their older counterparts to drive for hours, pay for parking and sit in a cubicle all day. Two of the companies represented on the panel, cloud services provider Lore Systems and market research firm ORI, have been operating successfully for years with 100 percent of their employees working remotely to varying degrees.

  • Records management and information assurance alone are not enough—preserving knowledge about how to interpret information and take appropriate action is equally important.

Despite all the claims that physical presence is essential to sharing knowledge, we found that except in rare instances, that is simply not the case. Even if your organization consists of a small team locked up in a room, you cannot effectively capture, share and apply knowledge without the support of online collaborative tools. The risk is even greater when taking into account the sudden departure of a key team member.

  • The cloud provides a cost effective means for implementing all of those critical capabilities together: business continuity, virtual workplaces and knowledge preservation.

The cloud helps to achieve that level of capability not only by spreading costs and reducing total cost of ownership, but also by providing the added benefits of system redundancy and geographic dispersal. As a green solution, the cloud provides additional energy savings through improved efficiencies resulting from virtualization, as well as ongoing innovations in cloud data center consolidation. We can attest to this firsthand, having recently toured the Equinix (equinix.com) super-secure data center in Ashburn, VA.

Steps to take

1. Get at least part of your IT infrastructure onto the cloud. Just as the network is the computer, the cloud will be the enterprise.

2. Use your cloud infrastructure as a platform for virtual collaboration and knowledge sharing (see “Making the Leap from the Desktop to Virtual Space,” KMWorld January 2010, for ideas on how to get started).

3. Start freeing up people to become more productive (and happy) by allowing them to spend some of their time working from their preferred work environment—home. Seriously, does it make sense to provide a virtual knowledge sharing infrastructure if your people have to spend hours sitting in traffic every day to use it?

While working on steps 1, 2 and 3, start formulating a risk management and business continuity strategy and putting a plan into place. By blending all four steps, if Snowpocalypse II or something worse comes along, you’ll barely miss a beat, because you’ll already be doing a large part of your work in a virtual environment anyway.

Given all that’s transpired, it’s amazing how many organizations are still fearful of embracing a virtual workplace strategy. They should, in fact, be more fearful of what will happen if they don’t. In a volatile world, how many hits can you take? We’ve been talking about the virtual enterprise for more than two decades, but putting it into practice has been slow. 

Here’s the panel’s closing message in a nutshell: You should—no, make that must—be implementing those  steps in concert. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking it will be safe to implement one piece at a time. Such a fragmented approach will only end up costing you more in the long run. With the emergence of the cloud, you’re not only running out of excuses, you’re running out of time.


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