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Planning now for the future of work

This article appears in the issue November/December 2011, [Vol 20, Issue 10]

Work. It's what we do for upward of half of our waking hours. The nature of work has certainly changed over the last 100 years, as the United States shifted from a manufacturing to a service economy. With that came new functions like client, business and professional service, research, design—essentially a rise of workers who use and create information on a daily basis. Now, with the softening global economy and the rapid advancements in technology, the nature of work will be changing even faster than before.   This is a scary proposition for everyone. How do business leaders strategize when the landscape is   evolving so rapidly?

A snapshot of North America and Europe shows us that two-thirds of information workers already work remotely. They are enabled by a number of advances. Devices are incredibly powerful in functionality; instead of a clunky Star Trek tricorder, we have pocket-sized smartphones with apps to diagnose medical symptoms and book a flight, pay for coffee and augment reality. Our person-to-person interactions are richer and more lifelike-chat and video-enabled Skype-rather than grainy cathode ray tube displays seen in 2001: A Space Odyssey. A far cry from clunky desktops, we can now access information from tablets and screens, not to mention Web-enabled and interfaced alarm clocks, music players and smart TVs. Consumer and enterprise social sharing enables broadcasting to a large global audience.

To cope with the specter of mobility, Web 2.0 has been touted as the transformative panacea. Forrester defines Web 2.0 as "a set of technologies and applications that enable efficient interaction among people, content and data in support of collectively fostering new businesses, technology offerings and social structures." The technology has become a bona fide reality; the functionality exists. The vendors aren't just adding a .com to traditional products. However, the italicized goals and hopes for what Web 2.0 will accomplish are still aspirational.

Despite burgeoning strategies and reactive responses to their employees/consumers, mobile work has taken a foothold. Twenty-nine percent of U.S. information workers are already hyper-mobile (working from home, in transit and at client sites). They are empowered with IM, social networking sites, desktop video and microblogging. Yet, this progress so far has been tactical, small gains for most, solving just the most critical and evident needs.

Took to the cloud

That said, some have made great use of Web 2.0. Consider TaylorMade Golf. It has a highly mobile sales force and a vast library of sales collateral, which includes a growing compendium of video files. This has resulted in different versions and sources of information and necessitated increased follow-up because the correct information was not always on hand. Tackling the problem with software, TaylorMade took to the cloud, making sales collateral available, anywhere. This keeps versions current and provides the ability to manage rich media (multiple image and video types). TaylorMade also provisioned salespeople with new hardware-iPads with instant startup and a great size and form factor for sales calls. That two-pronged approach resulted in more first-call closes and less sales loss due to having to follow up. The effect, while tactical, is critical to success in a highly competitive business environment.

Critical in cutthroat economy

As firms look to solve the problems of the moment, they are deploying supplements to e-mail, IM and calendars. Portals and internal blogs are being used to push information, workspaces and Web conferencing to facilitate collaboration, and social networks and microblogging to help share and capture the wisdom of crowds-and perhaps serendipitously gaining insights you never knew were there. Despite the best of intentions, that non-integrated  technology overload has overwhelmed workers, turning them into alt-tabbers jumping from application to application, lowering adoption and stunting value.

Getting the organization to see the theoretical value, to change their behaviors and attitudes is still a Sisyphean task. Like knowledge management initiatives of a bygone time, the disconnect between collective and individual value persists. Individual and organizational incentives weren't aligned nor mapped to an individual's business value, and the need back then wasn't yet critical. Nowadays, both knowledge management and Web 2.0 are crucial to gain competitive advantage in a cutthroat global economy.

Disruption is a goal

With challenges spanning both the technical and cultural fronts that need to be quickly resolved, the opportunity has arisen for you to play a monumental role in aligning incentives and ensuring success. The challenge is lofty and will require many hands and a strong foundation, like building a pyramid.

Start by making initiatives actionable with executive support. Funding is just the start: Executives need to be ready to participate, not just open their purse strings. If they can't see the value themselves to use it, how can the organization be expected to? Disruption and structural changes should be embraced; they're actually the goal, not an annoyance.

Proving business value is another obstacle many initiative owners face. It's somewhat of a chicken and egg problem because many of Web 2.0's business value propositions are dependent on adoption. To spur this metric, identify farsighted, motivated business leaders as partners and evangelists. Look for whatever discrete business value can be quantified and measured. Keep a running tally of wins, big and small.

With this preliminary guidance, you can usher in a new paradigm of work and grow the economic pie.  


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