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Business - Written by on Friday, September 25, 2009 12:57 - 8 Comments

Nick Vitalari
Employee Computing for Collaboration, Innovation, and Productivity

“I’ve got a better computing environment at home than at work,” an executive at a Fortune 500 company told me, adding that he does most of his “creative” work at home because his company-issued Adobe Suite was several generations behind the version he bought for his personal use.

An HR executive at a major manufacturer confided to me: “Last weekend, I hacked my iPhone so I could use it on our network because it is not an authorized device at our company.” When I asked how he learned to hack his iPhone, he said he found an Internet chat group of like-minded iPhone owners and readily found the right settings for his particular network.

A Managing Director in Singapore for a US-based company told me that his PC is virtually useless in Asia “Recently I was in Hong Kong stranded in traffic,” he said, “and I watched another executive, probably a competitor, thumbing his way through phone calls, emails, and other business on a tiny keyboard and tiny screen. Meanwhile I sat in the back seat of my limo twiddling my thumbs looking at my un-tethered laptop, bemoaning the fact that our company does not support an Asian mobile solution.”

Are these isolated examples? No. Are they real? Yes. Are these your typical Gen Y or Net Generation employees? No, all are senior executives each with over 20 years of experience. Why would any company want to stifle the productivity of its high paid executives?

The anecdotes come from the fieldwork of a major study of employee computing released by nGenera Corporation earlier this week. A group of colleagues and I spent more than a year conducting the research, which was sponsored by a blue-ribbon syndicate of global corporations that are members of our nGenera Insight programs. We interviewed individuals at top vendors, global companies, and major government agencies to understand the best way to unleash employee creativity, support new forms of collaboration, and drive new levels of productivity.

Let me review just a few of the findings from the study. (You can download a summary of the report here.)

  • Some companies get it, some don’t. Most employees come to work to be productive. Many want to be creative. And, increasingly, more and more want to collaborate. Collaboration in the workplace requires open data, open apps, and open minds. Does this mean a workplace free-for-all? No. In fact, companies that “get it” categorize their data, specify where open apps can be used, and put in place infrastructure that naturally implements policies and controls to guide “creative and open minds.” Those that don’t get it find themselves outmaneuvered when it comes to looking for new talent and forced to reinvent the wheel every time they need to partner. Competitors who get the need for collaboration will continually extend and improve their product and service features faster and at a lower cost.
  • Collaboration requires a collaborative services infrastructure – nGenera calls it a Collaboration Server. Who has better information about your employees, your HR systems or Facebook and Linked-In? With over 300 million profiles on Facebook, it’s very likely that Facebook profile information might be useful to download into your internal systems. Would such information benefit your employees? Would profile information benefit your sales reps when they deal with customers or prospects? Yes and yes. Organizations need a “master hub” for collaboration. This “master hub” seamlessly interconnects proprietary systems, structured data and unstructured data, internal search with external search, open applications, and external platforms (e.g., Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Plaxo, WebEx, Salesforce.com, etc.), so employees have what they need. As nGenera puts it, the Collaboration Server integrates leading consumer platforms, user management and security, policy and compliance management, and metadata repositories.
  • Share data, information, and knowledge to create value, but categorize first. Companies need to segment data and knowledge into a minimum of three categories: 1) data that is open; 2) data that can be shared; and 3) data that is closed (locked up). Why? Employees need to know what data is in which category. Open data can be freely shared with a great deal of discretion and often this leads to new ideas and innovation. Shared data, the realm of joint ventures, product design, etc., must be controlled and selectively (usually under contracts and NDAs) shared. Data such as formulas, designs, customer data, etc., need to be looked up and sometimes taken completely off the grid for competitive and legal reasons. In our research, thought, we found that few companies have taken the time to make even these simple distinctions. It is no wonder data security and privacy are compromised.
  • IT cannot do everything, nor should they. Yes, technology is a major source of innovation. And yes, it’s impossible to have any business discussion these days without having a technology discussion. But that does not mean that IT must do everything. Companies that completely lock down their IT tools, technologies, and infrastructure, by definition, must depend on IT professionals to do everything. Today, with computer literacy rates at all-time highs, employees can do much on their own, if given the right tools and the right policy frameworks. In fact once the creativity is unleashed, few companies can anticipate all the innovation that ensues. Locked-down companies deprive themselves of significant productivity and innovation in their workforce. Smart CIOs are revamping their infrastructure and policies to support self-service IT models and unleash enterprise-wide creativity on a massive and measurable scale.
  • Some employees will manage their own computing just for the privilege to be more creative and self-reliant. One of our earliest findings in this research program was that every organization has a segment of employees that want to be self-sufficient. They will even buy their own technology and provide their own support if the organization will give them greater freedom over their technological choices. A number of companies now provide this option to employees, such as by providing a stipend for purchases. Employees buy what they can with the stipend (usually from an approved but diverse list), and then are welcome to make additional purchases on their own nickel to augment their “computing environment.” At BP, one of the largest global energy companies, such a program reduced support costs and increased employee morale. Of course, BP also put in place the policies that defined the rules of the road, instituted a computer “driver’s license,” had the participating employees sign appropriate use contracts, and engineered a thin client infrastructure to securely link self-reliant employees to sensitive internal systems. The moral of the story: Do whatever you can to harness this class of employees.

We uncovered several other key findings about how companies are supporting and nurturing employee freedom, creativity, and self-reliance in pursuit of a collaborative workplace. Some companies (see Dion Hinchcliffe on open business data and open business methods) are on their way to the new model of employee productivity and so are some leading government agencies (see data.gov and apps.gov). Every organization has a choice and the consequences of the wrong choice may be dramatic and immediate: Will they pursue new policies, technologies, and practices that unleash the creativity, innovation, and energy of their workforces, or will they continue to rely on command and control and in the process stymie the next generation of enterprise innovation and productivity gains?


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Angie Thomas
Sep 26, 2009 2:12

This is a well thought-out and complex piece of writing and I probably won’t do it justice. But I’ll say that the workplace in my experience needs to change. It needs to address people’s creative time and give it some air. You can’t work equally all day long. You need to express yourself to your colleagues and its not just slacking off when you do. Individuality needs should be more important, not just conforming, although there’s a time for that as well.

Nick Vitalari
Sep 29, 2009 15:14

Angie, your point is a good one. In many ways the first “personal computer revolution” simply retained the “industrial” workplace model with very rigid task structures, limited ideas of what constituted work and insular work arrangements — the only thing missing was the factory whistle announcing shift changes.

Companies will begin to realize the value of innovation across traditional boundaries as employees bring larger social graphs to work. What is viewed today as “slacking off” might actually be a very productive time to create more productive relationships for the company — not just kibitzing with one’s buds on company time.

You’re right. Many workplaces need to change. Time must be given to generating new ideas, innovation, building powerful social graphs, and spending some time thinking about what could be.

Sep 30, 2009 22:46

Great post.
It seems to me that there’s another category of company: those that don’t “get it” but that certainly want to “get it.” I find this group of companies as the most interesting, because of the challenge in helping them fit into their new enterprise 2.0 clothes.
The fact that the challenge is not so much technical as it is cultural seems to imply that enterprise 2.0 tools vendors really need to recruit a different type of partner. A partner with the gravitas and wherewithall to convince the a broader section of the executive suite than just the CIO.

Nick Vitalari
Sep 30, 2009 23:25

Thanks for your post. Great point. We found that many of the issues are cultural. Companies that get it and want to change often encounter many non-technical impediments from legal departments, employee policies, traditional work arrangements (home versus office), and a 1.0 view of intellectual assets (no categorization of what can be openly shared, shared only with partners, or not shared at all). I also agree that a broad consensus across the executive team, including the CEO, is necessary to move the cultural bar.

Wikinomics» Blog Archive » 2.0 Policies – If You Don’t Have ‘Um You Need ‘Um
Oct 1, 2009 7:40

[...] Employee Computing for Collaboration, Innovation, and Productivity [...]

links for 2009-10-04- Exploring New Learning Spaces
Oct 4, 2009 8:09

[...] Wikinomics» Blog Archive » Employee Computing for Collaboration, Innovation, and Productivity [...]

Rob van der Heij
Oct 7, 2009 7:19

An inspiring post and certainly food for thought. I believe that some of the points you raise are affected by the inertia of the big crowd. Among IT staff we did things like collaboration 20 years ago. But when you want to involve others than IT professionals, interfaces must become easier and “fool proof” even. In most cases this also means more standardized and more restrictive, which typically makes it harder to use for professionals. That alienates the professionals where you really need the support of these early adopters in a new collaboration project.

Few companies seem to understand that professionals need different tools than the casual user. It’s silly to assume that support staff dealing with hundreds of problem tickets per day could be efficient with the same user interface as the end-user who opens a problem once a month. Equally strange to assume that a “standard desktop” with typical software collection should do for all.

IT is a highly creative profession. Locking down the professionals kills creativity and innovation.

Nick Vitalari
Oct 8, 2009 14:19

Excellent — a very perceptive comment. Segmenting professionals and employees into groups by work preferences, experience and mode of work, as you point out, is often overlooked in these types of discussions. One of the other findings of the study was the importance of segmentation, yet we found that few organization do it systematically. Often the reason is that it is assumed that segmentation increases costs, whereas, in fact it often reduces the TCO because the one size fits all model often leads to over-provisioning of technology for those that don’t need it and as Rob points out increasing inefficiency in work practices or frustration which leads to lower morale.

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