Business reimagined

You have already heard the litany of the new world of work: social, cloud, mobile, BYOD, big data. You’ve probably read that ‘work is something you do not somewhere you go.’ But what does that actually mean for businesses?

What does Work 2.0 look like? What new skills do we need? What does it mean for the IT department? What new tools and technology make it happen?

To answer these questions, we think that there are four axes worth exploring. Like the best Zen haikus they are both contradictory and enlightening.

Wide vs. narrow

Businesses have more data than ever. The ability to access the right information at the right time is a top three trait of successful, agile businesses, according a survey by the Economist Intelligence Unit. At the same time managers are spending more and more time searching for key information.

In the new world of work, people need to be able to review a wide range of information and zoom in on the precise data they need. IT departments need to help them turn big data into big insight.

Technology such as cloud-based data storage and processing and advanced database systems can break down internal data silos and make it easier to manage large pools of data. But companies also need technology that lets them share, curate and analyse it. Intranet tools such as SharePoint have an important role in disseminating information.

Companies also need to embrace new sources of data, such as chatter on public social networks, social graphs of employees and their connections with each other. Even browsing patterns and other metadata can be turned into actionable insight.

At an individual level, employees need to be able to switch between the wide-angle view of large datasets and a laser-like narrow focus on exactly the right information they need to make today’s decisions. They need IT skills to use software like Excel to analyse and visualise information. They also need the analytical skills to support data-driven decision making. This includes rapid innovation, split testing, picking actionable metrics and the ability to ‘pivot’, according to Eric Ries, the author of The Lean Startup.

This ability to switch from wide to narrow extends to career planning and skill development. On the one hand, we’re entering an age of hyperspecialisation, according MIT Professor Tom Malone. And on the other hand, employees need to embrace a wider range of skills to succeed. For example, it’s no longer possible to hide in the IT department and pretend that finance, marketing or sales don’t exist just as people in those departments cannot ignore IT. We need to be polymaths and specialists at the same time.

Focused vs. hyperconnected

More than half of people aged 25-34 use social networking in the office. To some, this may be a big waste of time but management consultants McKinsey argue that businesses stand to gain by adopting social media. The firm reckons it could raise productivity by 20-25% through speeding up communication, finding information faster and boosting collaboration and other tasks.

So, like it or not, people are using social media and they’re more connected than ever before. It’s not just Facebook and Twitter. Got a business start-up question? Ask Quora. Need a recommendation for a business lunch venue? Go to Yelp. Knotty programming problem? Try StackExchange. There’s no doubt that social media has huge business benefits.

At the same time, we may be suffering from a crisis of concentration. With so many distractions and so much available information, it is harder and harder to focus on a single task. A quiet office is a productive environment, according to the seminal book Peopleware. For example, they report a direct correlation between rising noise levels and code defects in programmers’ offices. Constant interruption by email, phone calls, instant messages and social media could be bad for your work.

With this contradiction in mind, companies need to create environments that maximise the benefits of communications and which also allow people to switch off and concentrate if required.

This requires business-focused communications tools that combine presence information so you can go ‘offline’ with different types of communications from instant message to desktop videoconferencing. It also needs connected applications which integrate enterprise social networking and real-time discussions.

On an individual level, the ability to concentrate – to achieve what psychologists call a ‘flow’ state – is essential to productivity. People need the skills to process large quantities of information from multiple channels, synthesise them and use the right medium for each task. It’s as much as a question of etiquette as it is about technology.

Autonomy vs. teamwork

Businesses have come a long way from the hierarchies and top-down management of the industrial era. We are more individualistic and less deferential than before and organisations reflect that by being flatter and more federated. But the journey is not complete.

Much of the change has been driven by IT which has made it possible to do away with layers of management and outmoded jobs. More change is coming as the tools we use evolve. For example, there will be one billion smartphones by 2016, 350m of which will be used at work. In 2013, sales of smartphones and tablets will exceed sales of desktop and notebook PCs for the first time. These changes, and others, will change the workplace again.

Employees will be able to connect, collaborate and communicate from virtually any device at a time and place that suits them. This will reduce office overheads, cut commuting hours and make companies more flexible and responsive. For example, they will be able to keep operating in the face of extreme weather or train strikes.

In the face of so much change, companies need to find the right balance between encouraging individual autonomy and promoting teamwork and collaboration. For example, managers need to measure output not hours worked and they need to find ways to build teams with individuals who may not share the same location, language or time zone. Companies need to allow, even encourage, flexible working patterns to give people a choice about when, where and how they work.

Individuals need to develop the ability to manage themselves and own their professional development. At the same time, the ability to work well in a virtual team will be a valuable skill.

Technology has the ability to atomise companies but it can also bring people together. Therefore choosing the right tools is also important. Users need applications that support autonomous working on different devices with a consistent user interface and roaming access to data.

Public vs. private

Social networking sites have made privacy much harder for individuals and for companies. For example, online groups give current employees a place to grouse and prospective employees a way to find out what the job might be like. What WikiLeaks has done for diplomacy, social media will do for company reputations.

Even taboos like salary levels are under threat, as the recent Channel 4 programme “Show me your money” revealed when the staff of Pimlico Plumbers shared their pay details with their colleagues. Some companies even embrace openness. For example, the John Lewis Partnership takes a democratic approach to decision-making and an egalitarian approach to sharing profits.

So, companies and individuals must learn to operate in a world where it is hard to keep secrets. There are four generations in the workforce today and they have very different attitudes to privacy, from the stiff upper lip to ‘let it all hang out’.

This has important consequences. Companies need to find a common culture. When it comes to business information, ‘need to know’ must give way to ‘need to share’. People need to find a mutual language for expressing themselves so that microblogging and corporate social networking don’t become ghettos for the young. Public communication skills like the ability to coach others, give presentations or engage with customers will be especially prized.

At the same time, IT departments have a duty to protect company secrets and protect the privacy of sensitive employee and customer information. Data breaches have increased tenfold in the past five years, according to the Information Commissioner’s Office. So, IT security needs to be baked into decisions from the start so that, for example, cloud computing decisions take into account security standards like ISO 27001.

Change is constant

New technology and deep social changes drive new ways of working and give companies a chance to reimagine how business is done. Every business faces the same challenges and the same opportunities but only successful ones will embrace them: you can change or you can be changed. The right choices, especially technology decisions, can turn change to your advantage.

Tim Cozze-Young leads Microsoft’s UK Executive Engagement Programme which features more information about Business Reimagined. To engage in further conversation with Microsoft and your peers, go to:-Microsoft Enterprise Insights web

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