As we enter 2012, many of IT’s most respected visionaries and futurists are predicting that the world as we know it today is about to come to an end.
Future IT innovations will occur in the home and the world of the retail consumer, not in the corporate workplace.
The days of knowledge workers sitting in their cubicles, logging onto specialised applications on their company-owned PCs are over.
Future employees will spend progressively more time on their personal PCs, tablets and smartphones; social networking will enable cross-functional, cross-business unit, cross time zone and cross cultural employee interactions that we can barely conceive of today; and employees will never have to establish a VPN connection to access their business applications ever again.
Put more simply: the iPad and Facebook have won the battle for the future. The consumerisation of IT has arrived.
The Field-of-Dreams approach to improving employee productivity
At first glance it’s reasonable to predict that wholesale adoption of mobility devices and social networking tools will produce significant gains in workforce productivity.
IT evangelists espousing this view of the future assume that employees will establish in-depth expertise in the use of these technologies through their personal experiences outside of work and bring this knowledge into the workplace.
If this proves to be true, IT will be challenged to transform the way it delivers business functionality.
IT will need to create new distribution channels for functionality that has historically been delivered through monolithic applications.
In short, the challenge will be to parse monolithic applications into a collection of apptoids that can be offered to employees via the company app store.
Unfortunately, there are two major, perhaps insurmountable, obstacles to this transformational scenario.
First, the presumption that employees develop in-depth expertise in the use of consumer technology is flawed.
Individuals resist formal training in consumer technologyand prefer to learn-by-doing on an as-needed basis.
Consequently, the technology skills they develop are fragmented, anecdotal and wildly inconsistent from one individual to another.
Let’s face it – most people can’t even program their DVD Recorders.
Secondly, the IT department has very limited insight into how employees actually use personal productivity tools to perform their jobs.
IT departments routinely serve up a mixture of productivity tools such as email, videoconferencing, instant messaging, online conferencing, blogging sites, chat rooms and document sharing repositories with no clear idea of how such tools should be used to support specific business processes.
This Field-of-Dreams approach (build it first and they will use it) to fostering improvements in personal employee productivity has not been very successful in the past, and will likely be an impediment to fully leveraging the potential productivity benefits of mobility and collaboration technologies in the future.
The use of Microsoft productivity tools in the workplace provides an instructive precedent and may be analogous to the DVD syndrome referenced above.
Microsoft Outlook, Word, Excel, Powerpoint, Sharepoint and Project are ubiquitous in most enterprises.
However, use of the functionality delivered by these tools by individuals or work groups is typically quite limited.
Microsoft Word alone has 7 master tabs on its toolbar which provide access to 40 panel tabs which in turn contain hundreds of selectable functions.
What percent of a company’s employee population is using even 20 per cent of these capabilities?
If the use of Microsoft tools in the workplace is any guide to our ability to leverage emerging mobility and collaboration technologies to boost personal productivity, then the current prognostications of IT futurists regarding the consumerisation of corporate IT are vastly overstated and potentially misleading.
Bring in the anthropologists.
If IT harbours dreams of delivering significant new productivity gains to the workforce, it’s going to have to spend considerably more time with its end users in the future.
Initiatives of this nature are counterintuitive to most IT organisations and their leaders.
IT professionals instinctively prefer to barricade themselves in conference rooms discussing new technologies, project timetables or service desk efficiency.
Direct contact with end users typically occurs in elevators on the way to and from such discussions.
Margaret Mead, the famous anthropologist, once said: “a small group of thoughtful people could change the world — indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has”.
If IT organisations truly believe emerging mobility and collaboration technologies will transform the way we build and deliver business functionality to our end users, they would be well served by hiring some of their professional colleagues.
IT needs some trained anthropologists who are willing to live with the natives and learn how they are performing their jobs with the tools and systems they already have — those supplied by IT as well as those they have elected to bring with them into the workplace.
Insights developed through direct observation will inevitably pay dividends, since, as William Gibson has reminded us:
“the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed”.
Mark Settle is CIO at BMC Software and a former CIO for Visa International