New technologies have changed just about every aspect of workplace culture. But how long can we go on with these changes without close examination of their overall effect?
The IT department at a major bank was baffled. It had been through all the normal checks, and everything seemed in place, but in two months the bank's network usage had skyrocketed from 15 percent to a hefty 98 and the system was suffering.
As the network was tripping over itself staff were busy enjoying the benefits of better communication with their colleagues in Europe. What they did not realise was their new communication tool -- conference calling through Instant Messaging (IM) -- was bringing down the system. The bank's reaction to this was common, according to analysts. "They banned all use of IM. They did this instead of asking if there was a valid reason for the staff's actions without realising that this only left staff open to install other technologies such as Skype (free Voice over Internet Protocol software)," Andy Solterbek, general manager of security products for Asia-Pacific at security company Senetas says.
Managing IT in the business place requires numerous acts of precision in today's technologically savvy world. The days of the IT department being the bringer of all wisdom have long gone, but as a catch-22 it is safe to say not all staff will know enough about technology, and how to use it, to integrate it successfully into their working life.
The cultural shifts technology has brought to the workplace have been massive -- we now work in a time when work can be with us on trains, buses, planes, at home and, well, pretty much everywhere. Personal life can be much the same. We have e-mail's popping up, conference calls where face-to-face meetings once took place, PDAs that allow us to work outside of the office and on the road, and a whole range of fandangled gear meant to make life easier for us.
Margaret Aspin, Aspin Online Consulting
Apart from the mobile phone, or, going back even earlier, the computer itself, e-mail is likely to be one of the most driving forces of change we have seen in our modern working lives -- and one we are still struggling to control. Allowing you to be in constant contact, e-mail has managed to turn even the largest control freak into a slave of the message. Since its inception, the workplace has been plagued by its inappropriate use, uncontrollable volume, and an overreliance placed upon it by staff.
"Companies have extended e-mail from a communications tool to a de facto workplace solution -- they are now managing to-do lists, delegating responsibilities, and running entire projects from the inbox," Bruce McCabe, managing director of analyst firm S2 Intelligence says.
E-mail has also created impulse-control disorders with people constantly checking inboxes throughout their working day and beyond. A C-level delegate at a recent SAP conference in Sydney highlighted just how much e-mail had changed his life. His Blackberry had almost become a part of his anatomy -- except for on Saturday nights, the one time of the week he delegated to himself. He had learnt to use it in the car while driving (with one hand), and when it went off late at night while his children were sleeping it spurred him into doing more work from home -- such is the instant nature of the communication. "The amount of living room arguments it has caused!" were his words.
E-mail is a push technology and, without proper instruction, we have learnt to use it in that way. Margaret Aspin, principal consultant at Aspin Online Consulting, says e-mail came upon us so fast that we became wrapped up in the communicative benefits without thinking of the downsides beyond security. "It has been very badly used, and we have since found it causes enormous social problems," she says. Aspin also sees e-mail, while great for some forms of correspondence when used correctly, as a poor communication tool that has little regard to social sensitivity and an innate ability to widen the cultural divide between staff where other forms of rich communication lack.
"People have not been trained in how to use e-mail properly. You can waste hours on it during your working day when you would have been far better off picking up the phone and sorting out what you had to do and fixing up any indifferences or misunderstandings. Clever organisations have diminished the use of push technologies like this and instead increase the use of pull technologies -- central repositories that are accessed only when they are needed," Aspin says.
Most companies gave little long-term thought to e-mail before letting their staff run with it. But it did bring a gamut of changes to the workplace. Like a whole range of other technologies seen today -- just look at IM, PDAs, and wireless networks -- e-mail has changed the way we communicate at work and our relationship with the work station as a whole, but little had been done by employees to lesson the changes to workplace culture that have come as a result.
CIO for the SA Government Department of Health, David Johnston, has been on both ends of the scale -- he has suffered as a staff member due to poor implementations, and admittedly imposed some suffering on staff with systems implementations of his own. He says balancing technology with staff psychology, while difficult, is one of the most important areas to cover if you want a successful implementation.
"Most implementations of technology are going to require some changes in human behaviour, change management, and a focus on the people using the system," Johnston says, adding that this is not happening in a majority of Australian workplaces.
"IT often still treats technology as the solution, and don't necessarily engage with their staff to find out how it affects them. Their focus is on computers, whereas human beings can be quite difficult to predict and manage -- this means the people side of things is often overlooked."
McCabe agrees. He says many businesses are only now realising the effect poor implementations of disruptive technologies can have on the way staff work together, and the effect of this on company bottom line.
"Stressed employees are not efficient employees and interrupted employees do not get half as much done," McCabe says. "Good academic research says that people have a mental to-do list. When this gets interrupted it takes time for them to re-establish what it is they are doing."The right way
SA Government's Johnston says staff reaction to change, and the costs associated with risks, are the main reasons why his department adheres to strict methodologies when introducing new communicative technologies to the workplace. "These are repeatable and take into account the complexity of each individual project. We have a project board, with a whole range of stakeholders including executives, suppliers, and staff representatives (from each business section that will use the technology) to see this out," he says.
Aspin agrees that an overall staff approach is best for minimising the risks associated with new IT implementations. She says this allows for greater employee trust in the benefits of the new technologies being implemented and an understanding of how it will be used at all levels of the company.
"You need to have a very good idea of what your staff do and the processes they need the technology for. We have found many instances where technology has been introduced and it was never even needed for these processes in the first place," Aspin says.
"We have one example where there was one man on his own pushing for an idea, who did not sit down and discuss with staff their job roles or the activities the technology he wanted to introduce would be used for. Basically, he got excited about the technology and forgot about the people. The result was his large industry organisation ended up with paperwork that went on then for six months after the project, as well as extremely negative staff and an incredibly expensive piece of technology he did not need."
David Johnston, SA Government Department of Health
"You can choose a representative from each different section of the company to be your eyes and ears -- these people will tell you what staff are thinking or fearing about the project, and how they are coping with it," Johnston says.
However, the job is not over with once the technology is in place. There are three key areas that require constant revision following rollout -- policy, education, and culture.
The most difficult will be policy, where many fine lines are walked. Too much restriction and you could end up with increased company liability and an IT staff base that spends most of its time policing policy. The right balance and the positives can be enormous.
"A lot of people fail to make policy proactive, but if done in the right way it can tell staff how to manage the technology better, when to use it, what alternatives there are, and when to use these," McCabe says.
"The first thing I tell people to do when looking at policy is to look at where the source of the particular transaction they are dealing with sits. With e-mail you will almost universally find that incoming volumes of 90 percent or higher will actually be from within the company itself -- this makes these very easy to manage, and allows you to see what types of policy are required for in-house action," McCabe says.
But staff also need a good education base, with ongoing revision, to make sure they understand the importance of company efforts in all the above areas, and to ensure they know how to properly operate the technologies.
Manager or damager?
In a number of cases the responsibility for managing change resulting from new communicative technologies has been left to the end user. But with time, companies will realise that communicative tools, especially with their growing popularity, can have some negative impacts on bottom line if not introduced in the right manner. To do this, the IT manager is going to have to change their role somewhat, otherwise risk creating more damage then good with the introduction of new technologies.
"I am banking on the fact that this will actually happen," McCabe says. "Companies will progressively become more awake to the damage that this technology can have on efficiency and competitiveness and they will realise that they have to educate their own employees to make life much easier."
Leadership is going to be required if a real change in a technology's use is to take place. IT managers, as well as leading by example, will be required to know more about the wider consequences of the technology they install, and will be called on to take a more proactive role in the organisation in regards to staff education and advice.
The technologies that are fast becoming the next big thing -- such as PDA devices, VoIP, and wirelessly enabled work stations -- will further change the landscape of the places we work, and while this may all seem evolutionary to the average worker, IT managers must realise that it could also lead a workplace back into the dark ages.
This article was first published in Technology & Business magazine.
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