The March of Mobile, the Inertia of 'The Office'

The mobile phones we carry today are more powerful than the desktop PC's that revolutionized the enterprise business world during the 1980's. The ascendancy of the desktop micro computer in that era met fierce resistance from entrenched mainframe computing professionals, who had run business on 'big iron'  supplied by 'IBM and the seven dwarfs' since the 1960's.

The mobile phones we carry today are more powerful than the desktop PC's that revolutionized the enterprise business world during the 1980's. The ascendancy of the desktop micro computer in that era met fierce resistance from entrenched mainframe computing professionals, who had run business on 'big iron'  supplied by 'IBM and the seven dwarfs' since the 1960's.

Now we are seeing a historically similar and ever more rapid seismic shift in the way real time business is conducted, as the transmission of mobile and copper telephony voice and data blur into internet protocols (IP) accessed by devices that are both sophisticated mobile connected computers and voice communication phones.

The combination of cellular 3G, Video, Voice Over IP, Social Networking and Mobile Devices are driving amazing sophistication in the way we connect and collaborate with each other, with intuitive user interface critical to driving uptake and understanding.

The broadband powered Web 2.0 era of browser based online applications is now mature and mainstream: how you access the data in these sites is increasingly the competitive battleground between telcos, PC operating systems, Browser manufacturers and internet bandwidth suppliers. As the clip above demonstrates, from the huge international comedy hit 'The Office' (which has been remade in culturally local versions and multiple languages since its 2001 English debut), despite the pace of technological change the beige world of cubicles, monitors fax machines and water coolers seems to be frozen in time.

Getting people to work together at scale is increasingly challenging as the ways we communicate become ever more complex. 2009 was a year where the technologically adventurous experimented with multiple ways to connect: Twitter and Social Networks enabled a tsunami of information and updates to supplement the existing flow of email, instant messaging, texting and voice calls to those tuned in.

Echoing the 1980's dawn of mass personal computing, this produced much confusion around efficient work practice using the broad reach of the new tools and huge concerns about security. (9" Floppy Diskettes were a terrifying security threat in the 80's - what if they were stolen or lost? - just as storing your information somewhere on the internet is fraught with risk to many today).

Apart from the minority 2.0 technology zealots however, most people are mystified by the potential of strange new tools and prefer to continue to work with what they feel comfortable with: Microsoft Office, shared drives and the telephone. The knowledge hoarding, department level pack rack mentality isn't hard to imagine in an episode of 'The Office' as people protect their jobs.

Similarly the cartoon strip Dilbert,  about the bizarre ways of office hierarchy, is like a reassuring warm comfort blanket to the unadventurous. It validates just how odd human nature is and that it's not the individual who is crazy - everyone else is. Ironically institutional thinking on this Dilbert level can be a form of training which prevents people from breaking through rigid hierarchies to be able to contribute intelligently and participate in meaningful cross company and partner collaboration.

The fragmentation problem with mobile telephony - blackberry/iphone/other device connecting through hundreds of expensive vertical network choices - keep communication decentralized at a time when convergence around standardization would be valuable. Japan is years ahead of the rest of the world in mobile internet and a possible model for the future, which may be why Twitter service is different - and more commercialized - in Japan compared to the rest of the world.

Collaboration Silos

This fragmentation of the mobile communications market is buried deep in the psyche of the era - we have to make branching decisions and compromises on our mobile telephony and data carrier of choice in two year increments, and on the choice of device we carry in our pockets. There are now also complex decisions to be made on collaboration software: the sophisticated generation of technologies influenced by mass consumer uptake of free social services such as Facebook are only vaguely in the peripheral vision of most business users in terms of relevance or value. (Facebook is banned in some places of work to discourage employees from wasting company time on personal activities and particularly games, and the value of inter employee connections and assistance is seen as being of dubious value).

Those using collaboration technologies internally are often doing so at a departmental or divisional budgeting level, working together within a connected environment behind user name and password. Take a large company with a few dozen of these discrete environments, and you will find a new generation of sophisticated silos alongside the existing lakes of documents in Sharepoint instances, the Lotus Notes email threads and associated domino databases and the paper stored in filing cabinet silos.

The site for the BBC's original 'The Office' series has a map of the Wernham Hogg paper company floor space, packed with clickable close up details. If you extended the map metaphor to their productivity software universe you'd likely see a collection every bit as inane and dated as the pen tidies, cookie jars and fax machines shown there.

People and their Processes

The danger in this recessionary era is ironically choice: many employees have to resort to their personal mobile phones and unofficial (and often illegal) use of web 'Software as a Service' applications, storing sensitive company data outside the company, simply in order to get their job done. The challenges of putting together workflows which leverage the power of the new technologies is far more about motivating people to use processes mapped to appropriate technologies than the actual technology tools.

We are in a period of unprecedented change, while also fighting our way out of a deep financial markets induced recession. Companies who focus on leveraging their most precious asset - their people - and empowering them with the workflow, guidance and tools to innovate and work perceptively and productively will emerge as a more sophisticated next business generation. Those who don't are likely to choke to death on costly fragmentation and lack of focus.

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