Blogger: Larry Cannell
In a previous post I talked about how personal experiences with the Internet influence our expectations of online work environments and that the effectiveness of workers has taken a back seat to the efficiency of transactional systems and process-centric applications. Without a doubt, these corporate applications play important roles. But, when compared to the robust and user-centric Web 2.0 applications available on the Internet you sometimes can’t help but feel like the character portrayed in the memorable Pink Floyd classic: “Welcome to the machine.”
The reason for this is how many enterprises view the online environments they provide workers. Arguably collaborative, communication, and content (3C) technologies could be considered the descendents of conference rooms, whiteboards, and file cabinets ─ although, we know they have become so much more. The 3C capabilities now available on many intranets have virtually no equivalent to the physical workplaces of the past. Unfortunately, some enterprises continue to treat 3C technologies with little more respect than their office furniture ancestors.
When working online we need places to to gather information, to communicate with colleagues, to learn from others who have encountered similar situations, and to work within teams or organizations with shared goals. As a result, we gather information in files on our computers, organize folders of messages in our e-mail client, or maintain binders full of printed reports from business applications on our desks (because they take so long to retrieve otherwise).
We also support the execution of several business processes simultaneously. For example, an engineer may release a modified part to production, while waiting for a proposal from a supplier, and then receive e-mail from a marketing analyst asking for information. All this also takes place within the context of our personal life: balancing demands from home, volunteering time to local community efforts, and keeping up with events and news from around the world.
The figure below shows how an online workplace supports an enterprise by facilitating the execution of business processes that support its goals. Put another way, an online workplace is a manageable buffer between rigid business applications or legacy systems and the dynamic world of the information worker.
Online workplaces are involved in virtually all information- or knowledge-based activities within an enterprise. By improving online workplaces, an enterprise can significantly increase the performance of these activities. However, the goals of an online workplace need to go beyond automation. When aligned with supporting culture and business practices, online workplaces can provide the basis for sustainable competitive advantage. The source of this advantage comes from the intellectual capital that can be captured and reused. This is illustrated in the following conceptual model:
The efficiency of completing repeatable processes and transactions is the focus of workflow systems and transactional systems. In the interest of decreasing cycle time, both of these system types optimize how individuals and groups serve business processes: The process comes first and the worker is subservient to the process (cue Pink Floyd music). However, this “process first, user second” design does not work well for the many ad hoc activities that make up a typical workday, in which the user juggles multiple variables and gathers information as needed. John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid call these two different modes “process” and “practice.”
Advantages based on practice are difficult to replicate because they consist of talent of the people involved and information with which those workers make decisions. This goes to the heart of the goal of an effective online workplace: Enable the enterprise to leverage assets that competitors do not have. These are the talent of its people and information only the enterprise possesses.
This is the third in a series of blog posts introducing Burton Group’s Online Workplace Framework (OWF). Burton Group clients can read more about the OWF in the report “Making Smart Choices for Online Workplaces.”