User Determined Computing

I’m not sure it’s a new phenomenon, but Accenture reckons it is: employees are more tech savvy than the companies they work for and are demanding their workplace catches up.

A new study by Accenture to be released next week (no link available yet; based on a PR pitch that mentions no embargo) will say that until recently all the most advancted networks and communication devices were at the office. Now they’re at home. The company calls it “user-determined computing”:

Today, home technology has outpaced enterprise technology, leaving employees frustrated by the inadequacy of the technology they use at work.  As a result, employees are demanding more because of their ever-increasing familiarity and comfort level with technology. It’s an emerging phenomenon Accenture has called “user-determined computing.”

The global study of more than 300 Chief Information Officers (CIOs) will argue that “executive and technology leaders are undertaking superficial improvements in their information technology systems rather than making fundamental changes to meet the growing demands of users.” The research will show that the high performing companies are those that are deploying the new technologies.

So far so good (and until we see the report that’s all we’ve got for detail.) I’d argue that this disconnect has existed for years and only been exacerbated by the rise of Web 2.0. But I’m a little less sure of Accenture’s argument when it says that it has launched an internal initiative of its own — what it’s rather lamely calling “Collaboration 2.0”, which involves

rolling out enhanced search capabilities, high-definition and desktop video conferencing solutions, unified messaging, and people pages (similar to personal pages on social networking sites).

A good enough start, I guess, but hardly an office revolution. And I think the term “user-determined” is misleading; it sounds as if users actually have a say in what computers, communications and software they use. Even Accenture’s own Collaboration 2.0 doesn’t sound as if that’s the case. “User-influenced”, maybe.

What do I think? I believe that most companies’ internal software systems need a major more radical overhaul — of five media companies I have had dealings with recently, one still uses the same editing software it had in place more than 10 years ago, another uses a system that has no major changes to its interface since the early 1990s, and another uses DOS WordStar.

I believe that companies need to be more flexible about how/where/when their workers work. The when and where is being addressed with telecommuting and flexible hours. But I also think that workers should be free to use everything that Web 2.0 has to offer — collaboration tools like stuff from 37Signals, Google Apps, Skype, their own hardware, whatever it takes. I know there are security and legal issues involved, but, let’s face it, what worker doesn’t use their own instant messaging program, log into Gmail on their office computer and other “illegal” moves inside the enterprise?

It’s time to let the worker work as s/he wants. If Accenture has spotted anything, it’s probably that the most productive workers are independent workers — those who set up their own systems so they’re not dependent on and held back by their employer. If that’s true, then the logical conclusion is that those employees are probably not employees anymore, but have struck out on their own either as consultants, freelancers or hitched their wagons to smaller, leaner and more flexible startups.

PS I wasn’t hugely impressed with Accenture’s own website, which didn’t comply with the most basic standards of Web 2.0. For one thing, it’s Flash-based, with no options for a quicker loading, HTML version. And the Flash doesn’t load quickly:


Secondly, a pop-up window greets you on your immediate arrival requesting your participation in a survey:


Not a good start.

The Shift to a Mobile Web

This more than anything else, probably, will push the shift from desktop browsing to mobile browsing. The more restrictions workers face on their office computers from blinkered employers, the more natural it will be to turn to their mobile:

A nationwide study by T-Mobile UK has revealed that over a quarter of the UK’s workforce, still deprived of web access, are now turning to the Internet on their mobile – as employers enforce blanket bans on net usage.

A few points worth making here:

  • It’s an umbilical thing: offices misunderstand the use of the Web, which is probably why they ban it. It’s no longer just about surfing for information, shopping or football scores (although it’s still that). It’s about staying connected. The Internet is no longer just a resource of information (and, cough, images) but of “checking in” with one’s network, whether it’s on FaceBook, MySpace, Twitter, Skype, or wherever. Offices need to cope with this somehow, or they’ll lose the attention of their workers.
  • A different screen, a different app: the shift to the mobile web because of this negative pressure from the work place will create huge demand for mobile web apps that work quickly and efficiently. Indeed, it’s not the only pressure: Browsing is a quite different experience on the mobile phone. Browsers are already developing ways to reshape information to fit on a screen, but a smarter way would be to find new ways to deliver the information via the mobile phone (Widsets have made a start in this direction.)
  • Toilets: the unsung productivity hive Techdirt rightly points to the part of the survey which shows that 15% of users “resorted to hiding in the toilet just to get online.” Working from home, I do this with my laptop, frankly. But it’s not really about resorting to anything: it’s what the mobile world is. We used to read the newspaper on the john; why not a mobile phone?

History will find it weird, not that we connect to the Web on the john with a device once designed to make phone calls, but that for 15 years we had to do that via a big hunk of metal, plastic and wires sitting in the middle of what used to be a big open space called a desk.

Turning Back the Telecommuting Tide

Good piece in the on HP’s decision to cut back on telecommuting: “HP believes bringing its information-technology employees together in the office will make them swifter and smarter. The decision shocked HP employees and surprised human resource management experts, who believe telecommuting is still a growing trend.”

Speaking as a telecommuter still in his morning sarong, I’m disappointed. But from a manager’s point of view I can understand. Telecommuting inhibits the natural transfer of skills and experience from the old timers to the newbies: The piece quotes the architect of the HP division’s change, Randy Mott, as saying that by bringing IT employees together to work as teams in offices, the less-experienced employees who aren’t performing well — which there are “a lot of” — can learn how to work more effectively.

Then there’s the problem of folk abusing the telecommuting option:

[O]ne of HP’s former IT managers, who left the company in October, said a few employees abused the flexible work arrangements and could be heard washing dishes or admitted to driving a tractor during conference calls about project updates. The former manager, who declined to be identified because he still has ties with HP, said telecommuting morphed from a strategic tool used to keep exceptional talent into a right that employees claimed.

Shame, because reversing telecommuting in a company that may have attracted better talent because of its telecommuting opportunites is not as easy as HP may think:

By August, almost all of HP’s IT employees will have to work in one of 25 designated offices during most of the week. With many thousands of HP IT employees scattered across 100 sites around the world — from Palo Alto to Dornach, Germany — the new rules require many to move. Those who don’t will be out of work without severance pay, according to several employees affected by the changes.

As one employee tells the paper’s Nicole C. Wong: “I like my flexibility. The only reason I’ve stayed with HP this long is because I’ve been telecommuting.”

News: Computers Are Not Helping

 More grim reports about how computers aren’t doing what they’re supposed to. BBC quotes new research that says computer systems at work are not working as they should, mainly because workers do not have enough guidance about technology, support staff are cut off from other staff and managers are “naive”.
The problem is there is a built-in negativity about technology. When it works well, it becomes invisible, but people only notice it when it goes wrong. In the end, technology seems to create more work than it saves. Hear, hear.

News: Microsoft Blogger Fired

 Hard times for Bloggers Like Us: MicrosoftWatch reports that a temp worker, Michael Hanscom, has become the first Microsoft employee to lose his job over his blog. But, as with all these cases, it gets murkier the more you look at it. Hanscom doesn’t believe it was the act of blogging, per se, that led to his firing but for taking a photo inside the company, and possibly revealing information in his blog about his work. The irony: Microsoft is busy encouraging its own employees, as well as others working with its products to blog. Here’s a list of them.

News: Seems A Lot Of Folk Get Fired Over Email

A new survey, the 2003 E-Mail Rules, Policies and Practices Survey from the American Management Association, Clearswift and The ePolicy Institute, reckons that 22% of employers have fired employees for violating email policy. That seems kinda harsh. What are people doing with their email? Here are some stats:

– 52% of U.S. companies monitor incoming and outgoing e-mail
– Only 19% of employers monitor internal e-mail communications among employees
– 40% of employers use software to control employees’ written e-mail content
– 14% of organizations have had employee e-mail subpoenaed by a court or regulatory body. That’s an increase of 5% over 2001, when 9% of respondents reported employee e-mail had been subpoenaed.
– 1 in 20 organizations has battled a lawsuit triggered by employee e-mail
– 76% of e-mail users have lost time in the last year due to e-mail system problems
– 35% estimate they lost only half a day, but 24% think they have lost more than two days
– The average e-mail user spends about 25% of the workday on e-mail
– 8% of e-mail users spend more than four hours (half the work day) on e-mail
– 92% of respondents receive spam mail at work
– 47% say spam constitutes more than 10% of all their e-mail
– 7% report spam represents over 50% of all e-mail received
– 75% of respondents said they were fed up with receiving surveys like this via e-mail (I made that up, but they don’t make clear how they did this survey, which involved 1,100 U.S. employers, or whether some of the surveys got mistagged as spam and trashed.)