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.

Killing the Couch-Loving Individualists

Is HP’s anti-telecommuting move just a bid to shed expensive jobs? Thanks to my old chum Tom Raftery (thanks for the accommodation, Tom, and congrats on the baby!) Bernie Goldbach reckons it is. And he makes the important point that customers

considering H-P as part of a core IT package during the next 12 months–ensure you are comfortable about the manner in which your requests for assistance are to be handled. The mid-career people who consult with you about your enterprise computing purchase today may not be on the H-P payroll at the end of the year. If you are working with someone from H-P to construct a robust data centre, I would ask whether that project manager or IT specialist has to move. You need to know whether the people who are upgrading your services will be around to service it next year, regardless of the hour of the day when you need help. When you buy H-P, you expect better than Wal-Mart.

What I probably didn’t stress enough in my morning post was that telecommuters, whether they’re doing the washing, mowing the lawn or riding a tractor during conference calls, will probably be at their computer long after the cubicle drones are on the beach parasailing. Telecommuters, I suspect, tend to be more diligent, even if they may take a nap on the sofa (I’ve just got a new one by the way; $150 for a very nice custom-made number from Ojolali) in the middle of the day. Whether it’s through guilt at breathing non-cubicle air or a heightened sense of professionalism born of independence, telecommuters are probably more productive than their cubicle-bound brethren.

This seems to be borne out by a survey in Australia conducted by Sensis, which reported that only 1% of businesses reported negative impacts from teleworking. Staff, however, told a different story: 13% felt they were actually working longer hours, according to The Melbourne Age. It’ll be interesting to see what happens at HP.

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.”

How To Persuade Your Boss To Let You Telecommute

This week in the AWSJ (subscription only, I’m afraid) I talk about telecommuting. Had a chance to talk to lots of folk about it, but sadly there wasn’t room for everything in there. Here’s some stuff we couldn’t fit in, but which is worth passing on. I asked Minda Zetlin, author of Telecommuting for Dummies, to suggest some ways to persuade your boss to let you telecommute, as well as some of the pitfalls telecommuters experience:

No surprise that the toughest part of telecommuting for most people is persuading their managers to let them do it. If you think about it from their point of view, it’s much easier to supervise someone you see every day and supervising a telecommuter is more challenging. So the best way is to make it as easy for the boss as possible by coming up with a proposal that will cover

  • Which days you’ll be out of the office and which in;
  • How and when you’ll check in (for instance, with an e-mail at the start of each day, or a phone call at the end of the day, etc.);
  • And also what goals you’ll establish and hope to meet while telecommuting so the boss has an agreed on parameter for evaluating your performance while not there. Unfortunately, many managers work by line of sight: if they see someone at their desk, they think that person is working hard and doing well whether or not this is true.

Incidentally, this leads to one of the unexpected pitfalls of telecommuting: assignment by line of sight. That is, if your boss has a new project to assign to someone, he or she may be more likely to give it to someone who was at a meeting, or even someone the boss just ran into in the hallway rather than think to phone or e-mail the telecommuter with the assignment. Consequently, as telecommuting guru Gil Gordon puts it, the telecommuter can get better and better at doing less and less. If you’re telecommuting, it’s your responsibility to make sure this doesn’t happen by actively checking in, asking for assignments, and, as much as possible, participating in team meetings (either in person or by conference call).

It might help if your telecommuting proposal allows you to ease into telecommuting, say by working from home one day a week (you can put all your paperwork and report writing onto that day) and then working up from there if that goes well. You and your boss should also set a time, say six months into the telecommuting to re-evaluate and see if the system is working and anything needs adjusting, or for the boss to put an end to the arrangement if he/she feels it’s not working. It may be easier to get the boss to agree to an experiment that he or she can opt out of rather than a permanent arrangement.

As to pitfalls, here are two possibly unexpected ones:

  • First, your friends and family members may not understand that even though you’re home, you’re still at work. A relative of mine with a new grandchild found she was frequently pressed into baby-sitting service when she was working at home. She didn’t want to just say no to all baby-sitting, so for her a good solution was to provide the new parents with parameters, e.g.: I can be available for baby-sitting after 4 pm, but not before. Another telecommuter I talked to actually suggests having a phone whose ringer you can activate from your desk. That way, if a friend or relative calls and expects you to have a long conversation, at some point you can make the other line ring and say, “Gotta go!”
  • Another unexpected pitfall for many people is that they have a hard time stopping work, and find themselves still at their desks at midnight. In this regard, it can be helpful to ask your spouse to come knock on your door (ideally you have your own office with a door inside your home; I can say more about this if you like) and remind you it’s quitting time. Most spouses are more than happy to do this.

Thanks, Minda. As ever, I’d love to hear from telecommuters of their own experiences, and suggestions.

Loose Wire Reopens For Business at The AWSJ

Today is the launch of Loose Wire in The Asian Wall Street Journal, following the shift of my old homestay, the Far Eastern Economic Review, to a monthly newsletter format. Of course Dow Jones own both publications, so it’s not that great a change; the column actually used to appear there a few years back, when it was just called Asian Technology. So in a sense I’m going home, although I’ll miss the FEER folks, who were an excellent and motley crew.

I’m not quite sure of the link to the AWSJ stories and columns, but for sure they’ll be subscription only. The permanent home to my column at is this, where Loose Wire will continue to appear. I’ll pass on more when I know it. Oh, and I still do my spot on the BBC World Service’s World Business Report. (More on that here.)

For readers of the AWSJ, thanks for reading. For FEER readers, I hope you’ll come across. For pure blog readers, none of this will mean that much to you. But thanks for reading anyway. This blog will continue to go on as before, and will act as a repository for extra bits and pieces that I couldn’t manage to fit in the AWSJ column.

Oh, and further to my piece in today’s Personal Journal on telecommuting, here are a couple of suggestions for wannabe teleworkers that we didn’t have space for on the page:

  • If you want to be mobile in the house, you still need to think about surfaces. Laptops are too hot to have in your lap, and while commercials show people happily working with laptops resting on their bed, on the carpet or on their spouse’s stomach, in real life this doesn’t happen without lawsuits. Buy a laptop rest, such as the Laptop Desk from Lapworks ($30) or the Intrigo Lapstation (which may, sadly, be out of business, as I can’t get into their website. This was a great product, since it not only served as a good work surface, but also doubled as a portable table you can use on the floor, in bed, or by the pool.)
  • For those wedded to the desk, I’d recommend buying a second monitor for your computer. Most desktop computers and laptops support spreading your display across two screens, and with prices of flat screen LCD monitors falling, it’s a no-brainer to buy one. Trust me: It’s a great timesaver to be able to read stuff on one screen, and type on the other. Just make sure your computer supports dual monitors before you buy.

If you’ve got any more tips for telecommuters, please let me know.

Do You Work From Home In Asia?

A request to readers in Asia Pacific: I’m looking into the subject of telecommuting — working from home — and trying to gather experiences of folk who have tried it in Asia. Anyone who may fit that bill — or has a view — and who would like to talk about it, please do contact me on