By David Rosenbaum
Frederick W. Taylor, author of 1911’s The Principles of Scientific Management, would be appalled. Taylor believed that there was only one right way to do any job: through “enforced standardization of methods, enforced adoption of the best implements and working conditions, and enforced cooperation.”
But market developments are challenging Taylor’s prescriptives. The advent of virtual organizations has changed the way the workforce is managed and organized. Increasing reliance on contingent (part-time and contract) labor has increased the need for knowledge capture and collaboration technologies. Flexible work days, home offices, the evolution of disruptive technologies, and other forces are changing the ways we work—and making the 9-to-5 workday look as old-fashioned as Taylor.
Business leaders are seeing value in these new work practices and the ability to draw on the talents of a dispersed workforce. “Is it better to get the people you can get in one place, or is it more efficient to get the best people wherever they are?” Thierry Bonfante, director, Oracle AutoVue product management and strategy, asks rhetorically.
It’s not enough to simply allow remote staff to make their own schedules, blogs, wikis, and Facebook forrays and hope for the best. The key (to give Taylor his due) is to do it right.
The Social, Virtual Workforce
According to a 2009 Nielsen study, two-thirds of the world’s internet population visits a social network or blogging site, accounting for 10 percent of all internet time. Not surprisingly, the U.K.-based Institute of Direct Marketing’s Social Media in Business Census 2010 reports that more than 75 percent of all marketing organizations surveyed use social media tools. A recent survey of 400 U.S. companies found that 81 percent expect next year’s budget for social media to increase.
Couple this enthusiasm with the fact the percentage of employees who worked from home, part- or full-time, increased 74 percent between 2005 and 2008 (Telework Trendlines 2009, worldatwork.org), and it’s easy to see social networks becoming a part of the untethered employee’s daily work life. So it’s critical for managers to understand the impact of social networking on their staff and learn how to leverage it for business value.
Stuart Dunsmore, senior applications director at Oracle, has worked with software customers who say they’ve outgrown their old systems. But in many cases, he says, it’s simply that the customers have lost, through attrition or retirement, the employees who knew how to manage or use the systems. Dunsmore says that the accelerating retirement of the Baby Boom generation means that capturing the knowledge that exists in the organization is increasingly critical, so new hires can understand how to get the most out of those systems. “However, the how is out there,” says Dunsmore, who for 18 years has been getting organizations to document and maintain their business policies and procedures and create effective user adoption materials.
Dunsmore says technologies such as Oracle User Productivity Kit and Oracle Tutor make it easier for process owners to keep system documentation up to date. New employees can benefit from “learning paths” deployed through corporate portals and connecting, via social networks, to the owners of this information. This allows organizations to keep the content in sync with the way people do their jobs. “We have to remember we’re documenting moving targets,” says Dunsmore. “As processes are improved and systems enhanced, the documentation must evolve as well.”
Such social networks are replacing the office water cooler conversation, a place where much tacit knowledge was communicated. “There’s the official business of the company, and then there’s the chatter, where employees on the front lines are improving the way they work, and middle management can’t ignore any of it,” Dunsmore says. “They must find ways to capture it.”
Management still needs to enforce corporate policy, collect critical information, and encourage communication and collaboration among distanced workers who operate with flexible work hours due to the nature of their jobs or the location of their colleagues. These processes can be created from a distance if managers can open up the operations of an organization and really analyze how things work.
Bonfante oversees Oracle AutoVue, which enables users to view, share, and collaborate on asset and engineering documents across the enterprise. This access to up-to-date visual content, historically siloed in various departments, fosters collaboration across teams, specialties, geographies, and organizations. “It’s all about connecting people to information so they can make better business decisions, faster,” Bonfante says.
It also allows managers to create new information paths that constrain activity to approved processes but collect information from an array of tools—including mashups, wikis, and blogs.
But those processes must deliver a benefit to the end user, rather than just constrain their activity and add new managerial oversight. Many sales organizations, for example, are geographically dispersed and staffed by workers with autonomy and independence—and are historically IT-skeptical. But even Sales can benefit from Web 2.0-enabled processes. “The last thing a sales rep wants to do is put information into a system that shows him losing a deal,” says Vince Casarez, vice president of product management, Oracle Enterprise 2.0 and portal products. “But if a deal with an 80 percent chance of closing is sinking to 60 percent, there’s an incentive for the salesperson to reach out to someone in his social network with the experience to help stop the slide.”
The key to user adoption, says Jeremy Ashley, vice president of application user experience at Oracle, will be practical utility and the delivery of business benefit. Facebook newsfeeds, for example, can streamline project management with employees posting status updates for team members. “How many people hate having to write the status report on Friday afternoon?” asks Ashley. “Instead, just go to the newsfeed.”
Another example of the utility of social networks is in transferring important contacts from one employee to another. In certain organizations, such as purchasing or accounts payable, knowing who to call can mean the difference between completing a task successfully or not. Casarez says building a social network composed of an employee’s vendor information allows those contacts to be passed along if the employee moves on, allowing a replacement to assume those connections. “It’s sort of like—but better than—handing off your Rolodex,” he says.
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