Does flexibility equal efficiency?


26 Aug 2004

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One of the less explored by-products of the technology boom is the way that new communications tools might change the way that teams can collaborate. Never mind the paperless office, what about paperless manufacturing or virtual engineering?

In a pitch to promote its research to the technology industry, the Michael Smurfit Business School, University College Dublin (UCD) recently hosted a breakfast briefing that teased out some of the issues. Stefan Klein, a professor of e-commerce at UCD, was at hand to provide an analysis of how an unfolding high-tech landscape encourages new ways of working, particularly through the impact of mobile communications.

A plethora of new technologies, such as mediated voice and data communication modes, location-based services and unified messaging, provide rich new toolsets for collaboration, but Klein’s thesis made it clear that it was still a journey into the unknown for many organisations.

The concept of anywhere, any time access for sharing and working puts stresses and strains on corporate culture, shifting the emphasis away from more commonplace dynamics to issues of trust and interaction.

“Mobility and ubiquity have become a mass phenomena with profound network effects,” said Klein. An example of the sea change occurred every time someone takes a phone call. “The first questions are: ‘Where are you; what are you doing and can you talk to me now?’ These were not issues before.”

There is also a common acceptance that people can now partake in a phone conversation while doing something else. The suggestion prompted amused agreement from the breakfast audience who were clearly familiar with the idea of checking email or tinkering with a spreadsheet while they took part in a conference call.

The reality is that work patterns are changing everywhere. In California 23pc of the workforce are now operating outside of traditional nine to five jobs. But does this mean people are working more efficiently? He made the point that while anywhere, any time access encouraged workaholic traits, it was hard to make a judgment on how much of the information overload was really useful. On one hand, mobilisation may improve productivity but on the other, people are more inclined to lose their focus.

And assumed benefits, such as the impact of email, are no longer as clear as they used to be. “Email’s role has changed profoundly,” said Klein, referring to the virus epidemic and spam. “It is now a very insecure medium and it is treated with suspicion.”

The promise of work patterns benefiting from greater access suddenly becomes an issue of intrusion. “The information highway has been hijacked by free-riders – increasingly malevolent perpetrators,” said Klein.

So can this fast-changing environment overcome the obstacles and enable new and more efficient ways of collaboration within a workforce? What Klein described as the “implicit imperialism of technology” – the idea that new tools and new practices make for a better life – might be old hat and simplistic but the dream is far from over.

The challenge is to anchor real-time technologies, enabling virtual teamwork over long distances, in solid organisational infrastructure. According to Klein, the problems in a physical environment are exasperated electronically, so there has to be much more emphasis on developing protocols. Rules can then be built on these foundations.

Klein quoted the research work of two other academics, Sørensen and Pica, and their white paper on organisational change in this area: “There is no mobility without stability. There is no flexible working without a strong culture of mutual trust within organisational working in the mobile age. Organisational flexibility and innovation through improvisation is a careful balance of fluid interaction on a solid foundation of trust – the future of organisations is indeed rock fluid.”

Part of this evolution, according to Klein, is about social change within the corporate entity and the need for cross-disciplinary experience. The good news is that it can work and the research community hangs on to the case study of Boeing Rocketdyne as proof that the theory can make it off the drawing board.

For the design of an innovative rocket combustion chamber, Boeing Rocketdyne used its intranet to collaborate with teams of different suppliers and partners. It used a secure, web-centric solution, IpTeam, to dramatically improve decision making and increase the efficiencies of collaborative working among geographically dispersed teams from multiple companies.

The benefits? The firm cut the development cycle from two years to one, reduced the number of parts from hundreds to six and reduced the manufacturing cycle time from two years to nine months. The long-term pay-off has been the creation of a workable knowledge repository for reuse on subsequent projects.

One success story, however, does not make a model that will work for everyone. Klein posed the questions an organisation needs to ask itself before pursuing such ambitious collaborative projects. Does the work group adapt to corporate structures or follow the lead of the collaborative technologies? Do old structures get in the way and having adapted to the new methods of working, is it necessary to leave room for further change and development?

While the rewards for successful collaboration are evident through the Boeing Rocketdyne project, the path to success, as with all technology adoption, presents real challenges to the management of the organisation.

By Ian Campbell