Teleworking taking off

26 Oct 2002

Despite all the efforts on the part of the tech industry and the Irish Government in the late Nineties to encourage Irish companies of all sizes to adopt teleworking (or e-working), lack of suitable broadband is preventing Irish employees from taking the giant leap home.

Apart from individuals whose companies are willing to pay for expensive ISDN and leased lines and others who simply believe that working from home is the best workstyle choice for their lives, the average Irish worker still prefers to travel to work.

For many, it is the social interaction that the workplace offers, for others it is a belief that immediate access to people and resources will enable them to do their jobs better. Certainly, the standard form of access in the shape of a 56Kbps dial-up modem is reinforcing this belief that it is better to go to the office than try to get the job done from home.

Nonetheless, teleworking — defined as any normal business activity carried out from a remote location by using modern computing and communication technology — is increasing in popularity.

A report from the Government-appointed eWork Action Forum found that between 2000 and 2001, the proportion of Irish businesses with one or more employees teleworking increased from 10pc to 12pc. In addition, the number of employees who e-work increased over the year from 4.5 employees to an average of six employees.

According to the report, 93pc of businesses that facilitate teleworking rated the experience as ‘very or fairly’ successful, with one-third believing that e-working staff members are more productive than their office-based colleagues. In Europe, the number of individual teleworkers could grow from nine million in 2002 to almost 27 million by 2010, according to a study by the EU-backed Institute for Employment Studies.

Meanwhile, in the US a poll sponsored by the Positively Broadband Campaign found that one-third of Americans would prefer to work from home and that about half believe that the quality of their work would improve.

While it is agreed that one facet of the problem, namely broadband access, is on the way to being solved, the question of access to the resources needed to get the job done is a problem that has IT evangelists everywhere scratching their heads. The other fear among existing and potential teleworkers was the fear of losing contact with fellow workers if they telecommuted.

At the height of the IT boom, new technologies aimed at empowering companies to conduct their affairs in a more knowledgeable, measured and analytical way were constantly being talked about. Take for example knowledge management, business intelligence and collaborative working.

These digital dashboards of business are being pulled together in a more meaningful manner through the use of portal technology, offering users at home and at work a single consistent view of their applications and the wheels that keep the business moving.

The reason is simple — portals make a company’s technology work better. Expensive enterprise resource planning (ERP), customer relationship management (CRM) and collaborative knowledge systems do little good without the software to link them together behind a common interface. Dropping a portal in front of enterprise applications makes them significantly more effective.

Portals make applications accessible to a broader audience. They particularly excel in situations where companies need to make their applications available to a wider audience than was previously anticipated. When the economic slowdown ends and businesses resume heavier IT spending, portals will play an even stronger role in helping to integrate new applications.

According to software giant Computer Associates (CA), broadband adoption will fuel acceleration in the portal market. “Most reliable sources are predicting a huge rise in the number of people deciding to work from home either permanently or for a number of days per week. We are finding that there’s a direct correlation between this and the likely uptake of portals,” said Mark Ellis, CA’s portal product manager for EMEA.

He also referred to research by the Office of the Director of Telecommunications Regulation that showed that 71pc of large companies intended to expand their broadband usage.

Ellis said there was considerable advantage in enhancing internal and external communication and collaboration via email, instant messaging, paging and chatrooms. “A portal should never be one dimensional,” he said. Broadband users should be able to work remotely as if they were in the office and dial up users don’t have to download huge amounts of data to see what they need.

Businesses, he added, should consider how their staff members work, where, when and how they want their information and the best format and design for its presentation. For example, a personal digital assistant user on a GSM phone will want scaled down content compared to a home PC user on broadband, so design and delivery should be tailored accordingly.

Enterprise portal vendors can be divided into two categories — speciality vendors whose primary focus is on portals and products for knowledge management, and makers of broader applications that incorporate enterprise portal functionality. The latter group would comprise makers of CRM, ERP and business intelligence companies such as SAP, PeopleSoft and Siebel Systems.

E-business infrastructure firms such as CA have played a strong role also. For example, local financial CRM software firm Fineos bundles portal functionality into its latest products. Portal offerings in the local market also come through Oracle and Plumtree Software (Labyrinth).

“The biggest stumbling for portals block is culture. Firms have got to get over this knowledge is power attitude and instead start opening up this knowledge to workers and partners. There are so many ideas floating around and people who understand the company’s role and their role within the company often don’t have a voice and great ideas often go to waste. Portals give people a voice and others a chance to be inspired by great ideas,” Ellis concluded. “The more open a company is about its ideas and open to individual workstyles, the more empowered and informed the worker and the better the company it is.”