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TechWatch: Five Big Issues in Today’s Technological Workplace

What is the Institute for Business, Technology, and Ethics trying to accomplish? Briefly, it is to help businesses (and the professions) figure out the best way to get value from information technology for the good of the business without sacrificing people and ethical values along the way. Put another way, it is to create ways that businesses and the professions can use technology that will allow people to thrive and will also bring business value.

The problem is tough because of the rapid change of information technology, offering potential new solutions almost every day. Business pressures often undermine the opportunity to think clearly about unintended consequences from these new solutions. This may lead to solutions that undermine people and fail to deliver on the promised business value.

Many companies and institutions fail to consider the people side of the problem and only focus only on business value. Interestingly, when the use of technology undermines people on the job, it also undermines the business because people are vital to business success. So there are two reasons to consider people as a part of business solutions using technology: caring about people and caring about business.

I would argue that doing the right thing by people should be a good enough motivation. However, presenting a new idea to a business under pressure (that is, almost any business today) usually requires a “business case.” So our goal is to examine problem areas where technology could produce transformation and develop strategies that bring value to the business while creating good environments for people (customers, employees, the community).

In this column I will identify five areas where we can get more specific about these objectives.

Family-Friendly Businesses

As business is under pressure today, so too are families. In many families both parents need to work. This means parents face the challenge of balancing their workload, making time for each other and the children, not to mention their community and personal lives. Single parents have additional pressure points.

From the parents’ point of view, it would be desirable to have the flexibility to juggle schedules, appointments, and school issues. Information technology makes it possible to provide flexible schedules, work from home, monitoring connections to day care centers, and the like. It would seem that these tools could be a great help to families.

But where is the value of all this for the business? Certainly, peace of mind for the employee makes it possible for them to give more creative energy to the job. Most literature on “knowledge work” today suggests this. But knowledge work can often be broken into tasks that can be done independently, allowing work and other activity to mix. For particularly intense knowledge work, the person will think about the problem a good deal of the time, even in so-called personal time. Capturing this “real estate of the brain” should be a great benefit to any business.

Making life easier for the employee has a benefit for both the employee and the business.

Similarly, distractions arising from family breakdown are very costly for both. The problem here, as in the other issues I will outline, is that many institutions have not thought carefully about what policies are appropriate for the business in managing knowledge workers.

Work Time And Personal Time

We live in an increasingly connected world with telecommunications, e-mail, pagers and cell phones. This enables people to work from almost anywhere. This technology allows for the collapse of boundaries between work and home. It allows the possibility of telecommuting (doing much of the work from home via the Internet). It allows a company to have its employees on call at all hours of the day or night. It also allows for employees to surf the web from the office, do the “paper” work for a mortgage from the office, or keep track of stocks through the company computer system.

With all of these possibilities, what are the appropriate responses for businesses and for individual employees?

Many companies look at telecommuting as an option only in the case of emergency. They want to set strict boundaries for what can be done from company-owned computing resources, but haven’t considered strict boundaries in terms of expecting employees to be on call. Other companies look at telecommuting as a way to save the cost of office space, but are naïve about the issues of trust and serendipity that are lost when employees do not see each other face-to-face.

One early pioneering company encouraged employees to use company resources for personal work, as long as they were doing it on their own time. They argued that the time spent keeping bowling scores for their church on the data base program at work motivated them to learn the program and made them more productive for the company. “The database program and the PC don’t wear out,” an executive told me. “This has got to be a win-win.”

Doctors have a history of managing the expectation of who is on call, what is expected, and when a person is “off duty.” Companies have had much less history of structuring “on call” work for their network engineers.

Monitoring

Technology allows for the close monitoring of employees, whether it is websites visited, keystrokes, or (in the case of a truck driver) location and speed of the vehicle. Should there be limits on monitoring of employees or should the company have the right to monitor in any way it chooses? What disclosure should the company make to their employees on the monitoring they do?

Here again there are multiple things to consider. The company can easily argue that these people are doing work for the company and should follow the rules. Unauthorized behavior can be tracked, so why not?

The upside of monitoring is that it enables the company to quickly identify the person surfing porn sites at the office, and this appears to be a significant problem. So, too, is speeding and lack of required rest for truckers on the road.

The downside of this is what the “big brother” environment does to creative people. Does excessive monitoring actually inhibit creativity? If it is true that most people (90% or higher) will be trying to do the right thing, is it worth creating an oppressive environment in order to catch the small number of people who would abuse the rules?

Technology Transition

Projects that introduce new information technology often lead to changes in the way the companies implement their business processes. Resistance to change from people within the company is one of the largest barriers to the success of these projects. Sometimes this resistance is legitimate when plans don’t account for needed “details” unseen by the company leaders. What do companies do to overcome resistance to change? Are there strategies companies could use to make the changes easier to implement and more successful?

Few companies have policies related to change in jobs from technology-based initiatives, except in the case of union work in a manufacturing setting. Often the union rules were reactionary as an organized way to fight off change, rather than working toward a “win-win” solution.

Technology has enabled “reengineering” projects that have had a significantly high failure rate because of these issues. Some authors have even equated reengineering and downsizing because the first often results in the second. It is time for serious discussion of technology transition because of its tremendous business and people impact.

Globalization

Globalization of a company leads to many changes in its culture. One is simply dealing with multiple cultures among its employees and customers. A second is creating an environment for leadership when the boss can’t simply “drop by” each area of the company. Then there are issues of law that become challenging across country boundaries. What are ways that information technology can be used to support and augment traditional leadership responsibilities? How should these be used for greatest effectiveness?

Some companies are exploring parts of this big issue: dealing with loss of jobs when work is sent outside the country; creating collaborative teams around the world that can shorten cycle time in product development by passing work across the time zones; outsourcing “night shift” customer service to allow worldwide twenty-four hour support.

Summary

These five problem areas represent a start at addressing issues in the workplace in our technological era. New tools and ideas made possible by changes in information technology are best used to do something new, not just automate the past. There are both new possibilities and new pitfalls. Thinking creatively about these and related issues is a requirement for business in the 21st century.

In this context we take business in its broadest terms, because almost any of these issues could be recast in thinking about the future university, medical services area, or government activity.

This quarter I am teaching a graduate seminar at the School of Business and Economics at Seattle Pacific University. I have spent time with the students over the first part of the quarter outlining the potential transformation of business from technology, and these five problem areas that many businesses, universities, and government agencies are struggling with. We have done a survey of a number of companies, large and small, to see how they are handling these areas. We are researching potentially attractive solutions in these areas.

By mid spring, we should have “white papers” from each student with their analysis and recommendations on dealing with these problems. These will be posted on the Ethix.org web site. It is my hope that these papers, while not the final answer, will provide a framework for the discussion on this set of issues.

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Al Erisman is executive editor of Ethix, which he co-founded in 1998.
He spent 32 years at The Boeing Company, the last 11 as director of technology.
He was selected as a senior technical fellow of The Boeing Company in 1990,
and received his Ph.D. in applied mathematics from Iowa State University.

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