We’ve Been Here Before

As I approach the 30th year of my career, I begin to wax nostalgic about the changes I see in the workplace. Available people, process and technology are in the process of redefining the space we call “the office.” Beyond the physical space, “the office” includes how we work together and define productivity. While today’s tools may be new, we’ve been through this process before—several times, in my case.

During the first three years of my career, I focused on transitioning from handwritten accounting schedules, forms and journal entries to electronic methods (13-column green pad to spreadsheets). Later, there were additional improvements in systems, access to data, and sharing of work (network shared drives and graphical charting capabilities).

The next phase was marked by a more complete transition from mainframe/mini technologies to server and personal computer technologies. Large ERP systems transitioned from green screens to client/server technology. Many new capabilities and features were enabled, including: scanning of receipts and shipments; electronic exchange of data and documents; and data importing and exporting.

Currently, we’re in the middle of transitioning from “behind the firewall” to “in the cloud.” This has dramatic implications, perhaps even more pronounced than in past phases. I believe that both the degree and speed of change are more dramatic and significantly faster than in the past. This is aided by the new low-cost, pay-as-you-go cloud options, a dramatic change in workforce demographics and global access to talent, markets and customers. No longer are large corporations at the forefront of the innovation, nor the adoption of new practices.

Transitions are endless and a natural part of life. What I find fascinating and important is looking at what have we learned from the past, evaluating what aspects are still relevant, and determining how lessons learned are applied in the current transition period.

Given my career, one of these keys learnings is around how we work. I believe we’re in a phase of “step-function” change, not “incremental” change. Put another way, we need to not look for little improvements in efficiency, but look at what is happening around us, create a shared vision of “what could be” and map a course toward this future state. As Michael Hammer noted in his seminal 1990 Harvard Business Review article Reengineering Work: Don’t Automate, Obliterate:

“It is time to stop paving the cow paths. Instead of embedding outdated processes in silicon and software, we should obliterate them and start over.”

Today’s key technologies—social, mobile, data/analytics and cloud—offer an opportunity to create new ways of working. We can leverage the same management disciplines: customer experience, quality principles, agile and responsive design, teaming and leadership principles, concepts of manufacturing efficiency and automation…and the list goes on. Outcomes must be relevant to the future environment and address the realities of competitive global economic talent, and resource challenges.

We’ve been here before. We need to stay future focused and use well-known disciplines to create the new future workplace. Incremental improvements in efficiency won’t be enough to be competitive in today’s and tomorrow’s marketplace.

Additional resources:

The Downside of Email

My first job was at Amoco almost 30 years ago. Amazingly, I have had access to email since day one of my working career.  Amoco was heavily invested in technology and had worked closely with IBM to develop the system. See The Networked Business Place for historical context.

dino-648718_640Email as we know it has about three decades of longevity. This is practically a dinosaur in the IT era. And like other dinosaurs that once roamed the earth, many experts feel it is just a matter of time before it becomes extinct. As noted in Is it Time for Email to Go Away?, there are many better ways to manage our tasks, communicate and foster team collaboration.

Email is like junk food: cheap, abundant and familiar. As you work through your inbox and crank out responses to messages and instigate other conversation threads, it can make you feel full and satisfied. That doesn’t mean it is the best choice.

The primary challenge in breaking our steady diet of email is that behavior change requires a group effort that starts at an individual level with each of us. Like with any other diet, we need to sacrifice immediate gratification for a long-term payoff.  The new tools hold promise for more efficient and effective communication. The amount of change necessary to reap the full benefits is definitely easier said than done, but will be worth it.

Less is More

516TXpkm6+LGreg McKeown is the author of the acclaimed book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. His website offers this description:

“The Way of the Essentialist isn’t about getting more done in less time. It’s not about getting less done. It’s about getting only the right things done. It’s about challenging the core assumption of ‘we can have it all’ and ‘I have to do everything’ and replacing it with the pursuit of ‘the right thing, in the right way, at the right time’. It’s about regaining control of our own choices about where to spend our time and energies instead of giving others implicit permission to choose for us.”

In an early 2015 Harvard Business Review article, McKeown argues that success is a catalyst for failure. The opportunities that we are bombarded with due to success causes us to lose the clarity that provided success in the first place.

His simple rules apply to both our personal and professional lives. To paraphrase:

  • What am I absolutely passionate about? In the absence of passion, don’t waste time on what is simply average.
  • What is absolutely essential? Once that is determined, eliminate the rest.
  • Beware of the weight of “sunk costs.” Just because you own something, don’t feel you need to keep it. Just because you’ve always done something, that doesn’t sentence you to keep doing it indefinitely.

I’m sure there are things at both work and home where I am holding onto something that I’m not passionate about and/or is not essential. It must be valuable because why else would I hold onto it, right? Perhaps its time for a little soul searching and spring cleaning to purge some of the “more” to fully appreciate the value of “less.” The tough question is where to start?

What Would Einstein Do?

albert-einstein-401484_640“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” —Albert Einstein

I was reminded of this quote recently when I was at an event where a group of CIOs were discussing current challenges. The cloud, security, and increasing demands to do more with less consistently floated to the top of the conversation. Instead of being energized with new ideas and momentum after these conversations, I sometimes found myself scratching my head. Without continually stepping back, challenging tradition and focusing on the larger business goal, we can stay trapped in traditional solutions.

Here are three such conversations that showed organizations stuck in outmoded practices.

Example #1: Security questionnaires from customers are becoming more frequent and detailed, and often include questions not grounded in in the reality of today’s environment. For example, one organization had two-factor authentication in place, thereby not requiring passwords. The questionnaire asked, “Do you have complex passwords – yes or no? The answer is “no,” which implies that there is insufficient security, but two-factor is actually better than complex passwords. In this case, traditional compliance requests keep us from moving forward to better solutions.

Example #2: Many organizations have been moving email to the cloud, decreasing retention periods but increasing mailbox sizes. Perhaps less quantity of email to manage, but email is still the defacto (now shorter term) document management and collaboration system. Perhaps the longer term view is to move towards newer ways of working together that don’t require email (see Un-Unified Communication). Over time, this would increase productivity and organically better secure data.

Example #3: One discussion thread suggested that the only workloads that make economic sense to move to the cloud are those where there is highly variable demand (seasonality), because renting capacity to support a steady workload would be more expensive. However, this premise neglects to consider that hard or direct cost is just one component of the overall price tag. New thinkers might ask, “Could I use this investment for something with a higher return or use resources to manage services/applications with greater value?” After all, most organizations choose to rent office space instead of buying – how is renting cloud space any different (see How to Wring More Value from the Cloud)?

In the end, I see the need to challenge our traditional thinking, step out of the box, and ask the big-picture question – what are we really trying to accomplish and why? Speed, flexibility, scalability, better value, and access to applications are only possible with different thinking. It’s not easy—and I have bruises and failures to prove it—but the direction is clear.

The Long Tail

“The Long Tail” by Chris Anderson was originally an article published in Wired in 2004 that later became a book. Read a synopsis of “The Long Tail” theory here.

Listening to NPR in the car on the way to work last week, I heard three stories that reminded me of the subject line above.

Story 1: The Muppets Return to ABC’s fall prime time schedule

dolls-373469_640The Muppets were created in 1955 and became popular after they joined the Sesame Street cast in its 1969 debut season. Later, they had The Muppet Show (which aired from 1976-1981), a dozen or so movies, and a second TV show. This latest iteration is toured as an adult version. Hmm…I’m not so sure this will work. Who will watch it and why? If they are targeting boomers who fall asleep early like me, perhaps it’s a good thing that it is scheduled to air at 7 p.m. Central.

Story 2: Vinyl records are cool again

Vinyl sales were virtually extinct in 2005, with less than a million copies sold. In 2014, the category had rebounded to achieve over nine million copies. This still pales in comparison to historical vinyl sales. Heavyweights such as Michael Jackson’s Thriller, the Eagles Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975,) Billy Joel’s Greatest Hits, Vol. 1 & 2, Led Zeppelin’s Led Zeppelin IV, Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, and AC/DC’s Back in Black have each surpassed more than 20 million copies sold. If vinyl continues its resurgence, can the return of the BMG Music Club be far behind?

Story 3: Verizon buys AOL

AOL today is not your parent’s AOL of the past. Hip and trendy resources such as TechCrunch, engagedet, and The Huffington Post are all owned by AOL. With Verizon’s takeover of AOL, we’ll see an unprecedented marriage of media and technology. Shingy approves.

Clearly, our current internet/web/mobile connected world provides a low-cost distribution network that can generate and push out a lot of content. This creates boundless opportunities at the long tail. Playing on nostalgia with the baby boomer generation is one strategy that seems to be paying off. What is old is new again…but perhaps on a smaller scale.

The Evolution of Personal Technology

I have always tried to be organized in both my professional and personal life, and have employed many technology devices to support these efforts. I can recall using versions of the Time System planners and Franklin Day Planners early in my career. Going further back, I think I even had a modular address book that I received for high school graduation.

Later, the Outlook-centric work desktop became a corporate standard, with contacts, calendars, and email all in one place. Initially calendars weren’t shared, but it was commonplace to print them out on a weekly basis. Gradually, things migrated to all electronic, all of the time.

Then came the ubiquitous Palm Pilot and other competing personal digital assistants. They synced with the Outlook platform so you could have a current, portable download. They were clunky compared to today’s standards, but were convenient and considered advanced at the time. You were cool in the business world if you were sporting a Palm Pilot.

The next generation was the smartphone. I recall my wife (an extremely dedicated Palm Pilot user) asking, “Why would you ever want your calendar in your phone?” This form factor brought numerous features together. Perhaps the two most important initially were being always synced and having the ability to communicate via email from a small device. I hear there are still some dedicated Blackberry users out there who have not been able to tear themselves away from a physical keyboard, but their ranks are dwindling (from 85 million worldwide in September 2013 to 46 million in September 2014). By comparison, Android has over 1 billion worldwide users. As smartphones continue to add apps and additional functionality, their potential seems unlimited.

watch-756487_640Now, into the marketplace comes the connected watch. Recently, our household gained its first Apple Watch (I’m assuming it won’t be the last). However, it’s not mine – it’s my wife’s. Yes, Donna, the person who couldn’t see the need for her calendar in her phone, has a computer on her wrist. It’s a new category for sure. Fitness tracking, notifications, easy-view messages, weather, and more, both yet-to-be-discovered and yet-to-be-developed.

Today, personal technology devices have allowed our personal and professional lives to become seamless. With data coming in and going out continuously, communication is rich, frequent, and sometimes overwhelming. While I certainly appreciate and take advantage of all of the technology at my disposal, sometimes I get nostalgic for simpler times. Sometimes there is no substitute for paper and pen. Excuse me while I go look in my archives for my Time System.

Life’s Too Short

Portland has awesome street art and signage that complement the city’s reputation of being quirky, diverse, and progressive. This billboard caught my attention.

2015-04-06 11.38.15-1

All photos by Mark Baker

The exploding world of mobile apps has set a new benchmark for how technology should work. In our daily lives, there is an app for every purpose: to check the weather, get sports scores, catch up on news, read a magazine, share updates with friends, book travel reservations, shop, or track workouts. One of my favorite examples is the Amazon mobile app with its ability to dynamically scan a product or barcode.

As apps have gotten increasingly easier to use and more refined, the same progression cannot be found in the traditional software that most businesses rely on. There is usually a distinct difference between applications written from the ground up after approximately 2008 and those written earlier. Earlier applications (think airline websites, like United) have lots of functionality on single screens, require training to use, and come from a “one size fits all” mindset. Even programs that have received a “face lift” can’t compare in terms of ease of use, personalization, and multi-functionality.

New approaches (Uber, an interface to a ride service, is a perfect example) are proliferating, but lots of traditional services can’t get from here to there. Unfortunately, I think we’re going to be stuck with the legacy of these systems for some time.

Life is too short to stick with outmoded technology when there is something new and better available. Consumers will continue to gravitate to the tools they find more accessible and efficient. In an upcoming post, I will address one of the fundamental toolsets that will help us get there: service design. This holistic approach focuses on the user experience when designing process, tools and service. Stay tuned.