Productivity Enhancement: Where Are We Now?
This second in a three-part series on productivity takes a look at why collaborative enhancements and mobile empowerment still fall short despite their benefits.
If productivity growth is the engine that drives increases in IT spending, where are we in terms of realizing new vistas in productivity? What's out there that we could count on to make IT exciting and not the mundane stuff of warring accountants? The good news is that the industry has been trying to improve productivity. The bad is that the efforts haven't been very effective.
It's possible to view IT productivity over the last half-century as a neat progression toward a single goal -- bringing information technology closer to worker activity. We started out with data centers tended by a hero caste of professional operations people, running applications generated by even-more-heroic programmers, and fed by... what? A bunch of punched cards created by "keypunching" manual transaction records. Then distributed computing, Internet computing, and then? Is there a next step in the logical progression?
Well, what better way to get closer to the worker than to sit astride the work, so to speak.
A Problem in the Execution
Collaboration has evolved from "unified communications" through UCC to Web conferences and social workgroup support. The basic notion of collaboration seems crystal clear; if you can centralize and enhance the cooperative activities that seem to fill our days, you'd make better decisions and waste less time. Instead of phones, use video. Instead of meetings, use Web conferences.
- Click for the first in this three-part series: Productivity: Why It's the Missing Link in Communications Evolution
If there's a "Year of UCC" or a "Year of Video Collaboration," we've yet to see it. The problem seems to be that most of the interactions we have don't really benefit much from video, and most of us aren't artistic enough to be able to pull value out of an interactive white board. We're putting technology into the path of communication, but it's not adding anything. "Facilitating" something isn't a revolution in productivity.
The new hot button for productivity enhancement is mobile empowerment. If distributed computing takes you closer to workers by nailing them to the chairs in front of their computers, mobile empowerment lets them roam wild and free doing their jobs while carrying the entire IT might of their business in their pockets. If you're sitting in a sales call with a skeptical buyer, you're not alone. The power and majesty of your company is at your fingertips, and everyone who works there is on hand to help. Think of a whole new notion of "committeeman!"
So far, that doesn't seem to be doing well either, but the problem is perhaps more in the execution than in the concept. Most enterprises have stuck a mobile front-end on a standard application and declared their workers mobile-empowered. That doesn't work because a good mobile device is viewed by its user as almost human. We expect it to understand where we are, what we're looking at -- the context of our life, in short.
You could argue that lack of context is the big problem with both "collaboration" and "mobile empowerment." That argument is buttressed by the initiatives we already see in both collaboration and mobility.
In collaboration, the trend is to establish what could be called a "hosted project" that becomes the focus of a new way of interacting on team processes. This arguably started with Basecamp, and Google tried it with its innovative-yet-unsuccessful Wave offering. Cisco's Spark is one of the latest examples of this kind of service.
Spark is a combination of a project hosting point and a social-network-like project collaboration center. You can share files, send messages, and initiate video and standard calls. If you want to invoke a full-scale Web meeting, that option is also available, including screen sharing. This same project-centric collaboration seems to be the driver to Microsoft's integration of Skype with its cloud and business tools.
Salesforce has taken this approach a step further by integrating collaboration into its popular sales support and CRM offerings (read related post, "Communications-as-a-Feature: How Salesforce Will Replace Your ACD"). This is seen by users as particularly valuable because sales is what drives business revenue, and because salespeople are inherently collaborative in their approach to problem-solving. However, not every collaborative opportunity is in the sales area, and it's more difficult to apply this approach to markets where there's no common SaaS toolkit serving a lot of users.
Microsoft thinks it has a solution to that problem, by involving and extending its cloud. Azure Web services allows collaborative features (including calling) to be incorporated into cloud applications directly by calling a Web service. The idea is that if workers are meeting virtually, they're not just shooting the breeze but working on something. Two-person collaboration in particular tends to focus on expert help or supervisory coordination, both applied to issues that arise in the running of an application. If the application itself initiates collaboration, then application context is more easily shared among the people involved.
While all these current productivity-enhancing practices have some beneficial impact, they still seem to be short of the mark. Neither collaborative enhancements nor mobile empowerment has created a wave of productivity gains to match what's happened in the past with things like distributed computing. The good news is that we're starting to realize that "getting closer to the worker" means changing the very nature of IT-empowered work, not just diddling with the details. It's not an easy task, and in the early stages there seem to be many paths to explore. In the next blog in this series, I'll talk about how those explorations are going and what they tell us about the future.
Follow Tom Nolle on Google+!
Tom Nolle on Google+