Nobody wants to go back to the early days of packaged applications when green screens were the norm and users got what they were given and had to come to IT if they wanted anything different. But should we really be going to the other extreme, as some would argue, and let users take control?
It has become quite trendy now to make the point that the iPhone-toting, Facebook-using youngsters of today are entering the workplace with much higher expectations than their forebears, and that businesses should be doing everything they can to pander to the whims of the Generation Y millennials.
For us old timers, however, the question “Whose business is it anyway?” springs to mind, and we ask ourselves when it has ever been appropriate to let the personal desires of employees, the younger ones in particular, dictate how we run our companies.
Previous generations would no doubt have liked to sit around chatting or listening to the radio all day to keep up with what’s going on in the organisation and the world in general, but they were paid to do a job and expected to get on with it. Yet allowing the latest generation of employees to fritter away time ‘networking’ through social media, or browsing the internet to keep up with events because they ‘expect to interact and be well informed’ is something we just have to accept?
The trick, of course, is to take a more balanced view. From a business perspective, developments on the internet and in home and personal computing and communications have created a level of familiarity and competency with technology that it makes sense to acknowledge and take advantage of. And the reality is that this is not just in relation to youngsters – the more mature contingent within the workforce have also become a lot more internet and technology savvy in recent times. Along the way, though, it is important to keep control from both a business and IT point of view, and make sure behaviour bleeding through from personal lives is properly harnessed.
As an example, consider that the inherent capability of humans to converse verbally can be used both productively and unproductively in the workplace. There is a big difference between employees talking through business matters in a planning meeting, and standing around chatting about football or the latest news from the soaps in the corridor.
There is a similar difference between using instant messaging or social media to collaborate on projects, and checking the latest celebrity Twitter feeds or what your mates have been up to on Facebook. Having said this, perhaps the challenge is greater today in that it’s a lot more obvious when people are engaging in idle chatter or wasting the company’s time online.
None of this is to say that employees shouldn’t be allowed to engage in social intercourse while at work; that would be unhealthy and it would be a pretty sad place if employers took things to that extreme. As we said before, it is about striking a reasonable balance, and while that would include permitting a certain amount of non-work related online activity, that’s not the same as giving Generation Y a licence to behave as they please.
But it cuts both ways and there are some areas in which employers often have inappropriate expectations too. Many, for example, have pushed responsibility for business decision making and performance achievement much lower down the organisational hierarchy.
Unlike senior managers, however, who generally have analysts and assistants preparing data and reports for them, those lower down in the pecking order often have to fend for themselves to gather and process the information they need to make decisions or manage performance effectively. Indeed, in far too many cases, some key information is just not available to them in any form.
This is clearly unfair and, in fact, quite risky from a business perspective. It’s all very well coming down on someone who has made a poor decision or missed an important target, but if this is a result of asking them to work blind or with only a partial view of the world, it’s bad for everyone.
And here’s where the two threads of our discussion can potentially come together productively, because the increasing tech savviness of the workforce means you can now much more effectively provide a broad base of employees with self-service mechanisms for accessing, analysing and presenting information to boost efficiency and effectiveness at grass roots level. And by self service, we don’t mean the old ‘download to Excel’ DIY cottage industry stuff that leads to so many problems, but reusable network based queries and access mechanisms, proper widget-based web interfaces, facilities embedded at the right points in business applications, and so on.
With all this in mind, a good overall objective would be to think in terms of empowering users to do their jobs with the right balance between freedom and flexibility on the one hand, and discipline and control on the other.
Easy to say, perhaps, but quite hard to pull off.