Envision On!

Thinking about the future, not predicting it.

21st Century Working

February 2nd, 2015

Ever get frustrated that despite all of the advances of technology and how hard you work, you never really seem to get anywhere? Chances are you’re struggling with 21st century working in a 20th century workplace.

Here are five signs that your office and how you work are getting in the way of your productivity (and some ideas about what you can do about them):

  1. headphonesshutterstock_119229250You carry two pairs of headphones with you – one is a set of ultra-sleek earbud style headphones for guerrilla commuting, the other are a colourful oversized pair of “over the ear” style headphones just for use in the office. Nothing says “I’m busy” better than a set of huge, violent pink 1970’s styled cans.
  2. Although technically, you’re supposed to “hot-desk” at work, over the past few months you have become embroiled in a bitter feud over territory, perpetually fending off invaders from claiming your favourite space as their own. Your strategically placed lucky gonk and the potentially MRSA busting penicillin that you have carefully cultivated at the bottom of your favourite coffee cup vigilantly stand guard, marking out your domain and defending against out of hours raids by usurpers.
  3. Email has become your most favourite form of communication at work. You loath receiving it, but you love sending it. You cc everyone and your favourite button is “reply all” just because of the reaction it creates. You email the colleague sitting next to you because it’s “easier” than talking to them and to you, a great day at work is the fact that you finally managed to reach the nirvana that is “inbox zero”
  4. Although you are provided with the latest in portable computing technology, the only time you actually use your laptop on your lap is to catch up on email while sat in meetings. You take your laptop home every night but it never leaves the bag until you return to your hot desk the next working day. Even that tablet you’re so proud of doesn’t see much beyond clearing email on the train (and of course your growing Candy Crush habit).
  5. As far as multi-tasking goes, you are a master of your art. You spend most working days flicking between open browser tabs and applications. From email, to twitter, to your status report and back again you can juggle them all. But sometimes, just sometimes, you wonder why it’s hard to keep your attention on…. Wait, what was I saying?

If you recognise any or all of these behaviours, don’t worry, you’re really not alone. Sooner or later, we all end up working in this way. But we need to understand that these behaviours are actually remnants of our old ways of working, ways that were formed and engrained in our working culture, long before the advent of the personal technology we have access to today.

The point is, that although the technology provides us with a wide range of choices in both where and how we work, we rarely take the opportunity to use them. It’s not that our old fashioned approach to work kills productivity, it’s more that it severely constrains it, creating an artificial glass ceiling that ultimately means the only option we have is to work harder not smarter. Opening ourselves and our organisations up to new ways of working effectively removes the constraints and catapults us to new levels of productivity by enabling to fundamentally change how we work.

The headphones you wear at work are to try and insulate yourself from distractions, the battle you fight so hard for your hot desk is not dissimilar, it’s just you trying to create a space where you feel comfortable, secure and at ease – a state you require for your brain to be able to focus on the task at hand. But what if, instead of resorting to these sort of “band-aid” solutions, you actually look to address the root of the problem – if you’re doing the sort of work where you need to minimise distractions, why are you going into the office at all? In the 21st century, work should really be an activity not a destination, it’s something you do, not somewhere you go. Our offices are fantastic when we need to meet with our colleagues face to face, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that they’re fantastic when we need to get some actual work done.

These days, technology makes it possible to pretty much work from anywhere, but the real trick is actually for you to make it happen. Note though, that I never said that this was about working from home or never going in to the office. Most people will be more distracted at home than they are at work. There’s always the allure of a quick bit of Jerry Springer or those chores you’ve been putting off for weeks – it’s funny how things you would never normally do (or things you have put off) suddenly become more appealing and important than having to think and work hard.

emailshutterstock_93130444But it’s not just the existence of the technology that creates the opportunity, our success with it is governed entirely by how we choose to use it. Some might argue that “it’s all technology’s fault” but I would say that it is our responsibility, as the people driving the machines, to use them appropriately. Email is a problem for everyone, we all get too much. So why don’t you do your bit and start to send less? Just because you can cc people or hit “reply all” doesn’t mean you should. Instead, you should be looking for new ways of communicating that are more efficient. Sometimes it really is better to talk, and sometimes it’s better to ask the same questions in open collaborative forums that are visible to everyone in the company. So much of what we do isn’t confidential or top secret and yet by using email we essentially treat it as such. A brilliant quote I’ve heard recently from Bill French really captures this problem; “email” he says “is where knowledge goes to die”.

And finally, we really need to talk about multi-tasking, we suck at it (and that’s as true of women as it is men). The truth is, as humans, our brains just aren’t wired to do more than one thing at once with any degree of success. You’re far better to create a list of things you need to get done that day, and then allocate specific time periods to focus on them. Make one of the items “email” but confine your temptation to dive into your inbox to that time alone. Be ruthless with yourself when you’re working on other things, turn off your phone, turn off all your notifications and work in short bursts of around 15 – 30 minutes with a few minutes break to stretch your legs, grab a drink and catch up on a few emails in between.

Simple steps like communicating openly, focusing on specific tasks and finding the best place for you to do your best work are all it takes to start to turn your relationship with technology around. In all of this, we just have to remember that although the technology provides us with a wide range of choices, we rarely take advantage of them. So if we want to be truly productive in the 21st century the opportunities are all there, the only thing we humans need to do is to rise up and grasp them.

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2015 Predictions–Technology’s Copernican Shift

December 31st, 2014

A world of Ubiquitous Computing and Ambient Intelligence
solarsystemshutterstock_99084065Although this is a much longer term trend, in 2015 we will take significant step closer to a world of “the internet of things” where billions of connected devices surround us, tracking things like our location, well-being, as well as the state of the built environment of the world around us (from lightbulbs and elevators through to trains, planes and automobiles), and those devices (or more specifically, the data they generate) are connected and brought to life by a new generation of “intelligent services”.

As we do this, something curious will start to happen – we as humans, will start to move from a world where we gravitate around the technology (i.e. I have to go to my device and instruct it to get the information or service I need) to a world where the technology gravitates around us, anticipating our needs and proactively assisting us with many elements of our day to day lives.

But specifically what are the technologies that will power this change and what might this mean to us in how we live our lives?Untitled-1

The Year of “mobile” (again): Every year for the last decade, some mobile device company or other has declared that _this_ year, will be the year of “mobile”. The reality has been that until now, all “mobile” really meant was being able to make crucial business calls in transit – “I’M ON THE TRAIN!” or at best, the ability to be inescapable to escape the clutches of your inbox by providing 24/7 access to your email. I’m hopeful that 2015 will be remembered as the year that finally changed, where “mobile” started to mean just that – a world of business applications providing employees access to the right information, at the right time, and crucially, in the right place.

Location, Location, Location: In 2015, through the increasing prevalence of beacons and other new location technologies, we will move our ability to track and understand location indoors. We’re all used to being able to find the location of the car park, shop or office we are looking for using the GPS embedded in our smartphone, but this technology is almost useless to us once we step inside whatever building we’re looking for. As new technologies progress and become part of our infrastructure, not only will I be able to find the office I’m looking for, once inside, I’ll be able to find the exact location of the meeting room (and potentially the person!) I’m looking for.

The rise of the office algorithm: Algorithms are increasingly powering the services we use on the internet, 2015 will see those algorithms enter the world of work, answering our emails, spotting patterns in our work and replacing “gut instinct” with cold logic. What role for humans then, in a working world where much of our cognitive capability is replaced by machines?

Wearables in the office: What happens in a world where employees wear devices that monitor stress levels, heart rate, sleep and exercise? Would employers seek to use that information to monitor their employees like insurance companies do drivers with in-car black boxes – rewarding those who exercise and sleep well or maybe spotting patterns of stress (i.e. Dave, I’ve noticed every time you meet with your boss your stress levels go through the roof!).

Flexible working for all: 2014 saw the introduction of new legislation making it compulsory for all UK businesses to put in place policies to allow flexible working for employees. Unfortunately for many though, all this really did was introduce more headaches for businesses (especially smaller companies) who found it difficult to see and adapt to the potential of real flexible working (allowing employees to choose the most appropriate location for their work every day) and instead interpreted the change as another round of bureaucracy that needed to be accommodated at their cost.

As always, these new technology trends will present their problems and challenges. None of these are new, but the new opportunity presented by a world of connected devices and intelligent assistance will make these old problems too big for us to ignore.

Context, Trust and Privacy: A world of connected devices powered by intelligent services is a world all about context. Woman whispers to the girlfriend secretsKnowing things like where I am, who I’m with, what I’m going to do next, my interests as well as who my friends and colleagues are, provides some pretty powerful context that can help anticipate the best information or service I need to make my next task successful and seamless. But I suspect as you read that last sentence, you started to pull back, recoiling at the intrusion of that kind of world might present – and that’s before I push it over the top by adding in an understanding of how much exercise you’re getting, what your heart rate and stress levels are along with how well you may have slept!.

The truth is, this kind of transformative, pre-emptive world of connected, intelligent services can only exist with access to that kind of information and the real trick for us is going to be how we are able to do it in a way that preserves and protects the rights of the individual around their own definition of their privacy and engenders trust between those providing the services and the individual providing the data. I’m convinced the key to our future success with technology lies within this crucial discussion around privacy and trust.

Security: This may seem like a blindingly obvious prediction, but I think we’ve seen a very different picture emerge in 2014 around the threat our connected world places on ourselves as individuals, our organisations, our governments and our society in general. Security is always a game of cat and mouse/whack-a-mole/arms race (pick whichever metaphor works best for you) but what I hope for in 2015 is that we will all begin to think more about the risks, and not shy away from the opportunity that technology offers, but instead be more proactive around how we minimise the threats such that we can enjoy all the incredible potential our digital world has to offer.

Finally, to bring this all together, my prediction (and hope) for 2015 is that we as humans will continue to evolve, enjoy and explore the incredible potential that technology offers, yes we will increasingly be mindful of the challenges, risks and problems that need to be overcome, but overall we will use the power and potential provided by new technologies to extend our reach further than ever before to achieve things that once we thought impossible.

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The Elastic Business

November 28th, 2014

As we hurtle once more into the festive season, retail organisations are bracing themselves for another bumper year of surging sales both on and off-line. Nowhere is evidence of this massive, temporary explosion in sales more visible than on “Black Friday” – a US retail phenomenon that, over recent years, has become more and more popular here in the UK.

blackfridayshutterstock_235089598Black Friday takes its name not, as some people believe, because it is the one day in which retailers push themselves further into the “black” through discounts and other sales promotions, but instead because of the chaos that is created across streets and shops by an overwhelming army of bargain hunters on the busiest shopping day of the year. It’s a term that actually has its origins in 1960’s Philadelphia where it was used by Police Officers, taxi drivers and bus drivers who would bemoan the nightmare that such a sudden, short term, influx of people would create in their normally manageable daily routine.

The Philly cop’s annual headache is something that’s really worth remembering, not just in retail, but for any organisation or industry that experiences wild swings in demand either seasonal or otherwise.

Now, it’s at this point in time that IT cloud providers would swoop in and start talking to you about the amazing benefits of the “elasticity” of the cloud and quite right – if you do experience swings in demand and you’re not operating in the cloud then we really need to talk. But what’s crucial to remember, is that the flexibility of your on-line services represents just one part of your overall business process, and as such fixing it in isolation only serves to move the problem elsewhere in your organisation.

Solving part of the problem doesn’t help, if you want to be truly successful you need to take a holistic view and apply the “elastic” approach to all aspects of your business and your culture. In fact, if you really want to be successful in living up to the potential of significant changes in demand in your business, you need just three things:

  1. You need a better way of predicting what “will” happen, rather than a better way of understanding what “has” happened.
  2. You need an organisation that can react and respond quickly and consistently to changes. Consistency is a key point here – even if you manage to meet the new demand can you be sure that the rest of your “promise” to your customer will be able to cope? Will your customers experience the same level of customer service? Will the products/services be of the same quality? If they won’t you may have won the short term fight, but you run the risk of losing the long term battle.
  3. You need the basic technology infrastructure that enables your business to scale and flex to optimise both your business costs but also your ability to service your customers.

I’m not going to touch number 3 because this should not be news to you and you’re either doing it already or you’re sitting on the fence procrastinating about making the leap (just do it already) but it’s the first two that we’ve historically overlooked but are increasingly becoming possible thanks to advances in both technology and our understanding of its potential.

elasticityshutterstock_190642355When it comes to predicting in the future, the days of consulting soothsayers or settling for “best guesses” are finally coming to an end. The exponential growth (and availability) of data combined with innovations in both the power and accessibility of technologies like Machine Learning is enabling us to move away from a world of mere “reflection” (i.e. using the data to understand what has happened) into a world of “prediction” (i.e. using the data to understand what will happen). A world filled with better predictions is a world full of less (organisational) surprises and provides a backdrop against which better plans can be made.

Secondly, by shifting the culture of the way we collaborate inside our organisations, we can ensure that crucial knowledge, insight and values are not “locked away”, hidden from view from others in the organisation, either temporary staff or even existing staff having to pull extra duties in order to cope with the peak in demand. Crucially here, it’s not the technology alone that makes the difference it’s the culture. Yes you need to break free of old ways of working, moving to new collaborative tools rather than locking crucial information up in email inboxes, but unless you engender a culture that promotes and rewards open sharing of information (where appropriate of course) the tools alone will not help.

Agility is driven (or restricted) by knowledge, the more freely the knowledge flows inside the organisation, the more agile the business can become. It’s that simple.

So, whatever your organisation, whatever drives the spikes in demand, from the one person accountancy business trying to cope with the client demands of the HMRC tax year deadline right through to the big retailers trying to make the most of all that the festive season offers, all you need to do to make the most of the opportunity is to anticipate it, react to it and then deliver on it.

Make that happen, and your “black” day need not be a headache, a period of stress, dread and over-work, but instead a celebration where you and your organisation can make the most of all the upside that a significant increase in demand brings for your business.

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The Future of Education

October 20th, 2014

Here’s a few thoughts from me on the future of education, taken from the fantastic Future of Technology in Education conference on October 3rd, 2014:

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And here are the slides I used:

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The rise of the digital human

September 18th, 2014

A few weeks ago, researchers at Harvard University, announced the results of an incredible project that enables computers to understand human thought, albeit at a very rudimentary level (the computer was able to understand a single word when the human thought of it). Minutes after the announcement, roboteworkshutterstock_129397139the world of social was filled with the dystopian visions of digital mind-control and telepathy and before you knew it we were locked back into a conversation that is essentially about the battle for power between humans and machines and how should be wary of our new digital overlords.

Of course, I don’t think the future will play out in anything like the sorts of scenarios that we see in the movies but I am continually bemused as to why we, as a society, so often see this as a conflict. Why is it always about humans vs machines when surely the whole point of what we have been doing for the last decade (although I would argue we’ve been doing it for much longer) is about the incredible opportunity that lies in front of us when instead we think about the potential of humans plus machines? A place where the technology does not replace us, but instead lifts us, it augments our capabilities to help us achieve more or deliver more engaging experiences that amaze and enchant our audiences.

This conversation is becoming more and more relevant in our industry, a world that is increasingly based on the cold, unemotional light of insights from data being harnessed by the growing power of algorithms. This is a world where, when fed with enough data, the algorithms will know what content will go “viral”, when and where it should be placed and for how long. Humans will therefore no longer be required and we can sit back on our ample backsides and bask in the glory of all that we have created. It’s usually at this point, someone hits the big red button labelled “panic” and we all start worrying about our jobs because after all, the computers can do all this stuff better than us can’t they?

At a high level at least, we can help to ease some of the anxiety for our future employment prospects by taking a little time to understand the limitations of algorithms:

  1. Algorithms can only make predictions (e.g. “this must be spam”, “this ad should be placed here”) based on experiences drawn from a huge trove of “training” data.
  2. They can only learn from that data by processing it within a model that has been given to them; they can’t learn from data alone.
  3. As the volume of data expands, the machines learn from the results of previous predictions and fine-tune the model. This iterative self-improvement is one of the most powerful features of machine learning and but it basically means they can improve on the results of the model, but they can’t improve the model itself.
  4. The machines draw conclusions and develop solutions based on probability; they are not human, as such they have no emotion or biases to augment their perspective.

I know that’s a lot to take in, but if you think of it like this – the algorithms are only as good as the data they get fed (garbage in…) and they are constrained by the rules that they’ve been provided with, they cannot yet improve the models, or connect multiple models together independently. Doesn’t this sound a lot like the age old conversation about “tools” and how they’re only as good as the people that use them? It should, because it’s no different.

So, before the digital industry rises up and forms their own Luddite rebellion (how ironic would that be?) we’ve just got to remember that by getting the machines to do more work, more of the heavy lifting, we should be pushing ourselves to make better use of that platform to extend ourselves further.

It’s no different to the debate we had when I was a kid at school, at a time when pocket calculators were first becoming affordable. I did the majority of my maths exams armed with no more than a slide rule and a log book (and I did OK thanks very much) but let me tell you, I am a better mathematician with a calculator than I am with a book of tabulated paper and slidy bit of plastic. Yes, I need to know the basic principles of arithmetic but I can get the machine to take care of the heavy lifting. We no longer have that debate and our culture and curriculums have adapted to integrate the power of the calculator to lift human beings to be able to do more and more complex calculations. Our relationship with technology, data and algorithms and their potential in our industry should be no different.

We need to remember that computers, algorithms and the data that feeds them are here to help. The success of our industry’s future (not to mention the future of awe inspiring campaigns and engagement) will depend entirely on our ability to grasp the potential they offer us. As a result, our aspiration should be to do things differently, not the same things slightly better.

If we get this right, we humans won’t have to be in awe of the machines; instead, we will stand high and proud on the shoulders of these mechanical giants and accomplish truly amazing things. The time for us to make this happen is now. The rise of the humans has already started – and the world will never be the same again.

An edited version of this article was published by The Drum.

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Transformational people, transformational culture:

September 2nd, 2014

creativityshutterstock_123603871Traditionally, in order to improve customer experience many organisations choose to concentrate on individual elements, sometimes focusing purely on the technology e.g. “if only we had a better customer relationship management tool/website/social media plan” (delete as appropriate). Sometimes they focus purely on the experience e.g. how do we make our customers happy? Sometimes they focus on their own people e.g. how do we make our customer facing people more efficient? And sometimes they focus on the data e.g. how can we measure the satisfaction of our customers?

But in today’s world of connected customers and increasing competition, what becomes vital is the ability to look to their cumulative not individual effect. But even the combination of these pillars is not enough. Crucially, all of this boils down, not to which technology, not to which process or even which people, but instead it is entirely down to the culture of the organisation that will make or break our ability to be successful in the eyes of our customers.

I recently met with the CMO of a large global retail organisation and he summarised it perfectly, he had made the connection and firmly believed that if they were going to be successful in delivering “transformational customer experiences”, every single member of the organisation needed to be empowered to be transformational – to them that meant that every employee needed not just a toolset (technology) that would power the transformation, but most importantly they needed to be supported by an organisational culture that would make it both acceptable and possible for them to drive change from their individual roles and teams.

Unfortunately, it is often the culture that becomes the stumbling block, because while many will talk of transformation, the way in which we operate is too often steeped in the past, a world of process based productivity where success is more often measured on “processes completed” rather than a broader (admittedly slightly more vague) notion of measurement of the actual outcome.

Customer call centres present an easy target for an example of this, we’ve all experienced the difference between a call centre which operates by measuring process (number of calls taken, standard call dialogues/scripts) versus those which operate based on the outcome where there are less guidelines as to call volume and (thankfully) no “script on rails” which prevents the customer from feeling valued as an individual.

But it would be easy to think that all this talk of humanity and culture means that the technology is useless or irrelevant – the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Our increasingly connected world, and the seemingly endless ocean of data that we swim within provide the opportunity for true transformation, but we have to recognise that our ability to reach this lofty goal is constrained entirely not by the technology but by the humans that use it. And unless those people and the technology are supported by an organisational culture that empowers the individual and focuses on outcomes then consistent success in the eyes of our customers will continue to get further and further beyond our reach.

An edited version of this article appears in the Transform Digital Maturity Index for 2014

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An open plea from the out of office email

August 25th, 2014

emailshutterstock_93130444Wait! Do you really need to send this message? I am out of the office on holiday!

Ah, the tragic delight of the annual summer holiday “out of office” mail. With its creation brings the optimistic hope for days of fun, relaxation and the search for adventure in the world that exists beyond the glowing rectangles we spend most of our days (and nights) in front of (recent UK studies show we spend an average of over 8 hours a day in front of one screen or another). It instils hope for barbeques and warm evening breezes made better by cold beer enjoyed on some patio watching the slow descent of the summer sun. But along with the promise of less work and more play it also harbours a terrible, ominous truth – the impending doom that is the post-holiday email mountain. As far as productivity goes in our digital evolution, this is our lowest point. It is the Cro-Magnon ancestor of our working practices whose continued existence drags us back towards the primordial soup of process based working while so many of us yearn to evolve into something greater.

But it’s time for us to break the link, to take that bold step into a different future, to rise up and evolve into something more substantial. The great news is that it’s actually all within our gift to fix but only if we start to take some positive actions ourselves.

At Microsoft, we’re luckier than most in that we have great tools like Yammer, that keep our inboxes free while ensuring our collective knowledge flows freely regardless of when it was sent, or who it was addressed to. But like every other organisation on the planet we’re staffed by human beings, people who need to make the right choices about how they use those tools in order to get the most benefit.

What this means in reality is being thoughtful, not just about the content of the message, but of its context and relevance to the recipients at the time of their return. Sending emails to people out of office without thinking about this verges on the selfish and lazy. I know, I know, that’s a bit harsh, but sometimes we wrap ourselves up in our own tasks and objectives and we think less about the relevance and impact on the recipient.

Most people return from a couple of weeks away to a blinding morass of messages, and spend at least one if not two full working days weeding through the chaos to find importance and relevance in what will turn out to be a tiny fraction of the overall pool of messages they have received (in my experience, it’s usually less than 10%). Some get lost along the way (even I can be a bit over zealous with the delete key on my return) and inevitably, the senders will send a follow up message the minute I return to the office only making the problem worse. It’s usually at this point in the proceedings that all of the benefits gained from two weeks of rest and relaxation are usually lost and consigned to some distant memory and the frustration of the inefficiency of our working practices return us to pre-holiday levels of exhaustion and cynicism as we start to repeat the refrain of questioning the point of taking a break at all.

My call to action for you is to be thoughtful about both the medium and the message. Is the message time sensitive? Is it directly for the recipient (as in they’re in the “To:” line and not either one of a cast of thousand recipients or worse, only on the “cc:” line.)? If it isn’t then should you really be sending the message via email? If it is, how is the recipient going to be able to spot the importance of your message amongst all the noise? Clearly mark it in the subject line, (and not just with an “urgent” flag). Better still, think about whether you actually need the recipient at all in order for you to proceed? Many times we think only that one individual can help when clearly there is an entire organisation of helpful, capable people who are ready and waiting to engage.

It’s really simple things like this that can make a difference for all of us. Believe it or not, I actually miss “work” when I am away and usually on my return I’m really eager to get stuck in, but it’s the stupidity of the post-holiday email mountain that turns that eagerness into bitterness and makes me resent both the return and the vacation. If you can adjust your email etiquette in this way, then those around you will begin to follow suit. Your tiny pebble will create ripples that will make the holiday/work reintegration process so much smoother, productive, and enjoyable not just for me, but for all of us.

Unless of course you’re my boss, in which case, send away! I’ll probably be checking for your email every day anyway, you know, just in case…

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The Rise of the Humans – Live

August 20th, 2014

A few people have been asking for an overview of the Rise of the Humans story and I thought it would be better just to share a recent presentation where I told the story to a captive audience.

Warning: Contains mild profanity…  (Well, it was an audience of digital media professionals after all and like always, I just wanted to fit in.)   😉

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Thanks go to the lovely folks at Jellyfish for having me along and for capturing the session!

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The Rise of the IT Pro

August 8th, 2014

leadershipshutterstock_77448640When I started my career in IT, some 20 odd years ago, it was a simpler time. Personal computers were rare and ludicrously expensive and you certainly wouldn’t find any at home (never mind better ones there than those you have to endure at work). There was no public network easily available to businesses or homes and the thought of “mobile connectivity” usually required a small plastic box, a length of copper wire and a lot of patience. It was the point at which computers were just breaking free of the era of “data processing” where mainframes the size of small houses batch processed tiny amounts of isolated data much to the glee of the white coated computer scientists that fed them endless reams of punched paper. Over in a handful of garages on the American West Coast, people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs had done amazing things that would soon transform the world around us. There was a smell of solder, sweat and revolution in the air.

Back then, I can still remember spending a large portion of my time trying to get anyone to listen about the value this personal computer revolution could offer both their organisations and themselves as individuals. It seems ludicrous to think about it now, but it was incredibly hard work and not many people were interested. We had to spend years, first showing them what was possible, and then proving it was profitable.

Then, the penny finally dropped and we, as an industry, enjoyed the pinnacle of our success. Businesses wanted to harness the potential of technology to transform themselves but had no idea about how to go about it. They needed us, the IT Pros, to embed ourselves in their business and help them transform. We were heroes, and everybody loved us because we made new things happen. We were the alchemists, special people who could make something out of nothing, transmuting the base metals of an organisation’s information assets into something precious that could be harnessed and turned into strategic advantage.

But then, rather brilliantly, the Consumerisation of IT happened and with it came a very different attitude towards the role of technology in the workplace and beyond. With the advent of consumer technology, people started to both instinctively “get” what technology could do and paradoxically at the same time, cared less about how complicated it was (or even how it worked). By then, we had 30 or so years of lessons, experiences and scars. Technology may no longer be anything special to them (our users), but it was still special to us. We knew how complicated it was, how powerful it was (especially in the wrong hands) and we knew how much of our own blood, sweat and tears still lay on the server room floor following those endless all-nighters when we were migrating their systems, restoring their corrupt data or implementing some new solution that would revolutionise their business. And as a result the rift started, we forgot our most important lesson and started to respect the technology more than we did the people that were destined to use it.

Now look, I know I tend to make generalisations and not all of us are locked up in our server rooms, locking down desktops to prevent “stupid users” from getting themselves in to trouble, but I am worried about our future. I worry that we are working our way towards oblivion or more specifically irrelevance. Unlike the technology that swirls around us, we haven’t yet changed enough to reaffirm our true potential and time is running out.

Here’s a quick test for you to try at home. Find someone who doesn’t know what you do for a job, and ask them about the IT department where they work (better still, find a way of anonymously asking some of your own customers in the “business”). I guarantee you’ll see more eyes roll, or hear more things like “what, you mean the department of ‘no’?” than you will hear gushing praise for the genius technology wizards that help people do great things. If you don’t then I am envious of you, but if you do, then you should take it as a big signal that something needs to change, and quick.

The role of the IT Pro is fundamentally to serve the business and to find new ways for technology to help the business evolve and become more successful. We are needed now more than ever but we have to respect that our customers are different, their expectations and aspirations of technology have changed – rather brilliantly, they’re much, much higher (in some cases higher even than our own). Instead of fighting this or even simply being complacent about it we should instead be celebrating it. Trust me, having customers that actually want more from what you have to offer is a far, far better place than having customers that are oblivious or uninterested.

I know what we’ve learnt is important – things like resilience, disaster recovery, data regulation, and security are crucial elements of our past but they cannot be used as they so often are, as the excuses that ultimately will only succeed in sealing our demise.

I’m not arguing for a minute that we should throw the baby out with the bathwater and forget all of our hard learned lessons. But we have to remember that our job now is simply to find the right balance. We need to figure out just how much of the policy, structure and process we can strip away to help keep our people and organisations safe, productive and efficient whilst at the same time getting back to our original day job of helping our customers transform their business.

We must realise that the future success of the IT Pro is in our own hands, we have to rise up and stand high on the shoulders of the digital giants we have helped to create. We need to leave behind the comfort of the flashing lights and the reassuring hum of the fans in the server rooms and instead implant ourselves back at the heart of every aspect of the business we serve.

The time for IT Pros to rise is now, our future and the success of our businesses depend on it.

An edited version of this article was originally published on Computing.

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Work smarter, not harder

July 31st, 2014

failshutterstock_124904114“Work smarter not harder!” has become a mantra for anyone looking to survive in the 21st Century workforce, and yet, the concept of working “smarter” has presented a massive problem for both individuals and organisations alike.

The key challenge in unpicking what “smarter” might actually mean is that to be smarter you need to be able to think differently about what you need to do.

Unfortunately, over the years, our definition of productivity has morphed to become much more focused on the “process” of work rather than the “outcome” and this is at the heart of the problem we face in trying to understand how we can work more effectively.

Microsoft recently did a study of working habits in the UK, and what we found was mildly disturbing. Of key concern for me, was that from those surveyed, 77% of UK workers felt that a productive day in the office was spent “clearing email”. This is but one example of the problem of failing to identify smarter working – since when did the process of work become email itself? By disconnecting ourselves from the outcome of our work in this way (either as individuals or organisations), we are forcing ourselves down an increasingly narrow path where the only option left is to tweak the process rather than to think about achieving the outcome via a different (smarter) route.

Another classic example is provided by “multitasking” – another myth about effective working in modern times. The truth is of course is that multitasking is an entirely computer based concept, it is not a human trait and quite simply the brain is simply not designed to do more than one thing a once (well, not do them well anyway). Recent studies continue to show the cognitive (and productive) inefficiencies of this workplace strategy – human beings are basically a third less effective when they multi-task. This is as true for women as it is for men so there’s another myth usefully debunked.

What makes multitasking worse is that our brains take time to switch between contexts and return to the cognitively efficient place you were at before you switched task – on average that time is 23 minutes (again from our own studies). So not only are you a third less efficient, you introduce a massive time lag every time you switch tasks before you can harness the full power of your own cognitive capability.

Thankfully the answers are all relatively straight forward, and even better, do not rely on more technology in order to solve them. The key to all of this lies within our own gift, as it is us the humans that control our own efficiency, not the machines.

First and foremost, you need to get really focused on the outcome of the work you need to do – if you understand what the outcome is and not the process you think you need to follow in order to complete it, you open yourself up to a world of smarter working possibilities.

With the outcome firmly in mind, there are other small changes that can be a big help. Simple things, like ensuring you are in the most appropriate environment for the work you have to do, are key to your success – don’t sit in your busy, chaotic open plan office if you need to do some heavy thinking. Equally, don’t be sat working at home or in a quiet space when you need to be collaborating with others.

Focus on a daily task list and carve up your day accordingly, if you want to be more productive – which in my definition means producing more quality output, make sure that when you need to do the hard thinking work, turn off your phone, turn off your email and social media notifications and work in short 30 minute bursts of focused effort. At the end of each 30 minute period, you can check your phone and email but in a managed window of time. Repeat throughout the day as necessary until you’ve completed all your tasks.

Smarter working is within everyone’s reach and the technology we all have available to us can make it happen, but ultimately it’s up to us to change our own behaviour in order for us to finally make a lasting difference in our effectiveness at work.

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