How to drag your users out of the Stone Age

Too many businesses try to compete using last-century work habits. Here's how IT can help shift their outlook to this-century mastery

To run a 21st-century business, you need a 21st-century workforce. Unfortunately for many organizations, last-century techniques are holding employees back -- even in IT.

The employees who make up a 21st-century workforce treat information technology as a set of tools to be mastered, not as a set of applications that control their work. This is a crucial distinction, as 21st-century businesses rely more on business practices than processes, and business practices rely on the judgment, skill, and expertise of practitioners, which can't be automated but can be supported.

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This doubles IT's responsibilities in ushering in the 21st century at your company. After all, it takes more than a set of tools tailored to compete in today's business environment. It takes a willingness to facilitate mastery of those tools -- even to insist on it.

The 21st-century workforce challenge

To encourage a 21st-century workforce, we must first understand the kind of work that makes a 21st-century business hum: an emphasis on business practices over business processes wherever possible.

You might recall that business practices fall into three major categories:

  1. Single-actor practices, where one employee handles most or all of the work. Business analysis is an example.
  2. Hub-and-spoke practices, where one employee orchestrates the work, performing some of it while farming out tasks to other individuals and teams as needed to get the job done. Life-insurance claims processing generally takes this form.
  3. Team practices, where several individuals collectively take responsibility for doing the work. Just about every business project falls into this category.

Let's suppose your business benefits from hub-and-spoke practices, and you're the practitioner at the hub. You have work to assign to other individuals. You can:

  • Call each individual, explaining what you need and when it's due.
  • Leave a voicemail with each individual, following up later to make sure each assignee noticed the message.
  • Send assignments through your company's instant messaging system.
  • Send email messages detailing requests, enabling the read receipt feature for positive verification that each recipient read your message.
  • List all of the tasks on an Excel spreadsheet that includes the assignee and due date for each task on the list, then email a copy to all of the "spokes" who have assignments and tell them to please make sure they find their tasks and finish them on schedule.
  • Use Outlook's task list to assign the duties. What -- you didn't know you could do this? Yup, it's one of the features your friends probably complain about. They call it bloatware, which is defined as "features I haven't taken the time to learn to use, so they must be useless."
  • Define a workflow to parcel out assignments to all of the "spokes" for this chunk of work, using the workflow tools built into SharePoint, Notes, or whatever other workflow-enabled CMS your company has made available for this purpose.

Here's what's sad about this list: There's a near-perfect inverse relationship between the likelihood that a practitioner will choose a particular tool and that tool's effectiveness.

That is, based on the people I know, the most likely choices are telephone/voicemail, email, Excel, and instant messaging. They're also the tools that are least reliable and least useful from the perspective of making sure all work gets done right and on time.

At least, that's the case if both the practitioner and all of the assignees belong to a 21st-century workforce -- a workforce for which using these and other modern tools is second nature, and for whom (this is vitally important) the expectation of their use is baked into the company culture.

Getting to a 21st-century workforce -- a multicultural challenge

The question is how you get from here to there. The answer is the same as the answer to any culture change question: Define the culture you want, identify the changes in leader behavior needed to encourage it (starting with your own behavior), and replace any structural barriers to the change and with structural traits that encourage the change.

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