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The Death of Standards and the Birth of the Personal Productivity Cocoon

By Mark Settle  |  Posted 02-15-2011 Print

As Americans have become more IT aware, and IT adept, it has become increasingly difficult for IT shops to keep up with their ever-changing tastes and predilections. Most IT shops have an approach to end-user computing that is akin to McDonald's, trying to furnish a limited selection of products reliably and consistently. The only problem is that our users (and their friends and families) have been dining at some higher-end establishments, and they are looking for a whole lot more variety in their personal technology capabilities.

In his autobiography My Life and Work, Henry Ford writes that one morning, in 1909, he announced to his sales team that in the future, the company was only going to build one model automobile, the Model T, and that the chassis would be exactly the same for all cars. Ford writes: "...and I remarked: 'Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black.' "

Such uniformity may be good for assembly line productivity. Motivated by similar productivity drivers, IT shops put similar limitations on the tools they are willing to procure and support for their end users. This is rapidly becoming a losing strategy. It's difficult to maintain device standards when half of the members of your executive team bought themselves iPads for Christmas.

Smartphones and tablets are creating an interesting problem for IT organizations. Our users are not moving to new Internet access devices at the expense of old ones -- they are adopting new devices in addition to the old ones. Our employees are building their own, personalized technology workbenches in the same way that a blacksmith or furniture maker of yesterday would have configured his or her personalized workbench. A smartphone, tablet, laptop, and home PC and printer are basic components of every knowledge worker's tool belt.

To add insult to injury, our employees are starting to subscribe to mobile applications that allow them to access information they can't get through company-furnished applications and databases. They also have a much keener appreciation of the obstacles that limit their productivity, so they subscribe to applications that will forecast traffic conditions, find Starbucks locations, update airline departure times, etc., to overcome their personal obstacles.

Most IT shops bemoan the difficulty of supporting and securing smartphones and tablets. Mobile applications may be constructed on Apple, Google, Microsoft, and HP/Palm operating systems and accessed on a dizzying array of physical devices. The challenge to the standard end user support team seems totally overwhelming.

I contend that the threat to "business as usual" is much more profound and insidious. The real problem is that most IT shops are geared to fight a classic European set piece battle, forming up in structured ranks to frontally assault a business problem or challenge. We like to build large, complex applications with scripted workflows, automated approval processes, hard integrations with other systems, etc. Unfortunately, we are about to be drawn into a guerrilla war whether we like it or not.

During any given year, most IT shops typically deliver new business capabilities to their internal clients through a couple of hundred releases that introduce new applications or, more commonly, enhance old ones. By contrast, Android developers are releasing more than 10,000 applications every month. Admittedly, many of these mobile applications have very little business significance, but some are clear productivity boosters. Little by little, our end users will gradually adopt specific mobile applications and build their own unique productivity "cocoons," customized for their needs. I fully expect that in three years or less, many of our employees will be routinely accessing mobile applications at their work desks, because they will have become an integrated and essential part of the way work is performed.


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