Constant Connectivity: The Way We Work Today

By Mark Settle  |  Posted 02-15-2011

Constant Connectivity: The Way We Work Today

What Is Work in 2011?

It's a commonly known fact that over the past 40 years the number of farm and manufacturing jobs in America has declined while the number of service jobs and knowledge workers has grown. It's equally obvious that information technology has played a key role in enabling and leading the transformation of everyday work. For example, traditional farm and manufacturing jobs use IT to provide workers with up-to-date information about weather conditions, irrigation needs, stock inventory, etc. The cabs of many tractors and harvesters have been transformed into instrumented cockpits, with GPS locators, onboard navigation, PC displays, and intercom capabilities to ensure that their operators are constantly connected to job-critical information.

At the end of the day (and at the beginning), workers at home employ another assemblage of technology to stay connected to a world that is increasingly of their own making. Wi-Fi provides Internet access throughout the household and can be used for stock trading, vacation planning, gambling, retail purchases, video gaming, or Skyping with friends. Tweets, texts, e-mails, and RSS feeds provide a steady stream of information -- some for entertainment, some for education, some for work, and some for pure serendipity. (Let's face it, sometimes it's just plain cool to look up an arcane baseball statistic, find out what was served at last night's White House state dinner, or see a real-time video display of Times Square during a snowstorm.)

In any given 30 minutes at work, I might read e-mails from my desktop support team in Frankfurt a distressed sales rep in England, the leader of one of my application support teams in Bangalore, and a note from my wife reminding me I need to leave work early. I might schedule a four-person teleconference for later in the week, select a hotel for a business trip to New York, review my son's resume and provide some tips, update a PowerPoint presentation, issue written instructions about the format of an upcoming operations review, review stock analysts' reports on a technology company whose products are of potential interest to us, check on snow conditions in Park City (in preparation for a ski weekend later in the month), and adjust the duration of my last meeting of the day to ensure that I'm complying with my wife's instructions.

Following dinner at home, I might go online to review my late-day e-mail traffic from work, check stock prices, see if I've been upgraded on the flight to New York, briefly run through the slides I intend to use at my 9 a.m. meeting the next day, and make a dinner reservation for the weekend.

Any reader of this article could easily substitute his or her own sequence of activities, but the point is this: When did work start and when did work stop during this hypothetical workday? The simple truth is that the Internet and the devices we have created to access it have removed all physical, temporal, and spatial boundaries from work. In fact, work can pretty much happen in any setting, anytime, anywhere a work-related thought crosses your mind. An inconvenient consequence of this simple truth is that the employees of most American corporations expect their IT groups to supply them with the data and applications they require to act upon their work-related thoughts in any setting, anytime and anywhere.

In his book The Innocents Abroad, published in 1869, Mark Twain made this observation: "In America, we hurry--which is well; but when the day's work is done, we go on thinking of losses and gains, we plan for the morrow, we even carry our business cares to bed with us." In his worst nightmares, Twain never could have imagined how we have transformed our obsession with work into a 24x7 addiction through the use of modern information technology.

Here's a story that supports Twain's observation: In my recent travels, a fellow CIO told me that his network team had discovered a sharp secondary peak in daily VPN traffic, extending roughly from 8 p.m. to midnight on most weeknights. Thousands of this company's employees were logging back onto the company network every week at night to check e-mail, access SharePoint files, surf the Internet, etc.

The CIO ran a simple Zoomerang survey to determine why this traffic was occurring. There were two predominant reasons. The first was that people wanted to "get caught up" from the previous workday or "get a head start" on the next day. This would appear to be a perfectly logical and reasonable explanation.

The other dominant response was, "I log on because it's a more appealing use of my time than any other activity that is available to me." I personally find that response to be a little disturbing, but truth be told, I'm probably guilty of it myself.

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

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.

Just look at the numbers: Even if 90% of the Android applications have zero business relevance, that still equates to 1,000 applications of potential interest per month, relative to the 200 that a productive IT shop might deliver in a year. It's a numbers game whose outcome is largely preordained. The application guerrilla war we are about to be drawn into is far more significant than the device support and security issues that occupy much of today's debate regarding the role of smartphones and tablets in the enterprise.

Personal Privacy and Information Security in a Constantly Connected World

In the book Nineteen Eighty-Four (published in 1949), author George Orwell wrote of a future dystopia in which an all-seeing force tracks the movements of all citizens in a mythical country called Oceania. Surely, no reader of this article believes that Orwell's vision of "Big Brother" has not become, at least, technologically possible in America today. The technology is certainly in place to track the day-to-day, hour-to-hour, or even minute-to-minute activities of most knowledge workers.

Our electronic fingerprints are everywhere, from E-ZPass toll booths, to credit card readers, to bank ATMs, to AOL/Gmail/Hotmail messaging, to cell towers, to Facebook and other social networking sites, to ... you fill in the blank. Anyone who believes that he or she can disguise or camouflage their electronic existence is seriously delusional. Anyone who believes he or she  can maintain multiple electronic personas -- a work persona, a play persona, a parental persona, a political persona, etc. -- needs to read Internet Protocols for Dummies.

Most IT shops instinctively turn discussions about information security into debates about network engineering, spawning endless conversations regarding future technology investments that will help secure the transport layer, the network layer, the data link layer, etc.. IT groups instinctively avoid a discussion of the social engineering and social discipline required to truly protect a company's information assets.

Let's take a simple analogy that everyone can relate to. I personally have no desire to share my annual W2 forms with my college-aged children. They are already getting enough of my money. The last thing I want them to realize is the remaining amount that they aren't getting. The technology solution to this problem would be to reserve a room in my house for my confidential W2 files, secure it with retinal eye scan technology, install laser intruder alarms in the room to thwart unwanted visitors, and finally require finger print scans to open the file itself. The simpler solution is that I just put the W2 forms in a place where they can't get them. Embargo all access -- it's worked so far.

The same thing is true in private industry. Go talk to a hedge fund company or an investment firm that caters to "high wealth" individuals. Undoubtedly, these companies will have sophisticated technology to secure their IT assets, but more importantly, all employees will realize that their livelihood and personal job security is critically dependent upon avoiding the leakage of sensitive information. When USB ports are disabled on their PCs, they don't complain. When they are told that they can't have remote access to company systems, they don't complain. They "get it": An inadvertent security lapse could put them completely out of business and out of their jobs.

Many high-tech companies also "get it." When their executives travel overseas, they leave their personal PCs and BlackBerrys behind and employ loaner devices that carry only the information required to conduct the activities scheduled for that particular trip. Their intellectual property is too valuable to be transported casually outside the confines of their company's labs and headquarters.

Managing information security is a little like eliminating access to inappropriate content in the workplace. It's hard to get people to "clean up their act" until the threat of losing a job comes into play. If you are experiencing a loss of productivity due to the existence of suggestive information in the workplace, set a mandate with termination as a consequence. You will be amazed at the drop in access to offensive sites and content. The same is true for information security: Establish clear policies with clear penalties and just start performing some scans and searches. It's a lot more intrusive but a lot less expensive than buying more network security tools.

An IT Manifesto for the Constantly Connected Workforce

The subtitle of Stanley Kubrick's iconic 1964 movie Dr. Strangelove was How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Maybe CIOs in 2011 need to adopt a similar mantra: "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Smartphones and Tablets." Most of our employees already have their electronic tool belts, fully equipped with smartphone, tablet, laptop, and home PC and printer. IT shops that are in denial, hoping the complexity of this landscape will somehow disappear over time, are sadly mistaken.

It's time to switch from being a reactionary force trying to hold onto the status quo to demonstrating true technology leadership by proactively supporting the use of new access devices throughout the enterprise. We need to develop a new "support contract" with the employees using these various devices. Here are three steps we can take today:

Step 1: Continue to support a very limited number of standard "tool belts" (maybe one?) for the IT-challenged employees who still remain in every large company, but promote and evangelize the use of other devices with the "buyer beware" caveat that support issues will largely be resolved through self service. Properly managed, this should become an exercise in expectation setting: If you use a standard, supported device, we (IT) can help you solve your problems. If you elect to use something different, we can only go so far (defining what so means) in helping you when something goes wrong. That approach won't work in all circumstances but will provide an 80%+ solution for the majority of problems encountered by users of unsupported devices.

Step 2: Embrace the reality of mobile applications. It will take a while to redeploy existing headcount from the support of legacy applications and give them new skills for mobile application development. In the meantime, IT should become a clearinghouse for "cool apps" that are already commercially available. Eventually, IT should be churning out its own monthly collection of "cool" mobile applications, but until that dream can become a reality, just start promoting other people's products and learn how to be an "early adopter" of mobile tools that are already out there.

Step 3: Start Web-enabling everything. Become an internal software-as-a-service (SaaS) provider to your own employees, and provide your users with browser-based access to the applications they need to perform their jobs. Look at the capabilities you are offering, and think about your users' desires to access those capabilities in any setting, at anytime, anywhere.

The three steps outlined above are tactical responses to the situation we find ourselves in. Two other, more fundamental, changes are desperately needed in the way we do business:

  • We need a new mental model for application development. We need to stop behaving like 19th century British generals and more like 21st century guerilla freedom fighters. We need a whole new paradigm for application development based upon user "pull" rather than IT "push." Users want to subscribe to the portions of applications they need to do useful work; that's why they minimize so many applications on their desktops everyday. They need only slivers of the large, complex applications we've constructed in the past. Ideally, they would like to assemble much smaller components of these applications into portals that are customized for their unique needs. And they are coming to expect "zero latency" in the databases that are feeding these application components. Building highly componentized applications, with real-time data interfaces that can be accessed on a subscription basis, is a radically new development paradigm for most IT shops, but one that we will all eventually be forced to adopt.
  • As a profession, we need to stop hiding behind network engineering as the ultimate cure for all security ills. We are going to have to participate in a much more difficult social conversation within our companies and start restricting data access instead of application access. Data is the ultimate source of competitive advantage. Every company needs to determine what data is critical to its health and survival, and restrict the dissemination of that data on a true need-to-know basis. That will be a far more difficult conversation to have in most companies than debating the most appropriate tool for securing the transport layer. But ultimately, it will be a far more effective way to manage security-related risks and liabilities.

Pundits like to use Facebook and Twitter as the ultimate examples of how constantly connected we all have become. I don't need to observe the behavior of my college kids to convince myself that we live in a constantly connected world. I can find clearer examples much closer to home. When my wife gets up in the morning, she turns on the computer before she turns on the coffee maker (and before she talks to me). That's the world I live in today.

About the Author

Mark Settle, chief information officer for BMC Software, joined the company in 2008. He has served as the CIO of four Fortune 300 companies: Corporate Express, Arrow Electronics, Visa International, and Occidental Petroleum. Settle has worked in a variety of industries including consumer products, high-tech distribution, financial services, and oil and gas. He received his bachelor and master's degrees from MIT and a PhD from Brown University. He is also a former Air Force officer and NASA Program Scientist.