Technology remains as the great enabler within the workplace, so long as organisations can culturally adapt to the change and the opportunities it can bring. In the realm of activity-based working, Australian enterprises are utilising all the tools at their disposal to allow for greater collaboration in the workplace, and in some cases extending that collaboration out to the customer.
CIO held roundtables in Sydney and Melbourne, examining how companies can exploit emerging technologies to provide greater flexibility in the workforce.
Mobility, coupled with bring-your-own-device (BYOD) strategies, and social networking, are topics featured heavily in the mix. More traditional technologies such as email, video and messaging are also being applied in new ways.
But the catch is that companies and their employees must be willing to adapt to new ways of working, and take greater responsibility for their own engagement with their corporate infrastructure for the full benefits to be achieved.
Hilda Clune, CIO at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) is at the vanguard of emerging trends. As a professional services business, PwC is already very familiar with managing issues around mobile workforces and has an infrastructure well equipped to adapting to new collaborative frames.
But of course, change never takes a holiday.
“From our perspective, activity-based working has always been a core principle for us by the very nature of what we do. So the challenge has always been to underpin that with new technologies and also with the physical environment.”
Clune says PwC spent the last three years transforming the technology tool set for its people and also creating a different mindset that allows for greater choice, and an emphasis around collaboration.
The company is already familiar with Hoteling workspaces — having staff book a desk each time they arrive at the office — and is now adapting its physical workspaces further to encourage the idea that the primary motivation for coming into the office is collaboration.
“We don’t talk about working from home anymore; we talk about working from anywhere,” she says.
PwC is also pushing hard with video technology and social networking solutions to allow for greater collaboration within the workplace and to also collaborate more in the future with clients.
Video and social networking are a prominent part of law firm Lander & Rogers’ plans to improve collaboration, according to Andrew Mitchell, its director, technology and innovation.
“Collaboration is a key part of office automation and some of the things we have been working on has involved video technology and VoIP [voice over IP]. In the social networking space, we are in the early stages of using Yammer internally,” he says.
“We have video on the phone, instant messaging and integration with the desktop, and we are looking at how we can integrate that with other systems.”
For Simon Richardson, IT director at Mercy Health, the issue of activity-based working is very different, and that is reflected in the challenges he faces.
“Clinical staff typically don't sit around a device, they interact with people. They don’t tend to collaborate much with each other unless they are participating in multidisciplinary meetings where they are specifically talking about a set of patients,” he says.
At Mercy Health — a private company providing health services for the public sector — systems are still typically paper based. “There is a big drive to get electronic systems and everyone has a different view of how to get there and what it is when you get there,” he says.
Richardson says, “Our discussion right now is do we digitise all the paper, or do we draw the line in the sand and say everything from this point on is digital?”
For Mercy Health, the enabling technologies revolve more around document management and data ware housing, although virtualisation, mobility and BYOD are starting to feature. Mercy Health’s board has asked the company to look at enabling greater collaboration between board members through mobile devices, for example.
CIO at Servcorp, Matthew Baumgartner, points out, “While activity-based working has predominantly been for larger organisations, the little guys are now getting a piece of the pie.” According to Baumgartner, the large numbers of Cloud-based collaboration technologies now available are making it economically viable for smaller businesses to realise the benefits of activity-based working.
“We have a number of small business clients based out of Sydney that have workers in Shanghai, Hyderabad, New York, and Hong Kong all collaborating together to build products, and these aren’t massive multinational companies. They are using the technology provided to realise the benefits of activity-based working, despite it being something predominantly only available for enterprises,” he says.
“Providing a mix of both mobile device technologies and collaborative platforms is almost table stake now.”
The opportunities afforded by mobility dominated the discussions of the CIOs at the roundtable, as too did related issues such as platform maturity, policy and security issues around BYOD strategies.
Karen Scott Davie, board director, Tasmanian Department of Economic Development, Tourism and Arts, believes embracing mobility is critical for many businesses, and not just the large corporations.
“SMEs in tourism have the opportunity to engage with potential and repeat customers through social media tools. These are more readily accessible on smartphones and tablet devices. If a potential customer has a question and they are online researching accommodation, operators have the opportunity to respond quickly to enquiries through various apps, tools and even email links on their mobile devices,” she said.
According to Scott Davie, in an age where users are becoming savvier, the expectation to be available online almost 24/7 means operators in her sector need to think and understand how their customers will behave online. “Embrace change and adapt.”
Maturity remains an issue though for many CIOs. While BlackBerry and to a lesser extent iOS devices from Apple are well evolved in areas such as management and security, other mobile operating systems still have some way to go.
According to Mercy Health’s Richardson, “We have had to change the way we do security for wireless networks. We have had to redesign a lot of things along the way to get there. We are finding that the Android devices are causing us a lot of work and you have to manually configure a lot these devices.”
Another key debate revolves around Web apps versus native apps. For her part, Clune believes a consensus is starting to emerge, with native phone apps likely to prove a transitionary technology for many as Web app technology matures.
“We have gone with a BYOD approach so we can invest in a capability that can be consumed on any device. It is important not to get tied down with a device that may not be prevalent in a few years’ time or get caught up in developing a capability that only has the shelf life of the hardware. We have seen how quickly the devices change.”
The other area where Clune believes there is a need for more maturity is around the capability of smart devices compared to laptops.
“There will continue to be a need for laptops and we can’t replace them yet with tablets. We all talk about the smart device and to me the tablet is just another smart device. There is still a major leap between the smart device and the laptop. Organisations like ours have 300 to 400 applications running at any one time and those applications broadly aren’t available today through a smart device,” she says.
“Web apps are the ultimate long term-goal, but it will take a long time to recreate what we have today in the current portfolio.”
For Servcorp, these issues are critical to its business, which involves providing managed technology services to companies. “While in a lot of ways we have been quite successful in freeing our clients from their desks using unified communications, smart devices are the next step in enabling our virtual office customers to choose the location and style in which they want to work,” Baumgartner says.
“Right now we see some risks, particularly around the management of smart devices. However, these risks should diminish as enterprise management tools mature over the next few years.”
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