Collaborative Technology and Collaborative People

07 June 2015

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A few weeks ago I introduced the subject of “collaborative technology”.  My good friend, David Bowie (no, not that one) has embarked on a fascinating new venture, called 1 Virtual World Ltd, which will take this concept to the worldwide business market and, I suspect, generate a huge amount of interest.

The essential problem he is seeking to tackle is that while technology can solve many of the world’s problems, and in particular the way communication issues are improved as distances are shortened as a result of VOIP, Skype and other technologies, companies tend to overlook, or at least underestimate, the human element.  As I wrote last time, the focus is “often only on the software to integrate and support the different strands of the business to improve efficiency and productivity on a worldwide scale”.

This concentration on technology may seem obvious. Mr. Bowie has spent his entire career in IT and consequently would be expected to espouse its benefits, but his insight, developed over many years’ practical experience as a Director at a huge, international oil services company, is that it is indeed the human element that is crucial to making a worldwide technological solution work.  This seems obvious but in reality it frequently does not happen.

As Jacob Morgan founder of The Future Organisation comments “It’s no wonder that the majority of employees around the world don’t like their jobs and there is one key reason for that. Work practices, attitudes, values, strategies, technologies, and ways of working are evolving and changing at a rapid pace, whereas organizations remain stagnant when it comes to adapting to these changes.”

It is the mix of the technological and human elements and how firms integrate them in a virtual (as well as real) world that are important.  Get it wrong and projects fail.  To illustrate this, a call centre I know of in Scotland, struggling to recruit staff, and especially to retain them, wanted to hire people to work from home. Yet their HR team was concerned that “they’ll just do a bit of work, then go and get a coffee and generally skive”.  They went on with it though, introducing technology that would allow such homeworking, but gave up after a few months.  This was quite a few years ago, but I suspect that the real issue was that while the human element was part of everyone’s thinking there was no proper consideration of the necessity for virtual team training with the call centre staff and managers.  It sounds like a classic ‘put the technology in place and it will just happen’ scenario. But the thinking was almost right. There was a perceived need to change the way employees were working, but the management, execution and delivery were not good enough.  Teleworking models can work, but if they place an undue reliance on the technology rather than the people they fail.  Even though call centres have, of necessity, developed a multi-channel approach to their customers, they are still largely dependent on human interaction for success.

That call centre was trying to tackle a recruitment and retention problem.  Extend this to a UK-wide level and consider our world-leading capability in the Games business.  Dundee is a major centre, with lots of talented people living and working around the city, but companies there need more talent to stay ahead of the game (if you’ll pardon the pun). If you have the necessary skills but are living in Essex and don’t want to move, then, in the ‘traditional’ model, you’d probably be difficult to employ. 

Extrapolate this further to a worldwide firm like Unilever who are looking to have 30% of their 175,000 employees be location-independent by 2015. With the problems of skills shortages, compounded by quality education and talent being unevenly distributed globally, you can see how it makes sense to develop a model that integrates people and technology and opens up expertise pools internationally. It was David Bowie’s experience in making this happen, developed over the last decade in the global oil business that fuelled his interest and led to the creation of his new enterprise.  It will address some fundamental questions that are increasingly asked by companies worldwide as they strive to recruit and integrate the best talent so it works smoothly as a coherent, profitable unit.

Technology, of course, allows people to work remotely, but how do you integrate these individuals with the rest of the team, not just technologically but on a human level, so everyone can collaborate effectively and efficiently?  Managing remote staff “virtually”, working in distributed teams, increasing flexibility, reducing office costs and improving the quality of life for employees are all benefits of a more structured approach - what Mr. Bowie and his new company call Collaborative Excellence.  How this all dovetails, and how the future might look, will be the subject of the third, and final, blog of this series.

Gareth Biggerstaff, MD, Be-IT Resourcing

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