If current systems don’t adapt to the changes being brought about by digital, social and mobile trends, new ones will come along and replace them

Imagine the following scenario. Two employees work together co-authoring an important document for an organisation. They work from their own tablet devices, storing and updating the document from a folder within a personal Dropbox account. In short, they have completely bypassed all systems deployed by the company they work for.

Are you a) horrified or b) impressed?


When I describe this scenario to senior management and/or IT folk, they are mostly horrified. Yet these are not employees trying to do any harm to their organisation. Quite the opposite. They are being more productive than they can be within the constraints of many enterprise systems. Can you get a more engaged and enthusiastic employee than one who will invest their own time and money to get stuff done? Yet the natural reaction is to try and stop what they are doing. There is only one scenario when that is a good idea – if the data is of such a sensitive or confidential nature that you would not want it stored online or transmitted outside the organisation. Those documents represent a tiny fraction of all information created and stored on enterprise business systems. And they have a habit of leaking anyway… Most information security procedures fail in their intent. As was succinctly put at Ovum’s CIO forum earlier this year:

Locks just keep honest people out
– Paul Hayley, CIO, London City University

Digital, social and mobile technologies are disrupting the traditional workplace. Few people would disagree with that sentiment. The challenge is how best to embrace the disruptions and what processes need to be redesigned to accommodate the changes.

Just looking at mobile trends, they are disruptive to enterprise business systems in two very different ways:

  1. Changing how, where and when people are able to interact with information
  2. Changing expectations about the design and usability of applications

‘Mobile economic time’ is creating 30 extra days per year
– CA Technologies, 2013

Another quote at Ovum’s CIO forum earlier this year. We are interacting with information far more as a result of mobile devices. Whether it is on the train, plane or the sofa, we are spending more time online without needing the flat surface required for a traditional computer. Tablets enable us to be more productive, if we can access the information we need. For many, that is currently easier to do with content held outside the organisation.


And not having a flat surface highlights the other shift – how we interact with information. Natural user interfaces – touch, speech and motion – demand a different approach to designing applications. Fiddly little boxes and tiny links may be tolerated when using a mouse (or stylus, if you must) but are simply not practical when on the move.

When Apple first introduced the iPhone in 2007, it was mocked by many for not having buttons at a time when the industry leaders were expanding mobile phones to including tiny keyboards. And now?

By 2017, more words will be typed on glass than on keyboards
– Gartner CIO Symposium, 2013

But Apple did something else too. They shifted user expectations of design. I don’t know anybody who liked the ugly beige design of early PCs. But the alternative was a lot more expensive. Now it has gone mainstream and enterprise software needs to play catch-up. Plenty of organisations have developers within their IT departments who can craft amazing solutions to meet business needs. But few include interaction or user interface design experience in the team. It is still too often treated as an after thought, a ‘nice to have if you can afford it’. Whilst enterprise systems remain unintuitive and cumbersome to use, engaged and motivated employees will seek out alternatives.

Quote: I don't use the word

Image source: Twitter @seriouspony

To put some context around the quote, the person behind @seriouspony is the wonderful Kathy Sierra (we share a love of horses) who penned the excellent Creating Passionate Users blog before the Internet trolls came hunting. I agree with her sentiment. Passion only gets you so far. I’m passionate about immersive media but I can’t (yet) imagine making a living from it. And passion is not enough to disrupt the status quo in an organisation. For that, we need activist employees. Bad-ass users who simply won’t accept current ways of working and will find better alternatives.

Satisfaction drives mastery while
dissatisfaction energises innovation

There is a lot of talk about Generation Y entering the workplace and demanding a different environment to previous generations, desiring meaning and purpose. This is not new. It is an innate human trait to seek fulfillment and want to do things that matter. What’s changed is the shift in power and control from organisations to the individual.

The industrial revolution created a structure that raised the standard of living for millions of people. But it came with conditions – you trade the majority of your healthy adult life working for an organisation in return for regular payments that enable you to provide for your family. You do not challenge the system because the alternative, if you do not have inherited or accumulated wealth or sponsorship, is to do hard manual labour, be destitute or subsist on welfare handouts. The information age isn’t creating a radically new world, it is creating the global connected version of an old one, local markets and personalised trade between individuals through conversations and relationships. The cost of starting up your own business has reduced dramatically (interestingly, the marketing costs have risen exponentially, but that may be a topic for another post.) Many more people now have a viable alternative, as consumers, as employees, as participants. If current institutions and business systems don’t adapt, new ones will replace them.

This is part of a series looking into next-generation IT and the future workplace.

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Hacker!Featured image: iStockPhoto

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