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The Coming Culture Storm

Every technology follows the Gartner hype cycle and mobile computing is no different. Today, when we think of the unseemly consequences of mobile, they tend to be around issues like vendor lock-in or lack of device interoperability. The recent legal war between Apple and Samsung (really, Google) shows that there is still a lot to figure out. But there’s a subtle dark side to mobile computing that will test organizations in a new and totally unexpected way. It will challenge prevailing management models. It will force businesses to choose between a sinking quagmire of mediocrity or to opt for the high risk and rewards of pursuing excellence.

With the explosion of mobile devices and their capabilities has come an explosion in personal productivity. Mobile is driving down the transaction cost of “work”. On vacation? Use Tomo. Need a reservation? Use OpenTable. Need to report a pothole? Take a photo with your iPhone and upload it. Mobile is driving a wave of innovation and with it, an acceleration of information that demands a physical response. So much so that organizations are struggling to keep up.

We are so capable in our personal lives that when we show up to work to and saddle up to a locked down computer, we get the sense that our organizations are content with their employees being productive at a fraction of what they could be. We open up the main software that we use in our portion of the business (look here) and get to work. The application is clunky and violates the “3-click rule” all over the place. But there are hidden upsides to everyone using enterprise software.

The only reason anyone ever installs software is to facilitate behavior change. Enterprise wide software is an organizational wide mandate to comply and perform workflows in a uniform fashion. This has been a boon for organizations as variance on the quality of work is minimized. Errors can be made traceable via things like exception reports. In a way, enterprise applications took the factory floor model of work and digitized it. It might feel unfair but it’s accurate. Think about what happens when you’re configuring or crafting software. You sit down with the end-users and gather stories about how they do work and craft epics out of them. The agreements for how work will be done made in those meetings will be reified within the software. In a constrained environment where the capital for computing existed primarily within the organization’s IT department, this model was a perfect fit. When you started employment, you signed your employment documents, found your desk, and was assigned a user ID and a computer with the organization’s software already installed on it. Perhaps for no other reason than it was too expensive to bring your own device to work and challenge the status quo.

The challenge for traditional IT is that, today, those things are changing. Costs are so low and devices have been miniaturized to the point that it is not uncommon for today’s knowledge worker to have a smart phone, a tablet, and a personal computer. How can you not, as a business, feel a little jealous knowing how efficient your employees are outside the organization? Wouldn’t it be great to just capture a slice of the empowered productivity that is happening outside of your business walls? As employees, isn’t it frustrating to sit down at your desk and go 35 MPH when you know you could go 70?

The first compelling desire that begets a mobile device is to be unchained from the desk. This allows one to connect with people and compute at precisely the right time. But the immediate question after being unchained is always, “Why can’t I work the way I live? I’m being issued an iPad at work but at home I use a Google Nexus, why can’t I just bring that in and use it? I’ll be a lot more efficient. You won’t have to train me and you won’t have to answer as many support questions.” The old answers around enterprise IT such as cost containment just doesn’t hold water like it used to. Nothing’s changed. They’re no less true than before. What’s changed is user expectations.

Like it or not, IT is being driven to render affordances to the business in the same way that affordances were granted to the IT elite such as the in-house developers. Some organizations, depending upon the sector they operate, the people they serve, and the make-up of the talent pool the business draws from, might be able to just issue a standard device and tightly control what software is installed on it. My intuition tells me that, like the principles of erosion, both user and vendor pressures will continue to deteriorate the boundaries between personal and professional computing until businesses will be forced to justify why they don’t support a BYOD program (See Kurt Richardson and Michael Lissack’s brilliant piece on the status of boundaries).

One can’t discuss BYOD without making a nod to the fact that Bring Your Own App and its friend, Cloud, just snuck into the room too. For horizontal applications like word processing, there is no issue. Microsoft Word is the standard and every word processing app from Google Docs on through to Apple’s Pages have no problem. It’s the specialized applications that unlock personal productivity that will be present challenges to the organization. Take for example, Sugar CRM. Sugar is brilliant, for $30 a month, one can have a personal CRM in the cloud with complete mobile integration. For the individual, this is a productivity enhancement. For the organization, it’s a cloud-based silo. As one Gartner analyst put it, “Organizational silos create artificial and limited datascapes.” This is the dilemma of the era. Just as the early internet upended the retail supply chain and started to put bookstores, shoe stores, and other retailers out of business, vendors are using cloud to target mobile devices heavily and upend the usual relationship departments had with each other via enterprise applications. The kicker? There’s nothing anyone can do to stop it. In a standard compliance based culture, fear would rule the day. “We catch you storing business data in unapproved cloud based apps and there will be hell to pay.” Fear has a limited lifespan because it only takes courage to evaporate its power. Compliance through fear, of course, undermines the larger purpose of mobile and BYOD, which is to empower staff and unleash productivity.

Let’s continue with the Sugar CRM example. The risk footprint of having customer data in the cloud, for most organizations, is quite small. The downside to it is that access to the data is limited to the person that purchased the subscription and, depending on how much they like to share, a few colleagues in the business. If the organization has a master data management program in place, then having key elements of an organization’s master data locked away without the organization being aware of will run counter to those efforts. Locked away data has zero value to the organization as a whole. As Mark McDonald points out, information value is achieved only through flow, not as a fixed asset. Information parallels energy in this regard, its value lies within what it enables one to do. Data sharing is something that many classic compliance based organizations struggle with.

The underlying issue isn’t a technology problem. It’s a people problem. Organizations are closed networks of recurring interactions that yield commitments to action (Espejo, Reyes). How an organization arrives at those commitments to action is increasingly important. Technology is just revealing problems that have always existed. Choice is the norm in this new era. In the past, compliance based organizational cultures could rely on a monopolistic approach to computing and work. Not so with mobile, BYOD, and cloud. Even now, without mobile and BYOD in place, there’s no reason why someone can’t use Google Drive or SkyDrive and other cloud apps to do work outside of the usual work setting. If they’re not already doing it and it’s not okay to do so within your organization then the primary reason is fear. Fear is a poor means for control. Fear, if nothing else, discredits the organization. Fear is a tool of the weak. I would challenge every reader to truly inspect what makes their organization so special that unstructured data such as Office documents must be stored on premise. IT, and really, the business as a whole, is now informally competing with ten thousand vendors. What must now occur is that the employees in the organization must choose to commit to performing work in a uniform way that allows the value of shared information to be unlocked for the good of the whole enterprise. The key term here is choose. To do this, every organization must embark on a journey to move from an organization of compliance where fear is the dominant currency to one of commitment where shared purpose is the dominant currency. This is the imperative of the modern era’s dilemma. Successful organizations must commit to a culture of shared information to move beyond mere mediocrity and risk falling to the usual twenty year lifespan of the typical business. Yes, that’s right. Look around you, in 20 years’ time, the majority of businesses around you will be out of business. Riding the knife’s edge of mediocrity increases one’s chances of being gobbled up by the trash heap of history.

This journey is one fraught with significant amounts of fear, uncertainty, and doubt. Organizations with compliance focused cultures will be challenged with where to even start. There is significant risk. Empowerment without alignment will result in the coherence of the business being tested. People will go all which way and that. Coming at a culture of shared data obliquely is a shrewd move. This is because what we’re truly interested in has more to do with how people relate to each other and the organization than it does with data itself. It turns out that a great place to start is employee safety. Not the usual way of inspecting workplaces but sitting down with staff and asking them truly how to make their workplaces better and more productive and delivering on it. Compliance based cultures have appeared necessary in the past because organizations have struggled with employee-relationship reciprocity. Heroes in the business that are lauded are those that sacrifice the most. It’s time to exit the age of the individual hero and sacrifice. Ask anyone with LEAN training, cultures of heroism produce significant amounts of waste. It’s the age of the highly productive team and that means new ways of relating are imperative.

In IT, what are we called to do? These changes can seem very scary. Few predicted these changes would arrive with the speed they did and, for the most part, IT ignored them. Look at how dismissive people are of the Windows 8 interface today. Windows 8 didn’t innovate in this space. Apple did with OS X years ago. No one was paying attention when Apple set the standard. It looked like a silly migration of the iOS UI to the desktop. Well, Microsoft committed to the change too and now we know what the future looks like. Are we still going to be dismissive?

We have significant work ahead of us. Our ERPs assume desktop input. With myriad devices to support, we will be called to open up our systems (all of them, systems of record, systems of differentiation, and systems of innovation). Have we loosely coupled our systems? Did we lock our business logic into proprietary systems that won’t play nice with others? Do we have a service oriented architecture in place? Have we truly committed to it or have we just all agreed that it’s a good idea? Have we committed to mobile web concepts like responsive design? Do we have the network infrastructure in place to support the desire to compute from everywhere? Inspect the programs the staff in your organization are using today. If you were to give them a tablet today, would it achieve value beyond a bigger screen for email?

IT must commit to respond to these changing times by discarding its usual dismissiveness and start preparing the systems people rely to do their work to be supportive of mobile computing for a vast array of types, understanding that cloud will have a significant role to play in the way that people will do work. What policies, procedures, and guidelines will you have in place to ensure that staff engages with IT instead of going around you and building cloud based shadow IT systems? IT must become the trusted leader in the organization. The first step in doing this is honoring the concerns of your colleagues at large and working with them to find practical solutions. They too, must learn to honor your concerns as well. This can only come from dialogue and not discussion.

Organizational leadership at large must recognize that, no matter what IT does to facilitate these changes, a fundamental shift in the mental models we use for management must occur. How we see employee motivation and behavior must change as well. Outdated organizational systems that emphasize compliance are wasteful and disempowering. The modern, highly talented knowledge worker has employment choices and they won’t choose you. You mission and vision statement might mention excellence and that people are valued but are those values baked into your business processes and other organizational systems?

IT must lead in this era. There is no other choice. What it means to lead is achieve commitment to action when people can say, “No!”

I’ll let one of my favorite Gartner speakers play us out. The future is yours, all you have to do is commit to it. Every day.