In 2010 I posted Sometimes a phone is just a phone and a web site is just a web site. It discussed what I thought at the time was important in a smartphone, e.g., phone service, web access, email — the basics — and was based on recent Blackberry experience and anticipation of getting an iPhone.
What I hadn’t counted on was how rapidly smartphones and tablet computers are altering how people collaborate, communicate, and work.
People are learning how to take advantage of mobile technologies. I’ve already posted about my personal experience using the iPhone and about the impact of mobile technologies on project management. I don’t think my experiences are unique.
I was reminded of these ideas when Jim MacLennan commented on my recent post about Microsoft’s Surface computer, Why Microsoft’s ‘Surface’ Tablet/Netbook Will Succeed. Jim said:
I agree that Office integration and a keyboard may help adoption - but isn’t that just extending the PC / desktop metaphor into a smaller / leaner form factor? Would really be interesting if someone came up with a way to get the embedded Office workers off of the expensive MS Office suite (and I know about LibreOffice and Google Docs etc … I’m talking about something really different …)
My response to Jim, somewhat paraphrased:
Yes, my point was that the Surface basically just extends the PC/desktop metaphor into a “…smaller/leaner form factor.” That’s why it will succeed (if priced and supported correctly).
But I agree that something different is needed. We may already be seeing something different with the rise of cellphones and tablet computers in popularity. They are not just small more portable versions of laptops or desktops. For example, when I send emails now I try to keep in mind that the likelihood my message will be read on a mobile device rather than a PC is high. I need to design the contents — and the links I frequently include — to be usable on both a mobile device and on a standard device.
In other words, I’m now modifying my behavior to accommodate the reality of how my messages are being received and in some cases acted upon via mobile as well as traditional platforms. I’m sure others are doing the same.
Extend this concept of that chain to other work related activities and ask what other business processes are being modified at either end or along the way to accommodate the different feature sets of the tools.
To some extent, mobile devices are enabling workers to reengineer business processes on their own terms. When a worker is authorized to use his or her own iPhone or Android phone to send and receive company emails, for example, workers must also deal with how they manage the back and forth and collaboration involved in daily work. Add in the need to access links to documents, intranet pages, and accessible work-oriented applications or data sources, and the reality is that business process “reengineering” cannot be completely controlled by the employer.
Yes, in many cases the employer must still address document retention, security, privacy, and archiving issues. Legal discoverability must still be addressed. In many cases, though, the “torch has been passed” from IT to work groups whose primary goal is getting work done, with or without IT’s involvement.
This brings us back one of Jim’s themes: the need to move beyond a “traditional” feature-rich toolset like Microsoft Office to something smaller, simpler, and nimbler. I’m not saying we won’t continue to need documents and spreadsheets of the types that Office is used to generate. The actual and perceived need to support such documentation “habits” is one of the reasons I think the Surface and its keyboard will succeed.
What I am saying is that processes and workflows that have evolved around such complex file structures will inevitably, under the influence of mobile technologies’ support for enhanced verbal and gesture based communication and collaboration, morph into different processes and workflows that don’t need to retain the overhead of complex documentation. After all, why have everyone review and modify a complex document sent around via email if a team member can call an on the spot virtual meeting to make a decision and keep the project moving ahead?
We are already seeing this type of evolution in the workplace as more employees are authorized to use their own devices as working tools and as alternatives are sought to tools like Office.
The evolution will still need to be managed, though, if we want to ensure that mobile and social technologies actually increase rather than decrease productivity. For that to happen management will have to learn to use the new tools effectively in order to lead the way. For some that won’t be so easy.
Copyright (c) 2012 by Dennis D. McDonald. Dennis is a Washington DC area consultant specializing in collaborative project management and new technology adoption. His clients have included the US Department of Veterans Affairs, the US Environmental Protection Agency, the National Library of Medicine, the National Academy of Engineering, and the World Bank Group. Contact Dennis via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 703-402-7382.