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February 29, 2012 5:08 pm
Eight months in, Jim Ware has still not physically met two of the founders of his business. The San Francisco-based business consultant founded Occupiers Journal, a global facilities management company, with a London-based colleague and two others living in Hong Kong.
But thanks to video conferencing, email, and regular phone calls, their locations have hardly mattered. The business plan has been drawn up, the website designed and clients lined up just as efficiently as if they had all worked out of the same small office.
“I don’t think we could have started the business in this way five or 10 years ago,” says Mr Ware.
The company website was created in Alaska, while their part-time designer, Mr Ware’s son, was off duty from his other job as a helicopter ski guide.
“More and more people are working like this, collaborating with people who are halfway across the world,” says Mr Ware. “There are two things we can be pretty sure of about the future of business. One is that offices will be more distributed with people working in many different locations. The other is that, paradoxically, people will be collaborating more than ever before.”
It is not just small start-up businesses that are taking advantage of internet technology to set up in new and innovative ways. Many large companies are allowing employees to work flexibly from home or other locations.
IDC, the market research company, estimates that more than 1bn workers worldwide were capable of mobile working in 2010, and it expects this to rise to 1.3bn by 2015.
Ubiquitous internet coverage and mobile phone networks are making it easier to connect to the office remotely. Cloud computing, in which files are stored at a remote data centre and accessed anywhere, has made the physical office less necessary.
“Before, when I would go on a business trip, I would have to decide which files I would transfer to my laptop. And I would always forget something. Now I have a PC, a MacBook, an iPhone and an iPad, and because of cloud computing, I can get the same files on all of them,” Mr Ware says.
People are also expected to handle more information and respond to it much quicker, effectively changing the way they work. More sophisticated and faster analytical tools are now available to help managers track everything about their businesses in real time, from the number of cups of coffee being served across a beverage franchise, or the exact location of every pallet of goods ordered.
Procter & Gamble, the consumer goods group, has given 58,000 employees business intelligence dashboards showing current information about the company’s performance, so that they can instantly see issues as they arise, such as a drop in market share or sales. It is also working on a video platform that will allow staff to collaborate faster to solve problems indicated by the dashboards.
The importance of these systems is underscored by the fact that, at a time when P&G is cutting back on its manufacturing workforce, the company is planning a fourfold increase in the number of staff with business analytics expertise.
Companies are also starting to manage their employees through online tools. In future, the CV and the performance appraisal may disappear as companies not only attract and hire staff with the help of social networking sites such as LinkedIn and Twitter, but manage people throughout their career using social tools.
Young internet companies such as Facebook, Mozilla and Spotify, for example, have taken a new approach to managing employees by using an online social networking-style system called Rypple. Designed almost like a game, it allows people to quickly and informally send each other feedback on a daily basis that can then be collected together for an overall career assessment.
“No one really liked traditional career reviews, which they just saw as filling in forms. The world has really changed. It has become social, it has moved to the cloud and there has been a massive generation shift with 90m generation-Y employees coming in to offices in the US with new expectations. You can’t use a 50-year-old process for managing these people,” said Daniel Debow, the co-founder of Rypple, which was acquired by Salesforce.com at the end of last year.
Mr Debow says customers report they get up to 10 times as much feedback through a social network-based system as with traditional human resources assessment methods, and have seen the time taken for career assessments halve. More traditional companies, such as GE Insurance, are also adopting the system, he said.
“It is not just the hip young internet companies doing this. I get the same interest from drilling and insurance companies,” Mr Debow said. “There is a deep awakening that this is a societal shift in how people are collaborating and companies are realising that if they don’t bring these tools into their organisations, they will get left behind.”
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