Coping With the Rapidly Changing Workplace: Call to Action 

Author: Mike Anderson                  Date: September 15, 2011

Topic: Workplace                             Research Note Number: 2011-14

Issues: What are the macro trends impacting the evolution of work?

What are the best practices for enabling a high productivity work environment?

Summary: Mobile, social and cloud computing are changing the way people work, the tools they use to do the work and the manner and pace in which they work. Coping with all of this change requires action at all levels, from individuals to enterprises. 

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Enterprises face new challenges and opportunities to harness new ways of working. The rapid evolution of technologies for mobile computing, social networking and working in “the cloud” demands new approaches from enterprises at a rate that is outpacing all but the most nimble, progressive and technology-savvy businesses (see Figure 1). The promise is to increase value through greater enterprise agility, workforce performance and productivity, and better collaborative engagement with customers and partners. The critical challenge will be maximizing the effectiveness of all the actions required by multiple people in the enterprise. We review who they are and what they need to do.


Figure 1: Essential Workplace Technologies

Enterprises need to embrace the mobile, work-anywhere environment and strive for an attractive workplace that will retain employees and engage collaborators, including customers and partners. Executives, managers, IT leaders and individual workers each have a certain level of accountability for embracing and managing this change and each constituency must prepare to take action.

Not every business will be affected by these changes in the same way or on the same schedule. However, many examples reflect how broadly the impact will reach. The level at which individuals are using personal smartphones and tablets to access enterprise networks and information is notable, and in many instances actual use is very different than IT organizations believe. Intranets are being supplanted by social networks and tools like wikis to drive improved sharing, collaboration and community.

In customer service, systems integrate extensive customer data with links to feeds from Twitter and Facebook to track issues and support customers, and often include the use of remote diagnostic apps with live interactions to help customers diagnose problems in real time. Sales teams are being empowered with tablets to make presentations, access product information, enter orders at customer sites and track inventory at any time, anywhere.

This change in how work is accomplished is not only in traditional office workplaces; recently airline pilots have been given iPads containing electronic versions of their flight manuals, eliminating the need for paper documents and enabling much more rapid navigation and access to information.

Examples like these demonstrate how these new capabilities are changing the nature of work and the way business is accomplished. The potential is great, and adapting to these changes affects business at many levels. To effectively bring IT to bear in changing how business operates, the CIO role needs to become one of executive leadership aimed at the business; at the same time, more technology acumen is needed from top business executives. Managers across the enterprise will have to embrace an increasingly diverse workforce, and grow more flexible communication skills. And all workers need to seek the best way to be collaborative contributors while taking responsibility for their career and employment planning by investing in continual learning.

Enterprise Priorities

Challenges resulting from the rapidly evolving workplace impact the very nature of the enterprise. The “Enterprise 2.0” concept was coined to denote the implications of new Internet-architected models on business, and connotes how this results in not merely new capabilities for enterprises, but an entirely new “version” of what an enterprise is. Once vertically integrated and tightly controlled, businesses are adapting models of loose and often interchangeable affiliations with partners and providers at all levels. While not a new trend, what has emerged in the globally interconnected economy is the ability to rapidly create new business resources with innovative capabilities or more attractive cost structures.

For enterprises, the boundaries delineating what is an internal part of the business and what is outside are blurred. Securing engaged contribution from workers who are as likely to be contractors, partners, suppliers or even customers as they are employees requires changes to the means of incenting and involving people and rethinking workplace system implementation to consider flexibility, usability and mobile access as highly as support and manageability. Providing choice for personal mobile devices, linking individual’s personal and business social lives, and making the business usage of IT as desirable and engaging as the consumer applications of IT are growing imperatives.

CEOs: Become Tech-Savvy Business Leaders

For top management, recognizing the ability of mobile computing, social networking and the cloud to directly impact business objectives and priorities through their workplace strategy takes on elevated importance. The evolution of the IT industry has resulted in shifts in how business has organized to manage its growing IT investments. The role of IT has continued to become more integral to the core of business management, and is now critical to every organization globally. Yet IT is often not viewed as important enough to warrant a seat as a CEO direct report along with the other roles strategic enough for that designation.

Technology competence is increasingly becoming an essential core attribute for the CEO. Although IT more frequently does report to the top in organizations, less than half of CIOs report to that level. In many cases the CIO does not participate as a member of the executive management committee. Senior business leaders still often see IT as a cost center. While still important, the cost perspective is outweighed by the transformational impact of IT on the nature of the workplace. Attention to the constant changes in business that are enabled and driven by IT is essential, and requires tech-savvy executive leadership. This means the CIO must be a key member of the executive team.

CIO: Leverage Tech-Savvy Users and Managers

The IT systems to engage global employees, suppliers and customers in the knowledge work of the business are as essential a strategic business priority as are human resources, facilities planning and financial management. This will alter the executive leadership focus to direct attention on what have been seemingly IT-centric issues, and will continue to transform the CIO role into a top business leadership position. Ensuring that business executives are connected with IT and the changes it is driving, and more closely engaging IT leaders in the business and its processes are critical future priorities.

At the same time the IT organization is under assault by mobile device proliferation and exploding demand for “bring-your-own” device into the workplace. IT leadership will need new approaches to deliver the benefits of the mobile workplace at the pace expected by users and business managers. CIOs will need to develop and strengthen relationships and increase cooperation with business managers empowered to deploy new IT systems for their business objectives.

General and Line of Business Manager: Drive Business Priorities

General Managers must daily confront business and competitive pressures, and they are not standing still. Business managers often recognize the need for new tools and approaches before their IT counterparts do. Because of cloud computing and the ease of deploying new solutions such as tablets, GMs are often not waiting for permission and are moving ahead to keep up with competitors that have already made a move. These managers, often at the forefront of cloud-based business solutions, must work to keep their business needs front and center in technology decisions, and strive for balance between their need for rapid deployment and the CIO’s need for manageability and enterprise-wide architectural coherence.

People Managers: Improve Flexibility to Manage Diversity

The role of the manager is also being altered, as the workplace increasingly comprises individuals spanning companies, countries, continents, time zones, cultures, and age groups. Work is being iteratively compartmentalized, optimized, automated, outsourced and refined until what remains is the cognitive and knowledge-centric essence of the activity. The resulting workplace requires managers to adapt and build new competencies.

Embracing diversity in the cultures, geography and collaboration styles of their workforce requires managers to have flexible communication skills and the ability to interact in multiple ways to best suit each individual within their global team. The different tools, including phone, email, IM, chat, texting and others, provide powerful capabilities that can be matched to the needs of different workers. Managers will be challenged to recognize the diversity of their workers, understand multiple tools, and engage in the most appropriate manner with each associate.

Individual Workers: Take Charge to Develop New Skills

The workplace is characterized by four – some would argue five –different generations in today’s business (see Note 1). This situation creates significant diversity in attitudes, desires, work styles, expectations and philosophy. As employees, each has a different personality and a different challenge in addressing the transformation of work.

Nowhere is the impact of the changing nature of work more profound than with the individual worker. A globally connected and educated population of workers is a competitive threat at all levels of knowledge work. Knowledge work can be sourced with relative ease for an increasingly wide range of jobs nearly anywhere in the world. By continually refining job responsibilities and activities, the repetitive, routine and predictable functions of existing positions can be offloaded from highly paid knowledge workers and moved to lower-cost resources. While this can be used to give those higher-level positions more time for knowledge-intensive and creative work, it also promises fewer positions and changing skill profiles for those that remain. Competition for knowledge work demands that workers themselves develop a plan for continual learning.

Digital Natives are typically viewed as being comprised of the Millennials, having lived their whole lives directly interacting with digital and computing systems in the form of personal computers, video games, digital music and cell phones. This group enters the workplace best equipped for the transformation underway, but they, too, have challenges. This newest group in the workforce is not only the most digitally capable; they have strong expectations for quick success and promotion based on the merit of their contribution. Only the youngest of this group has participated in the explosion of texting, smartphones and social networking. The Digital Native enters the workforce immersed in new collaboration and social networking paradigms. They must continue to invest and learn as the next wave of change emerges from social networking.

Digital Immigrants are the rest of the people who have experienced the emergence of the new digital capabilities over time. These incumbent workers, larger in overall numbers and generally older, have taken different paths to assimilating the new technologies. They have less videogame experience, do not multitask as rapidly, and are slower to embrace texting and social networking. Within this group are different personas. Some are more aggressive and eager; others adopt a more slow and reluctant approach. Their call to action is to invest in learning what the Digital Natives instinctively know. They – and their managers – need to understand limitations imposed by varying attention spans and multitasking abilities. As they gain confidence and skill, they will begin to join social networks, learn to use the tools, participate in pilot programs and become active digital collaborators.

Another portion of the population is reluctant – in some cases more than reluctant – to adopt new technologies or approaches. These are the Digital Reluctants. While not always from the generation of workers nearing retirement, these users resist and sometimes even impede success in the new digital world. Beyond being reluctant to take on the new digital and especially social computing elements, this group will resist change and typically refuse to participate or even join any social computing environments.


Change is coming fast across the breadth of the workplace, and the effect is being felt at every level in the enterprise. Each constituency is impacted differently, and each has accountability and a call to action (see Note 2):

  • Each enterprise should assess the impact and timing of the mobile anywhere and anytime workplace for their workforce, and the potential affect of their strategy on employee retention and recruiting attractiveness.
  • Top business executives should evaluate the degree to which IT is driving change in the business and its core functions and ensure appropriate participation on their executive team by IT leaders.
  • IT leaders needs to seek balance between top-down standardization and control and the ability to leverage individual productivity gains from a tech-savvy and empowered workforce eager to take on the new workplace.
  • General Managers should build partnerships with their CIOs to maintain   a clear focus on business needs while balancing IT’s enterprise-wide priorities.
  • Managers need to continually refine their management and collaboration skills, and ensure flexibility in using new communication and social networking tools for diverse teams.
  • Each individual worker needs to seek ways to improve their productivity and value through consumer mobile devices and applications, and ensure attention to ongoing learning to keep skills aligned with changing work demands.

Bottom Line

The emerging new workplace promises to redefine enterprise boundaries, change the content and structure of work, alter how individuals select and use technology, and redefine how IT organizations deploy and manage systems and applications. Every constituency from the enterprise to the individual worker will be challenged to take action in response to the revolution in the workplace. Standing still will not be an option.

Note 1: Generations in The Workplace

Traditionalists (born around 1928 to 1945)

Baby Boomers (born around 1945 to 1964)

Generation X (born around 1965 to 1979)

Generation Y, Millennials (born around 1980 to 1995)

Generation Z (born after 1995)

Note 2: Call to Action

CEO Understand the degree to which IT is driving business change, and ensure the executive team has appropriate role and competency
CIOs Leverage tech-savvy business managers and users
GMs Maintain laser focus on business requirements in partnering with IT leadership
Managers Improve flexibility and communication skills to respond to increasing worker diversity
IndividualWorkers Take ownership for improving your productivity and continually developing new skills to respond to changing work
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