It can be argued that technology changes the method of work, but the nature of work remains constant. Previously, technology’s traditional application was to automate or mechanize predefined activities increasing the productivity of workers and their associated output. Unlike previous generations of technologies, the PC, combined with the Internet, has changed the definition of work in three distinct ways. Firstly, PCs changed the method or approach of the work being performed, coupling technological tools together for greater productivity, for example the techniques used in activities such as voice dictation (when it functions properly!) and response systems. Secondly, the time when work is performed, and thirdly, the manner or behaviour in which work is done, meaning that it is becoming more difficult to separate work and personal activities. For example, one may write a memo at the weekend when the idea is fresh and then during the working day, access the Internet and order home office supplies to be collected on the way home. This alteration in the basic premise of what constitutes work places technological capability slightly ahead of the ability of many organizations to apply it to business processes. It is premature to assess the long-term impact of connective technologies on the value propositions of organizations. Regardless of geographic location, companies will recast their organization to accommodate the innovative work activities made possible by new technology and the most recent role that individuals play in the workplace.
Business, people and social structures in the Middle Ages are often viewed through a lens of romantic fondness in which kings and knights wooed beautiful ladies on their way to win a battle against the unfaithful ones. In reality, the Middle Ages were a brutal and harsh period in world history. Now, at the turn of the millennium, one looks back at the working society of the last half of the twentieth century with growing nostalgia. As time passes, individuals often reminisce about the conditions that existed before the latest implementation of technology, thus forgetting the inherent frustrations of the previous technological generation. During the implementation of a new manufacturing system, it is quite common to hear individuals refer to the ‘simpler times’ when the KARDEX system was used, conveniently forgetting its limitations. One by-product of technological advancement is how technology is rewriting the social contract between employers and employees. In just one generation, we have gone from having a sense of belonging to an organization with lifetime employment to a sense of disconnection from the workplace as a result of downsizing, rightsizing and other corporate cost-cutting activities. In many US organizations, workers have developed a rightly deserved attitude that ‘corporate loyalty and a dollar will buy you a cup of coffee’, which is not far from the truth. White and blue-collar workers are developing a feeling of detachment from their employers because of a rising attitude projecting labour as a commodity made disposable by the application of technology. Seemingly, this new feeling of disorientation in the workforce is perceived as a modern phenomenon brought about by the rising use of technology as a substitute for human labour. However, in the past, one condition of disruptive technologies is that they reach a level of maturity and a subsequent saturation point within society.
A stark contrast to today’s social structure is the medieval period, when everyone was keenly, sometimes painfully aware of their place in society. Whether serf, noble, cleric or tradesman, a person’s lifetime employment was traditionally within a narrow band of preconceived activities, typically following in the footsteps of one’s parents. In medieval society, the ability to read and write was restricted to a few social classes. The technology for communicating the written word was stagnant for several centuries, only to undergo a gigantic transformation to mass communication with the introduction of the printing press. Similar to medieval society, in the early days of the Internet, a select, elite group of academic researchers working on military projects developed a network of interconnection that allowed the interchange of ideas and research materials. As the collaboration technology matured, the ability to connect increased for many individuals and other groups. This early collection of academic and military collaborators found that the robustness and complexity of the infrastructure was less important than the value of the communications it facilitated. Thus the Internet was born, promising to provide what other technologies had failed to provide, namely two-way communications independent of time, accompanied by a written record of the interaction.
The Internet fits the classic description of what Christensen calls a ‘disruptive technology’, – ‘technologies which are considered a threat to incumbent technologies are simply applied to improve upon or present a radical alternative to something that you are already doing’. However, disruptive technologies typically generate value to customers who rarely understand the value proposition of the new technology during its introduction. Christensen illustrates that traditional sources develop a relationship with customers that becomes familiar over time. When a new product or a change in the structure of acquiring that product is radically altered, the receptivity of customers to the new way becomes less than enthusiastic. If a product has an intrinsic value apart from the price of the item, customers are inclined to stay with the product, using the traditional structure. When the potential of a disruptive technology is significant enough to change the structure of an entire industry, this type of institutional thinking is not limited to customers, as demonstrated by Norman’s observation of industry leaders:
Thomas Edison turned down the radio because it had no commercial value; Western Union turned down the telephone because management thought ‘it will never be more than a toy’; Thomas J. Watson Sr., founder and head of IBM, turned down the computer; and Kodak turned down the Xerox copier.
Like other disruptive technologies, the Internet is the latest in a series of technologies that alter and advance the communicative behaviours of people and business activities. People using Internet technology have undergone a change to a new state of interoperability with the new mass media delivery technologies.
The fundamental shift made possible by the Internet is the movement from a broadcast medium to an interactive or transaction-based set of activities. Previous communications technologies were single direction transmissions that informed a passive user. The progression of technology as seen in Figure 1.4 depicts four generations of technology which have progressively altered the behaviour of individuals, changing them from readers to listeners, to viewers, and finally to doers. Each successive technology generation facilitated a short-term effect which altered business activities such as advertising, marketing and customer services, and cultivated a longer term change in the behaviour of society, reaching beyond simple consumerism. For example, the radio’s short-term effect was that it provided news and information to a mass audience a short time after the actual event had taken place. The longer term effect was to move music from a localized event such as a concert, recital or performance to a national offering of music to ever-increasing categories of specialized tastes. The radio generated a widespread demand for music which elevated the sales of recordings as a consequence of reaching larger audiences. It can be postulated that before the radio, music could be categorized into two broad classifications: an elite classical music culture and a popular or local folk music culture. The radio acted as a catalyst to mass produce music which eventually drove down the overall production cost, enabling more and more artists to be recorded. Advances in technology continued to reduce costs making it possible to produce music across an ever-widening range of classifications, such as reggae, blues, pop, country and techno.
Figure 1.4: The evolution of interaction
In the early days of radio, it would have been difficult to imagine the broad selection of music and the higher fidelity of the product that we enjoy today. It would be even more difficult to picture the complexity and idiosyncrasies of today’s music industry, based on the behaviour of first-generation radio sales. In the 1990s, the average person’s ability to be connected to an electronic society blossomed, and the demand for this interconnectivity overwhelmed even the most seasoned technology-trend visionary. Newspapers and magazines were littered with many techno-futuristic dreams that have fallen by the wayside. This phenomenon is not surprising since it is a repeated pattern throughout the history of technology. For example, the videophone, first on the scene in the sci-fi movies of the 1930s, appearing later on TV in the 1960s and popularized in the 1969 movie 2001 A Space Odyssey, has had a chequered track record. Companies such as AT&T and British Telecom have both had pilot programmes that had less than promising results. Two principal problems can be identified. Firstly, the technological infrastructure needed to implement videophones was not available at a price affordable to consumers. Secondly, the existing infrastructure did not have the bandwidth capacity to produce a stream of pictures (30 frames per second) and audio acceptable to consumers used to seeing television quality images. Now the technology needed to transmit this high capacity data has caught up with the technology that can produce videophones. These two conditions still existed when ViaTV, Connectix and others reintroduced videophone technology using both regular phone lines and the Internet in the late 1990s. A third problem for people who subscribed to the videophone was that unless people they knew also subscribed they had no one to talk to. The radio, the videophone and the Internet have had a profound influence on the behaviour of society. Business is now starting to understand the fundamental elements of the Internet and how the Internet affects the behaviour of individuals, consumers and organizations. More importantly, corporations can employ the Internet and its related technologies to develop new ways of ordering, distributing and utilizing their products. The disruptiveness of the Internet gives companies the opportunity to think about how to conduct business.
Originally, the Internet was thought of simply as a communications medium for data and information exchange. The second generation of the Internet proved to be the age of the marketer; marketing mavens flooded Internet newsgroups, eMail boxes and bulletin boards with junk mail and a flood of product literature. Now, in the third generation of the Internet, users are discovering a new use for the Internet, that is, the establishment of materials and ideas that can be explored collaboratively in a dialogue within a linked digital community, which is discussed in Chapter 5.
Businesses have yet to realize the potential value of third-generation collaborative technologies and their effect on the organizational structures of corporations. The underlying potential of collaborative technologies is to alter drastically the roles and responsibilities of workers. Consulting companies are learning that the cost of maintaining a relationship is less than the cost of acquiring a new customer relationship. Client familiarity reduces cost because it minimizes the need to orient the consultant to the idiosyncrasies of the client’s business culture. Technology is the lever that will propel the communications between consultants and customers to reduce the amount of time needed to sell the next project by demonstrating the success of the last project. Consequently, the poor performance of the project is also clear to the client and consulting companies will realize that quality of service is the essential driver rather than price. Unfortunately, collaboration and the use of consultants does complicate the issue of intellectual property rights, work for hire and other legal and technical aspects of the new work environment. These issues, although not addressed in this text at length, are growing concerns, as organizations now span international borders and are testing the limits of laws and regulations.
The technologies enabling this new era of communications and collaboration between parties create the need to develop a new set of skills in order for workers to remain competitive. The combination of technologies used to communicate these transactions (that is, confirmations of meetings, agendas, receipts of materials) with intelligent agent technology creates an initial flood of messages, data and information which is overwhelming. The key to this new wave of communications is to develop an agent that does messaging arbitrage, looks for confirmations and other generated correspondence, and reports only the anomalies. Messages that did not receive the anticipated response are passed to the user as priority items. This type of interaction by exception is often counterintuitive to individuals who grew up using computer mainframe eMail systems, whose fidelity was in the completeness of each transaction. The migration from legacy mainframe to personal computing was a generational experience that does not prepare us for the next shift to an even higher degree of personalization in the next generation of technology. The next wave of more intrapersonal technology comes with the express intent of permeating the actions of everyday life and will foster a new set of issues centring on individuality, security, privacy and disclosure.
One thing is clear: Internet-based technology became popular because it allowed individuals to serve themselves and perform functions at a convenient time. Businesses eager to reduce customer service labour costs quickly engaged the new medium as a direct method of eliminating customer support staff and other typical middle income jobs, without addressing the root cause of why customers wanted to serve themselves. In many cases, the answer is simple dissatisfaction with the firm’s performance, or to avoid the inconvenience of changing suppliers, and consumers welcomed the opportunity to take control of the situation. However, as interactions mature and the next wave of interconnective technologies allow for greater self-service, one could argue that customers will eventually develop a sense of the value of their time and reach a point where they are performing so many self-service functions that it is no longer economical to do so.
Individuals and corporations may realize that all this self-service activity (such as tracking your own packages, booking flights, banking and so on) simply shifts those imperceptible costs to you and/or your organization. Few companies have analysed the impact on productivity after they eliminated travel agents and allowed individuals to book their own business travel. The savings received from no longer paying travel agents’ commission is not compared to the internal cost of personnel (mostly personal assistants and secretaries) now performing the same basic functions. On the other hand, it might be faster to spend 5–10 minutes online shopping for a ticket rather than spending maybe 10 minutes on hold on the phone plus the actual time to define the date, time and availability with the travel agent. The point is that until companies start researching the impact of eCommerce to their business, all arguments will remain inconclusive.
Technology’s next migration will be towards personalization, in which case ever smaller individual components of technology will be integrated into the average person’s everyday life. Technologies such as biometric devices, avatars and wearable computers will produce volumes of information about an individual and, more importantly, their behaviour. Whether people will gravitate to the new, more intrusive generation of technology remains to be seen. However, as history demonstrates, it is highly possible that individuals will accept intrusive technologies and will, one day, wonder how they ever lived without them. The driver of these types of technology may lay in the intention of the technology and the value proposition it presents to society.
See C. Christensen, The Innovator’s Dilemma: How Disruptive Technologies can Destroy Established Markets (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997).
D. A. Norman, The Invisible Computer: Why Products Can Fail, the Personal Computer is so Complex, and Information Appliances are the Solution (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998) pp. 233–4.