posted 19 Jul 2004 in Volume 7 Issue 10
Going the distance
Today’s workforce is becoming a mobile one and organisations need to ensure access to knowledge-management tools if employees are to stay up to speed with project developments. Tom Knight and Justin Souter explain how Fujitsu has overcome physical location to ensure workers remain fully informed, regardless of their location.
One of the hottest topics in management circles is agility. This is often defined as flexibility in organisation design and processes, with the goal of improved responsiveness to both customers and to the rapidly changing external environment. This article looks at agility from a geographical aspect. First, how do you support a workforce dispersed across multiple locations – from customer or partner sites and public areas, to private homes across the country? And second, what happens when the distribution of the workforce is constantly reconfiguring itself as individuals move between projects and locations?
To varying degrees, organisations have always been mobile. But in today’s business climate, significant, often inter-related, developments are driving the adoption of mobile-working practices. The first is technology: vastly improved functionality and availability of information and communications technologies (from mobile phones and PDAs to home broadband), are opening people’s eyes to new ways of living and working. This is leading to significant social change as individuals seek to exploit easier information access to reduce commuting time and decrease personal and business costs. An aggressive and fast-moving business environment is also putting pressure on organisations to improve how they recruit, motivate, reward and retain those staff with vital knowledge and skills.
Customers – who needs them?
Since the 1990s, a new perspective on what constitutes a customer has emerged in both public and private sectors. Organisations have been forced to focus on vastly different customer needs, taking into consideration whether the customer is the commercial, paying kind; the public-sector variety (such as patients); or internal customers at various points in an organisational value chain. At the heart of this altered relationship is a move towards a more customer-centric view of the world, driven by changed expectations of customer service. Customer demands for better service means organisations must provide service on site, creating the need for improved responsiveness.
Therefore, mobile technologies are being employed to enhance reactions to customer requirements, but success relies on many factors, from infrastructure to changed working practices. In 1998, the former ICL’s mobile engineering teams (ICL became Fujitsu Services in 2002) were equipped with Nokia Communicators and satellite-navigation tools, enabling engineers’ schedules to be completely re-ordered over the course of a day rather than fixed first thing in the morning. The benefit to customers was faster response; the benefit to ICL was improved productivity; and the engineers benefited from more sensible use of their time. Since then we have introduced online access to schematics and other engineering-support tools. This is in addition to the usual knowledge-sharing initiatives aimed at ensuring that engineers get to spend enough time in each others’ company to exchange useful knowledge gained while out on the road.
Benefits of flexibility
Changes in legislation now allow employees to request flexible working arrangements. These have been implemented due to variations in working patterns, as more organisations offer flexitime and ‘school hours’, and many staff now work from home. The shift has been supported by technology such as home broadband.
For many people, the ability to work out of the office on occasion has definite advantages. Some find they can be more productive at certain tasks when working from home. For others, home working enables individuals to stay in work where family circumstances would otherwise mean leaving the workforce, while part-time home workers can reduce commuting stress and maximise the time they have available.
Even for more prosaic reasons, such as electing to work from home so the boiler can be repaired, flexible working can mean that someone with a laptop and internet connection can remain productive rather than taking a day’s leave. This psychological aspect should not be underestimated. If employees feel in control of their work life, this helps motivate them and raise morale.
The major challenge is to build in appropriate control systems to ensure that individuals are clear about short and long-term goals and objectives and have something to work towards and be measured against. Fujitsu has tackled this in a multi-layered way, according to the section of the business. Consultants, for example, are largely measured on utilisation (time billed) and project feedback through a quarterly appraisal system, whereas the measures for salespeople, operations and the management team each emphasise different objectives.
Virtual team working
Around ten per cent of Fujitsu staff are now home based, meaning that they spend the bulk of their time working from home. The majority of workers are still nominally attached to a Fujitsu office in a major centre, but much of the time these individuals will be either on customer sites or working in project teams away from their local base.
As long as individuals are sensibly allocated to projects and individual needs are taken into consideration (maintaining a human touch in the resourcing process is crucial to ensure this is done), there are some significant benefits to allowing staff to have a varied routine, including time working from home. Fujitsu has benefited considerably, for instance by cutting its accommodation bill by 20 per cent over the past five years. At the same time we have reduced the number of desks in remaining offices to allow for the introduction of additional formal and informal meeting areas. The company is reviewing its building accommodation for the future – and how this should be configured – as increasing numbers of staff adopt flexible working patterns.
Despite this, the primary advantage of mobile teams is not financial. Flexible working practices are fundamental to developing the agility to respond to changing customer demands. On many of our major customer sites, Fujitsu teams have direct network access by simply plugging in their laptops. Where this is not possible, dial-up, GPRS or wireless (Wi-Fi) secure internet connections can give access to the full Fujitsu applications suite and knowledge-support systems.
The Fujitsu Services journey
The introduction of flexible working within Fujitsu has proceeded together with its business transformation over the past decade from a product-focused company (from mainframes and software to PC desktops and servers – the old ICL), to one that is primarily in the business of selling services. The principal shift has been from selling things to selling know-how (the capabilities and expertise of the Fujitsu organisation and its individual employees). A knowledge-management programme has been at the heart of this transformation, the key elements of which have been the intranet; an ongoing office accommodation project; the SolutionNet organisational-memory programme; appropriate deployment of knowledge-sharing tools; and the creation of an IT infrastructure that can support secure access through multiple protocols and devices.
Valuing internal knowledge
The original Café VIK (valuing internal knowledge) intranet system was an attempt to bring together all the disparate intranets that sprung up in the early days of the world-wide web. By 2000, it had been revamped to take on a role at the core of the company’s business, serving multiple functions:
- As the main channel for internal organisational communications and information (it replaced many paper-based internal publications), from team newsletters to publication of petrol mileage rates;
- As the primary means of interacting with HR through an e-HR system where employees could tailor their package, adjusting pension contributions and so on;
- As the means of access to a range of business applications, ranging from leave booking and expenses management, payment of personal calls on company mobile phone and ordering of replacement business cards, to booking of rental cars;
- As the electronic expression of communities of practice. The system linked members of formal professional communities, such as sales or technical architecture, by providing community tools such as discussion boards and sharing facilities for informal information. The system also linked communities of interest; a less formal, ad hoc grouping of specialists in particular areas (knowledge management and mobile working, for instance) across the organisation;
- As an information resource. The system provided varying access to news and library material from vendors and to subscriber/analyst publications such as those from Gartner and Forrester.
In terms of specifically supporting mobile technologies, the new intranet has an expertise-finder tool that provides CV and contact information for over 12,000 individuals across the company. In 2001, this was made available to mobile phones and PDAs via the WAP protocol, but a secure virtual-private-network application was installed to ensure that the whole of the intranet, including information, applications and communities, would be available to anyone logging on to the company network via any internet connection. The Café VIK intranet system, which has sophisticated content-management tools and an infrastructure of community administrators who keep it updated, is now an integral part of organisational life.
Fujitsu’s thinking around office space continues to develop. A key element when forming our current accommodation strategy was recognising that the reasons employees would choose to come to the office would subtly change over time. Rather than come in primarily to sit at desks and work quietly (which they could do off site), many employees would come to the office to meet and discuss work with virtual team members.
Selected offices had partitions torn down, and the number of desks was reduced by up to a third. These were replaced by soft seating and more meeting rooms, along with quiet rooms and the introduction of hot desks on most floors. The result has been to facilitate tacit-knowledge exchange, while improving the working environment.
The focus of Fujitsu’s intranet is improved access to corporate information, applications and to information published within communities, but the system had a weakness in that it was not designed to handle the sorts of structured sets of documents produced by typical Fujitsu customer projects. It did not have the facility to easily identify, structure, access and re-use useful material (for example, text created for bid responses, or innovative technical solutions). SolutionNet is a global programme – incorporating teams in Europe, Asia and the US – to address this issue. Within the UK, the initiative has been underway for three years, collecting input from more than 5,000 projects. It is made up of the following elements:
- A browser-based project workspace for sharing information within and across project teams, which incorporates a ‘project in a box’ tool to enable projects to get up and running quickly;
- An environment for defining and storing standard, re-usable patterns (for example, for specific technology implementations). These are typically created after successful projects and each pattern gains maturity and value through use and feedback;
- Storage of detailed information on Fujitsu’s services and capability offerings, mainly for the benefit of those in sales or customer-engagement roles;
- Sitting over the top of all these systems is an advanced, context-sensitive search tool.
The SolutionNet programme can be accessed through the intranet system and is therefore available to anyone working remotely.
Conferencing and knowledge-sharing tools
Apart from the tools on the intranet, enabling tacit-knowledge exchange is encouraged across the organisation. In terms of supporting remote and mobile working, a conferencing card can be issued on request to all employees, which provides each with a unique telephone number that they can pass out to organise a conference call. This is supported by web-presentation tools, enabling presentations and documents to be viewed by participants if required.
There are old-style, high-quality video-conferencing suites at the main Fujitsu locations but use tends to be restricted to major, multi-participant formal meetings, audio conferencing proving adequate for most purposes. Trials of a tool that enables one-to-one or small group video conferencing and improved presentation-sharing features are underway, but these techniques are yet to become widespread.
The re-introduction of the human element has been an unexpected success. Around two years ago we launched a service that enabled customers to call in and go straight through to an expert in any area. This service proved so popular that we decided to extend its use to staff so that anyone in the company can now quickly and easily access thought leaders and specialists in all the key capability areas across the organisation.
Fujitsu’s infrastructure is critical to delivering these supporting tools to mobile working across the organisation. As a reseller of internet services, high-bandwidth access between sites and secure VPN access via dial-up and broadband from any location are priorities. A partnership with Vodafone provides GPRS and (where available) 3G wireless-network connections, enabling wire-free access to applications where needed.
Mobile workers use a range of portable devices, from laptops and PDAs to mobile phones (including smart phones). The main challenges stem from access control/security (securing the network via firewalls and other controls without making it too hard for users to connect), configuration management (for example, pushing out anti-virus software updates) and ensuring data integrity (mainly around managing backups). There are significant pitfalls in the infrastructure area – from lost devices and lost data to security threats – and getting it wrong can have serious business consequences.
The reconfiguration of organisations driven by new technological possibilities and societal pressures presents challenges to workforce effectiveness. There are down sides, just as there were with business-process re-engineering, which made operations leaner and more efficient, but at the same time robbed organisations of key players and disrupted the knowledge ecology of many firms.
For instance, having so many workers on the road inevitably results in employees missing out on personal networking opportunities. Managers may have problems keeping track of what everyone is doing and maintaining a sense of shared corporate identity, as the workforce may have more contact with customers than they do with the employer (known in the consulting world as ‘going native’). For some employees, there is also a temptation to over-use electronic means of communication and information exchange (e-mail, discussion boards, document repositories), and neglect personal networks and face-to-face meetings. This could prove damaging to both teams and individuals in the long term.
Overcoming these issues requires persistence and a willingness to spend money through bringing teams together on a regular basis to exchange war stories and to socialise; improving communications about the company’s direction, values and performance, as much as about day-to-day events; and ensuring that individual and team contributions are acknowledged, appropriately rewarded and made visible around the organisation. These measures will typically feature in any well rounded knowledge-management programme but are essential when supporting a mobile workforce, alongside appropriate goal setting, measurement, appraisal and reward systems.
A mobile future
Some workers, including call-centre workers and software developers for instance, may require particular combinations of localised infrastructure and face-to-face interaction and so are suited to an office-based working culture. But in many other sectors mobile technologies, when properly implemented with appropriate support and control mechanisms, offer benefits to organisation, customers and individuals alike.
Knowledge-management disciplines will be central to pulling all the disparate strands of the workforce together. They can provide support by improving many -to-many communication; access to expertise and corporate memory; information sharing; and process development to encourage innovation, thereby creating cohesion and communicating a shared purpose to deliver results.
Through its customers, Fujitsu is seeing the implementation of mobile initiatives occur at different speeds across all sectors, not least from governmental organisations, where the potential savings from reducing the amount of office space required in central London are being eagerly assessed. In this sector, staff demand for remote network access has gone through the roof – though, for the time being, senior management fears that civil-service culture is unsuited to remote working. This, alongside perceived lack of satisfactory measurement and control systems, is holding back major change.
Looking to the future, there are numerous areas of potential for KM in this scenario. Two of the most promising are personal-knowledge management, focusing on how individuals organise their personal information, contacts and collateral, along with better exploitation of the possibility of greater mobile bandwidth (from 3G and the coming wide-area wireless protocols) to improve collaboration methods among virtual-team members.
To meet shifting customer needs in a fast-changing business environment, the agile organisation of the future will have to find ever more creative ways to manage skills, knowledge and information to support an increasingly mobile and peripatetic workforce.