Thirty years ago, investment in information technology development was principally concerned with business and industrial applications, writes John Flynn, head of solutions engineering at DST Global Solutions.
IT was expensive and generally tailored towards the specific use that it was commissioned for. Large scale hardware devices were combinations of chunky silicon based electronics and noisy mechanical devices such as fans, disk drives, and various input and output peripherals. Their job was to run payroll systems, manage accountancy bookkeeping, ledger stock control, and in some cases provide an elementary word processing capability.
Although, as desktop machines started to emerge in the late seventies and early 1980s aimed at supporting office operations with more sophisticated applications such as spreadsheets and WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) style word processors, digital technology in the home was largely reserved for simple console style games that plugged into the average television set.
Indeed, a famous quote from Ken Olsen, the CEO of the once mighty DEC computer corporation saying that he "could see no reason for an individual to have a computer in his home" summed up the technology age of the time. The fact that the quote was actually taken out of context was largely overlooked, although the fortunes of DEC foundered in the subsequent years, with its eventual acquisition by Compaq, a commodity PC manufacturer providing an ironic but fitting end to the company.
Fast forward to the present day and in many ways, the reverse is true. Technology is mass produced for the consumer market and uses are found by the business community for applications that were originally conceived for commodity entertainment or convenience. Take for example text messaging. Its early adoption was for inter personal communication between individual mobile phone users. Some years after its initial conception, businesses are using it as a communications channel that appeals to customers whose familiarity with SMS, makes it a convenient and effective method.
But it is not just convenience and user preference that drives benefit, businesses can seriously cut costs by using commodity technology in the right way. For example, by keeping its customers informed about the state of transactions through SMS messages, a financial services company can reduce the number of calls being taken by their call centre.
While the internet was originally developed for and evolved from commercial and military use, its appeal post the dot.com crash, has mushroomed to the extent that, according to government figures, 79,8% of UK homes have access to the worldwide web. But what impact will this have on employees and employers? How might this continuing evolution change the nature of the workforce in the future?
In the late 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century, there were a number of trends that were adopted by business with the aim of reducing cost and boosting bottom line. The most publicised and often controversial measure was off shoring. Western organisations took a 'lift and shift' approach to re-deploying whole departments to areas of the world where the same operation could be run at a much reduced labour cost.
Although investment had to be made in infrastructure, training and management, the return on investment was usually quite quick and the ongoing financial return beneficial to the bottom line. However the activity often came with unforeseen, or ignored, risk and many of the customer facing operations such as call centres, have been returned to their native geographies. The reasons may be many, ranging from language difficulties, (not necessarily on the part of the offshore organisation), to public opinion on the exporting of jobs.
One particularly amusing illustration of cultural differences arose when a UK life insurance applicant described her occupation on the application form as a 'home maker'. The underwriter in India wrote the policy up for a builder.
So now we find today’s business terminology referring to offshoring, onshoring, outsourcing, nearshoring and a myriad of similar combinations. We also see the consumer and business communities evolving with the technological age and the profiles of today’s employees changing in a way that looks very different to the traditional office based workers of last century.
Indeed, the group of people sometimes referred to as the "Playstation Generation" which includes the category known as Generation Z, were born into an entirely digital age. Their expectations, as both consumers and employees, are of convenience, familiarity and responsiveness. Positioning that against a recent analysis carried out by the Recruitment Employers Federation (REC), which highlights that despite rising unemployment, companies are struggling to find the right skills to run their business and achieve targets and growth plans. Additionally, with competition for skills now coming from other emerging economies, the UK and other established geographies may have to think differently about how they bring the right skills to their organisations.
So what new business trends and technologies will appear in the workplace as a result?
* Right-sourcing – This term has started to become a mantra for large organisations who have seen the downside of 'lift and shift' approaches to outsourcing operations. Now mindful of the impact on customer service, reputation, privacy and work fulfillment accuracy, companies will look for a more 'blended' model where they can be confident in moving selected parts of an operation to a lower cost workplace. This, however, presents the challenge of providing a consistent, high quality business process along with all the right customer information, across a distributed workforce. If a call centre cannot see the same data as an off shored processing unit, then customer service is likely to be compromised. Similarly if there is no quick and easy mechanism to transfer work and activities between hosted and outsourced operations, achieving the optimal blended model is difficult. This is where robust work management technology is necessary to ensure that the right work is delivered to the right point in the process at the right time no matter where geographically the operations teams may live. Contemporary workflow systems have the ability to prioritise and route activities in accordance with work volume, skill level and capacity. Similarly, having technology that spans across all sources of data, back office systems and activity types ensures that business have an end to end view of their customer service operations.
* Collaboration – In conjunction with the last point, the collaborative working topic is becoming more talked about by organisations trying to optimise their operations around what are core and non core operations. Today’s workflow technology products tend to be concerned with repetitive structured business processes. Similarly, automation systems which coordinate or 'orchestrate' the core line of business systems to push work through an organisation with minimal human involvement are also aligned towards predictable structured activities. In the real world however, a significant percentage of business activity is ad hoc and unstructured and often involves informal collaboration to complete certain tasks. This may be as simple as an administrator seeking help from a supervisor or as sophisticated as an activity involving a number of third party participants to solve a complex problem. In either case, technology designed to optimise structured processes does not really work in unstructured scenarios. This is an example where applications originally developed with social and personal use in mind come into play. Wikis, blogs, instant messaging and other contemporary technologies can be harnessed for business purposes and when coupled with workflow style applications can deliver real business benefit.
Additionally, as the role and coverage of social networks expands, it is likely that they, or the next generation of them, will provide more means and opportunity for its subscribers to make money by working in an on line collaborative fashion. We have already witnessed on line communities developing software, writing music, designing buildings etc. But as that type of initiative becomes more relevant to the work place, just as a whole myriad of supporting operations from hosting to payment gateways and shopping cart tools, sprung up around the .dot.com boom, a similar emergence of innovation to support the online 'business' will occur. Traditional paper based services such as contracts management, billing, payments etc. will be delivered in an on line manner. Indeed the next generation of Facebooks and Twitters will most likely provide in boxes of activity to users who want to work in a manner that they are comfortable with and a pace that suits their circumstances.
* Crowd-sourcing – Again extending the themes of the two previous items, crowd sourcing is a way in which work can be completed using external skills and resources in a semi-anonymous manner. An example of this type on online collaboration is 'Amazons Mechanical Turk' named after an 18th century chess playing 'automaton'. This is an online workplace where suitably qualified workers can complete human intelligence tasks (HITs) in return for monetary payment. Currently there a limited number of HIT types that can be facilitated by Mechanical Turk, but it is expected that demand for this type of virtual workplace will grow as organisations need flexible and global resources pools and as the "Playstation Generation" require work opportunities that suit their circumstances rather than the 9 to 5 on premise office job. In order to develop this concept into a more 'mainstream' facility, technology needs to address such topics such as security, anonymity, billing, payments etc. — all functions built in to specialist online organisations such as Amazon, but less commoditised for smaller or non IT oriented companies.
* The self-service internet – We have all witnessed the shift towards self-service websites that allow customers to manage their banking, initiate a claim, apply for a mortgage and other types of activities that historically were performed face to face, through the post or on the phone. Generation Z expects to be able to serve themselves on their personal hand-held devices. Banks and insurance firms are already taking advantage of mobile technologies and web portals that greatly reduce their home office costs and increase customer satisfaction. However, this on-line self-service trend relies heavily on a service oriented architecture (SOA) approach to computing. Web applications must be able to interact with the back office systems needed to complete transactions. Workflow tools that can prioritize exceptions and quickly route them to a customer service associate will become critical in maintaining customer satisfaction. Plugging in a chat or phone call on-demand with a real person is also important – which will require technology to quickly consolidate customer history and information into a single view.
* Fraud prevention – As technology becomes more accessible, so does the opportunity to abuse it. The types of development discussed, already suggest that if certain typical work place requirements can be performed in an on line, collaborative manner, then so can crime. Particularly in financial services, fraud rates increase with a downturn in the economy. Most high value fraud is usually carried out in a collaborative manner, and in most cases, the total extent of the problem is difficult to quantify. The best illustration of this problem is the phenomenon known as 'Crash for Cash', whereby staged motor vehicle accidents are used to falsely lodge both vehicle damage and personal injury claims with the insurer. It is usually after a number of similar accidents and subsequent claims that collusion comes to light and something can be put in place to mitigate that particular activity. IT companies are now developing sophisticated analytics that not only use rules based analysis to 'suspect' fraud, but whole network modeling and relationship analysis techniques to increase the success rate in determining 'professional' fraud but also to prioritise the investigation activities against likelihood and value.
In summary, the next decade is going to witness considerable changes in the way businesses operate and how they use the appropriate skills and resources to deliver their products and services and manage their customers. Those who succeed will make the best use of both in house and specialist external knowledge using a combination of traditional workflow functionality, and commoditised technology.
As the world economy starts to grow again, a wealth of specialist ‘contractors’ will emerge, skilled and ready to provide services to corporations on demand. While most organisations will retain core skills, those who handle peaks and troughs in business volumes the most effectively, will be able those able to tap into an on demand global resource pool as required.