The age of empowerment

During the second day of the Information Age Empowered Enterprise conference in January 2003, a delegate stood up to make an observation. When businesses have truly empowered their workers, he said, then it would be clear for all to see: the motorways and the trains would not be full to breaking point during the rush hour.

The simple point was quickly passed over, but it contains within it two sharp observations. First, that it is both highly desirable but also very difficult for an organisation to become a so-called ’empowered enterprise’ – where motivated, capable and well-connected workers are able to work remotely, flexibly and above all, effectively. For all the talk, the technical, organisational and cultural barriers remain substantial and so far, very few have done it.

Second, the grand vision of ebusiness and an Internet-driven world that so excited almost everyone just two or three years ago has not died, but it has changed. Now, it has become obvious, both to business strategists and to technology suppliers, that ‘cyberspace’ and the ‘new economy’ do not exist outside of culture-bound human behaviour or apart from the physical world.

That realisation, obvious as it is, came slowly to many business leaders and certainly to some suppliers. But there are signs that the vision has been corrected, and a new, pioneering stage of the ‘information age’ is underway. This stage may be taking place against a background of recession and investor scepticism, but the ambition is just as grand.

This new era is one in which the complexity, and even the irrationality, of people and businesses is being addressed. The new focus is, first, on understanding and electronically capturing what exactly it is that businesses do and how they make their money – their so-called ‘processes’ and ‘models’. Early Internet companies and technologies frequently ignored these and simply tried to invent new ones.

And second, there is a new focus on people – not just customers (as in customer relationship management systems), but employees. The cliché that ‘our greatest asset is our people’ has gained new life.

Gerry Smith, the CEO of professional services automation (PSA) software supplier Changepoint, even argues that a successful employer/employee relationship is a prerequisite to successful customer relations and successful shareholder relations.

Again, this is an area where most of the early ebusiness models failed. Many of the potentially world-shaking innovations – the e-marketplace, for example, or some early online retail models – neglected to take into account the whims of human behaviour, the importance of trust or habit, and the need for face-to-face interaction.

Employee relationships were also over-simplified at many organisations. At the height of the dot-com boom, the new orthodoxy, imported from Silicon Valley, was that share options would be enough to motivate anyone. This was not only flawed because shares can – and do – go down as well as up; but also because money is only one of many factors that motivates employees.

Moreover, it is a very clumsy way of rewarding commitment or achievement, since bottom line corporate income may be very indirectly connected to individual performance.

The results of the Information Age Empowered Enterprise survey, sponsored by IT outsourcing services company Wipro, demonstrated this conclusively. Most employers (81%) thought their staff would prefer increased flexibility to a significant (£1,000) pay rise; the same number thought that the use of remote or flexible working improves morale.

Empowerment is, of course, about a lot more than remote or flexible working: it is also about giving the employee self-determination, choice, and freedom to take responsibility. In return, the workforce must repay their employers by working effectively.

Discussion around these management issues dominated the Empowered Enterprise conference, as the articles in this report show. Many delegates, more used to talking about Internet protocols and web services, were clearly surprised but enthused by this turn.

The central question is this: By giving employees more freedom, are employees also risking a loss of control, of commitment or of efficiency? The survey results demonstrated that many organisations, while highly supportive of remote or mobile working, are worried about these points.

One example: Half the sample of managers cited an inability to call ad-hoc meetings as a barrier to more use of remote working.

Most executives speaking at the conference took the view that these issues are overwhelmingly cultural. Matt Bross, the recently appointed chief technology officer of BT, for example, spoke for half an hour on the essential importance of inspiring people; he barely mentioned technology.

Others suggested that companies that wish to empower their staff – and therefore make their organisations more agile or efficient – still need to invest more in training, in providing access to corporate knowledge, and in aligning employee decision making to corporate goals. Only trusted employees should be ’empowered’, suggested one delegate, and in order to become trusted, employees need guidance, help and support – at least initially.

But technology still plays a vital role. Gerry Smith of Changepoint, for example, argues that by working with employees to identify reasonable and achievable goals, a measurement system has to be put in place that they can work to. At present, many organisations assume that if someone is present in the office, and they “have a pulse”, then they must be working.

Several developments will play a key role in the empowered enterprise. They include PSA and ERM (employee relationship management) software, employee portals, mobile technologies, better management and delivery of centralised applications, collaborative working tools and improved bandwidth to the home and to remote locations.

Progress is steady, rather than rapid, in each of these areas. But it is proving extremely powerful. As Richard Hanscott, head of business solutions for Orange, puts it: “Now we can contemplate a much more significant shift, one where we understand that work is something we do, and not somewhere we go.”

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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