|MSc-IT Study Material|
June 2010 Edition
Computer Science Department, University of Cape Town
You might have the distinct impression from many books and articles that new technologies are set to continue along a certain steep trajectory. But are these technologies over glamorised and over simplified in this extract? Many writers clearly expected these new product environments to be commonplace by the new millennium, but they are not yet visible, are they?
It seems to me that the future offered by many authors' vision is led by technology and nothing else. Yes, it is good fun to pose the question 'what if?' and these kinds of projections can sharpen our thinking, but we must not be led into believing that the vision will become true.
We tend to be mesmerised by the technological hardware and pay much less attention to the difficulties of implementation, or to the technology's actual worth.
With our hindsight, this vision of the future seems novelistic: fun, but one dimensional and romanticised. The wider factors that would make such technology plausible are social, political, managerial and financial.
Are many of the proposed technologies really that useful? What advantages does it offer over conventional, cheaper technology? Are there specific groups who would benefit from it (executive businessmen, vendors of the technology)? Do they have enough political and organisational clout to force the development of the technology? Is there a wider market? Who are the end users? What would be the financial equations that would make sense of the very big investment in the new technology?
A little later we shall examine a more modest current technology: Video-conferencing, which has had some success. We shall pose the same thorny questions then.
To be called Virtual Organisation means that many elements of the business which were in the past dependent on physical proximity, and sometimes upon physical artifacts, can now be conducted at distance.
More than that, new businesses and services have grown up around electronic technology. They work in a heady atmosphere of paradox and paranoia. They operate at the interface between hype and genuine hope for the future.
You would not be expected to produce the following list in answer to this question, but perhaps your thoughts touched on some of these areas.
A list of elements that are already common and rapidly growing would include: Technique, Process, Management, Commerce, Society.
Some techniques are very widely used; others are emerging in response to new work practices:
local area network
groupware for meetings, such as Lotus Notes
electronic meetings, such as Grouputer
collaborative workplaces, such as Sun Kansas
The maturity of these techniques means that the practice of various organisational processes has become more distributed in many areas, for example:
research + development
new product development
manufacturing productivity increase
It also means that closer partnerships, based upon electronic exchanges, are emerging across organisations. For example:
partnerships for given projects
small business interdependencies
A whole new raft of businesses are being constructed under the umbrella of e-commerce:
The social implications of all this activity are quite profound, in that:
corporate alliances become more flexible and fluid
small businesses may form collectives
special interest groups may form international communities, such as for dyslexia
global professional advice may be gathered, such as for medicine
education and training may be conducted electronically
consumer power may aggregate over the Internet
undeveloped nations may leap direct to 21st Century technology
A few indications of these remarkable circumstances are given in our example case companies (addresses listed at the front of the unit). You may choose to follow up some of them in more detail.
It would be advisable to chase down some of them, because in the short period between composing this Unit and the time you study it the world will have moved on.
This is a brief summary of advantages. You might have some of your own that do not appear in this list.
Reduced Office Costs: If people are working at home, the company does not need to provide them with office space. While it is likely that people will still want to have an office (as the office is useful), they will not need to make use of it as much, and it might even be possible to share office space, so the cost of maintaining an office will be reduced.
Reduced Commute Time: Working from home removes commute times.
Interaction Between Distant Locales: Working over the Internet enables people in different locales to work together. This is not perfect, but it works very well. People can share information and even collaborate, in real-time, on projects. For instance, a team designing an automobile may put the electronic specifications online (in some secure format), and different individuals and groups may work on it simultaneously.
Flexible Scheduling: Workers working at home can generally also work in their own time. While this does reduce the ability to work collaboratively, the freedom from a strict office schedule enables a great deal of flexibility. This will include people working less than the traditional 40-hour week. It also includes people collaborating across different time zones.
More Flexible Company: A traditional company that works over the Internet is more flexible. Time sheets only need to be maintained in one locale. Managers can manage people in different locales. Stock-taking can be centralised.
Knowledge Based Company: The definition of a high technology company is one where more than 25% of the company budget is based on research. These companies are focused on generating new knowledge. This includes software development and bio-technology companies. These are rapidly growing companies, and are generally very profitable. They need to foster good environments for their employees so that they will be able to be creative. The Internet enables these companies to make their employees happy, by making their work more efficient and more flexible.
Value Added Company: If you can add value your company will make money. Redundant business processes being carried out in different branches of a company do not add value. Supplying useful information to your employees and your customers in a timely fashion does add value. The net enables the removal of the first, and the increase of the second.
Your answer may not be as detailed as the one presented below, but perhaps you touched on similar areas.
Here some thoughts followed by a primitive visualisation:
What do we want from the virtual meeting place?
communication where there is no obligation
capability of being quiet and just 'drinking in the atmosphere'
no censor / boss / checker
an array of snippets
key point: The meeting place is a convenient gathering point for all ranks, where all job roles to gather together socially.
You might think of the virtual meeting place as being like a digital version of a water fountain, and therefore there may be some associations with that concept.
informal discussion over a cup of water
key point: The "source of water" might also be a "source of ideas".
How would the environment work?
sipped moved on
sipped and drunk; more taken of same item
leave cup with comment
comment posted at cooler
key point: Randomness must lead to pattern making and connections not otherwise visible
Virtual meeting place visualised as a digital water fountain: Metaphorical thinking
In this visualisation of the virtual meeting place as a digital water fountain, you will notice that the protected informality of casual conversation between equals has been retained. An important feature of this design is that it allows people:
to say what they like
to remove them from inhibition (and the boss's scrutiny)
to allow them to say nothing but just listen
allow them to make patterns and seek connections in the cup stacking
to have a kind of mild therapy
to allow them to create new areas
and new beginnings
These components could be supported by visual metaphors (in the same way as an icon of a paper folder can be used to represent a collection of documents under Windows).
Elsewhere in the course you will be looking at HCI (Human Computer Interface), much of which is dependent not just on good visuals but on strong metaphors.
Technical Advantages of the Virtual Organisation
The technical advantages of the Virtual Organisation are powerful. Many of these are the same advantages obtained from a corporate intranet, but on a larger scale as the company can now span multiple sites:
Shared Documents: Documents are shared so copies on different machines are unnecessary.
Shared Information: Much more importantly, information is shared. Workers can easily access the information they need. This can lead to more efficient workers, and to much more rapid development times.
Distribution of Computational Cycles: Most machines are under-utilised. The machine I am currently working on is using about 5% of its CPU power. Another user could be using those cycles for a computationally expensive task. This is easily done in the virtual organisation.
Quick to Distribute Data: Data can be distributed by merely putting it on the server.
Disadvantages of the Virtual Organisation
Major Costs in Retraining: For some companies, a great deal of training will be needed to enable their employees to work over the Web.
Loss of Personal Support: When you are working from home, there really is no one close by to ask for help.
Loss of Supervision: Similarly, hands-on managers will not be able to "watch over" their employees. Some employees may be tempted to slack off at work (which is now at home). Some people find it very difficult to work at home.
Loss of Personal Communication Channels (incidental meetings, the water cooler). The office is a complex place. There is a great deal of information that is passed along in incidental places. It is usually a great place to meet people interested in your work.
Loss of Physical Contact: Some things are best done in person. Also, many physical cues go missing when there is no physical presence to communication, such as the ability to wave your hands and gesture while talking. Also, it is difficult to work with an actual physical artifact over the Net.
Transfer of office costs to home: many people do not have space to work from home. Additionally, they may not have an appropriate computer, or the home may be too noisy.
Technical Disadvantages of the Virtual Organisation
Major Costs to Move the Company To the Net: existing paper based solutions need to be translated to electronic formats. Existing electronic solutions need to be modified so that they can be accessed via the Web.
Possible Security Problems: secure solutions exist, but they have to be carefully implemented and maintained. Additionally, the work site — now being much more distributed — is much less secure: someone can break into the worker's home to steal data, as opposed to breaking into the office. As more things are moved onto the Internet, this security problem needs to be carefully considered.
Lack of Worker Technical Support: it is easy to provide technical support for computers and software in an office, but in a virtual company the technical support person is often a long way away. This problem can be reduced by providing good support over the Internet, but it cannot be eliminated.
Difficulty in Finding Information: This is a general problem, but it is certainly a problem for the virtual company. How to categorize information so that people can easily access it is a difficult problem to solve.
Maintaining Documents: Now that there are multiple people accessing the same document, multiple people may modify the same document at the same time. Assuring that the correct updates are made can be difficult. Software versioning systems can help, but again they do not eliminate the problem.
The music company is not particularly knowledge-based. The workers are largely there to interact with the customers. (Of course, the company could also benefit from e-commerce and virtual customer interaction.) The workers are largely independent of each other. They do not share a lot of knowledge.
On the other hand, companies like graphic designers (and software engineers) are creating something new. Several people are often working on the same project. These people don't need to be in the same place, especially when they can communicate over the Internet. The companies' sites could support mutual information, and the infrastructure could be developed (mostly in software) to enable collaborative work between people in different locations.
We quote twelve themes from Tapscott in the unit, and all of these are significant to characterising The New Economy. Three key elements are:
Networking and virtualisation
New rules of business that turn traditional rules of the economy upside down
Fast deals and entrepreneurship
With an electronic whiteboard, one master operator writes on the board and the picture is transmitted to remote viewers; an audio channel is usually available as well. With a shared whiteboard, all participants may write to the board for the others to see. Having many possible contributors introduces the notion of 'floor control' so as to prevent more than one participant changing the picture at any one time.
CSCW systems provide a mechanism to overcome some of the problem with virtual organisations where staff do not meet very often. These systems can support group communication when members of the group are in different physical locations.
Videoconferencing allows multiple groups of people located in different places to communicate with each other synchronously, (i.e. at the same time). Thus it brings at least some of the advantages of face-to-face meetings to groups of people who are not co-located.
Put simply, if the return on investment does not work out to be favourable, then the organisation is unlikely to take it up.
There are many possible answers to this, it just depends on your imagination! Virtual organisations might use the technology to give their distant colleagues a feel for what their new German headquarters is like. This is not necessarily likely to be very helpful to the organisation (or might it help combat some of the social problems faced by virtual organisations?). However, using the technology to bring together two designers, both working on the same artifact, to manipulate a prototype or to simulate a design problem, would be very helpful.