At a recent gathering of business leaders and opinion formers hosted in London by IBM, topics as diverse as the impact of individual capitalism and networked business were debated with many interesting conclusions and points for future discussion. Here, Jacqueline Davey, Vice President of the IBM Business Partner Organisation, explores the main points of discussion, debate and disagreement.

The internet and social networks are dramatically changing the way we work, from the way teams form and collaborate to the nature of the results that are delivered back to the business for which these teams work.

Many interconnected themes are affecting the work environment today and will continue to change the future of work. Whether it is the broader macroeconomic environment; generational trends (X, Y and so on);management thinking or the disruptive impact of social networking, we all seem to be living in unprecedented and insecure times.

Whether we are the CEO or an intern, everyone is feeling the pressure of so much change, uncertainty and disruption to old business models and ways of thinking. Partly propelled by economic uncertaintyand partly by changing methods, patterns and approaches to work, UK businesses are now just starting to engage with the challenges that face us in the next decade.

From the discussions IBM hosted on The Future of Work, it is clear that there are still many more questions than answers. So what are these challenges and what are the potential responses?

The first challenge with all of these connected areas is knowing where to start and the second is knowing where and if technology can play a role in the tackling and management of these complex business and societal dynamics.

As Will Davis from Demos and Research Fellow, Said Business School, Oxford University, observed at the event, the interconnected nature of work today makes it hard to predict the future, and even when you try, the predictions often do not come true: “Transformative changes have come about more subtly than might have been predicted, particularly when it comes to how technology changes working life.”

The discussion concluded that the future of work came down to three key areas: the promotion of ecosystem economics, collaboration and teaming.

David and Goliath incomplete commercial harmony

It was clear to Julie Meyer, Chief Executive and Founder of Ariadne Capital and star of BBC’s Dragon’s Den Online, that individual capitalism is a key driver of economic prosperity, particularly for small to medium sized businesses. She advocated the idea of ecosystem economics, a concept that IBM promotes and understands as demonstrated through its very active Business Partner community. 

Whereas the ‘past of work’ was about competition, Julie believes that the future of work is all about individuals and small business working as partners with larger enterprises and these are the companies that she actively seeks out as investment opportunities at Ariadne Capital. As she explained in rather colourful terms: “Every David was out to slay Goliath with a slingshot.Today, David and Goliath have to work together.”

It is this profound network orientation, away from the linear business models of the past,which will drive global business in the future, according to Julie. Ecosystemeconomics is becoming increasingly important to individual capitalists or‘freeformers’ and the organisations with whom they wish to do business. She cited the financial services company, Monetise, which instead of competing with banks, “helped banks and mobile carriers make more of their existing ATM assets by providing services that these institutions could not provide themselves”.

Julie noted that there are more than simple profit motivations to be derived from embracing individual capitalism. “The free market has lifted one billion people out of poverty because people now treat themselves as brands and even P&Ls”. This, she claimed, is helping “economics trump politics”.

So if the future of work for Julie is partly about the promotion of individual capitalism, how do small and medium sized businesses make the most of the opportunity? Employ ecosystem economics and involve everyone, was Julie’s succinct response.

How do companies adopt the new way of working?

The idea of inclusiveness came up in the discussion on multiple occasions. How do you foster a culture that ensures the best and brightest brains in the world of future work are able to form teams, address a business problem and disband easily without re-engineering the fundamentals of an established business?

The internet, broadband and modern telephony has changed the world of work helping us to collaborate locally and globally. It has also changed who we consider to be a colleague, as team members can increasingly come from both inside and outside the organisations in which we work.

We are also becoming accustomed to work being more distributed and remote. For instance,some people who work for call centres are working from home today because the technology makes the management and routing of these calls easy.

However, the IBM Institute of Business Value recently conducted a study across 275 senior executives on the new ways of working. The study found that many organisations still have critical capability and technology gaps that are hindering greater agility. To address this and to work effectively in a complex, fast-paced and uncertain business environment, organisations need to be able to:

• Rapidly or automatically reconfigure business processes and skills to address unexpected challenges and take advantage of new opportunities.

 • Make both internal and external collaboration central to how work gets done - not an after thought.

• Draw upon the right combination of integrated information and analytical tools to help decision makers make timelier, more informed choices.

As described in the discussion, technology enables collaboration and it also assists better decision-making.

For many years, companies have used data to make business decisions to gain competitive advantage. Today, business analytics takes it a step further so teams can create unique predictive capabilities.  By knowing what is happening now, what is likely to happen and what actions they should take, more informed decisions can be made.  Because of this,employers can place greater trust in their employees and empower them to tackle and solve complex business problems. Ultimately, this can lead to more distributed, collective and real-time leadership and decision-making across organisations.

The importance of obligation

While all these new tools and technologies enhance the decision-making process, they place new obligations on employees and employers. The social networking futurologist, Euan Semple, made the point that the word ‘future’ in the title of the event was problematic because to some extent, the future is already here. Especially when it comes to social networking: “I’ve been blogging for ten years and have been using LinkedIn for six,” he explained. That said, while the tools have been used for many years, Euan’s concern was that the associated organisational cultural, social and management changes might take up to 50 years to happen.

Euan described the social network as important, but the antithesis of business today: “We have trained people not to think and social networking requires new bonds of trust that enable people to expose their thoughts online”. He added: “Social networks are the antithesis of the conventional organisation. They create anorganic environment akin to Cotswold Villages, whereas most corporate IT systems are like Milton Keynes”.

Euan argued that the key to managing this within your company is to ask people to be responsible. It is only when you create a sense of mutual obligation between employee and employer that the real benefits of social networking appear.

Euan saw that there are currently many ‘unnecessary firewalls’ between stakeholders that inhibit creativity, but what he hoped to see in the future on a more consistent basis is the democratisation of the workplace. To make his point, he cited a famous quote from management thinker, Peter Drucker: “In the knowledge economy there are no such things as conscripts, only volunteers”.

Why small and medium sized businesses should get their heads into the clouds

One thing that became evident throughout the discussion is that technology can be an enabler of business and societal change.

The greatest social and work transformations tend to take place during the times of greatest economic uncertainty and upheaval, as Will noted: “Crises tend to foster moments of incredible innovation. We only need to look back to the 1970s when we saw the transition from the Fordist top-down style of management to the hierarchy-less that typifies the modern business today.”

Near the end of the debate, the discussion shifted onto whether cloud computing offers one of those ground shifting moments in the life of small and medium sized businesses.

While cloud has been discussed for a number of years by vendors like IBM, it is becoming clear,that the current economic environment is leading more and more companies to view the cloud as a way of embracing the changing nature and preparing for the future of work, without adding to their overall costs or organisational overheads. I cited the example of IBM Lotus Engage and Lotus Live products,which provides business with a secure and reliable means of collaboration for a few pounds per user per month.

Cloud is a means by which companies can promote greater collaboration, dynamic teaming and also extend their organisation out to embrace the full potential of what Julie called ecosystem economics. It is also a means by which IT can become less like‘Milton Keynes’ and more like the ‘Cotswold Villages’ as Euan described.


Is the future of work here today?

Technology is at the heart of the future of work and tools like cloud, collaboration, social networking and analytics are being used today.  Not only is cloud affecting the structure and location of human resources, it is also affecting the empowerment of employees and the way we work with our business ecosystem,our customers and suppliers.  It seems that with technology and new ecosystems, size matters less and less. SMEs can compete and work alongside larger organisations on a local and global scale. The future of work is already here today, it is up to us to take full advantage of its potential.