I'm always surprised when I walk into IT departments and they prove to be the laggards of the company when it comes to workplace transformation. Surprisingly, many IT organizations are not harbingers of things to come with regard to movement toward a virtual enterprise.
The virtual enterprise, by the way, is a world in which a network-centric group of employees, free agents, and alliance partners come together to get the job done. Where they work is irrelevant; the point is that they all are tied in to a nicely woven web of communication and data networks, remote access, and interoperable Web applications.
I'll admit we are not quite "there" yet (especially the part about the interoperable Web applications). Still, it's unfortunate that IT projects are typically planned and implemented without much regard for how the system will affect traditional facilities infrastructure and alternative deployment of staff. Forward-thinking companies are already taking steps toward balancing between physical and digital infrastructure. The following are some of the strategies they are using.
The virtualization of office personnel: This involves moving workers from offices to alternative workplace arrangements (such as telecommuting, office hoteling, desk sharing, or virtual office modes) in which employees work continuously from the field using laptops, cell phones, and other mobile devices. The payoff here is lower infrastructure costs and improved worker productivity. The technology that makes it possible is effective and reliable remote access to company systems and services, including help desk, portable technologies and computing, and communications essentials. Enterprises should analyze office work patterns from the standpoints of proximity, need, and mobility, and shift job functions to "cyberenvironments" accordingly.
Shifting customer service to the point of service: This strategy shifts customer service and support from office settings to retail environments or self-service devices. A classic example of this is the automated teller machine. A variation on this theme is the repositioning of banking services into supermarkets. The payoff to this approach is increased customer service, incremental sales revenue, and reduced occupancy costs. Enabling technologies include point-of-sale devices, card readers, customer support applications, and WANs. All customer service and product demonstration activities are candidates for repositioning to walk-in or self-service facilities.
Shifting from retail settings to cybersettings: This strategy is the most dramatic, and can be seen in the shifting of retail sales from stores to Web sites. The payoff here is reduced fixed infrastructure costs, reduced inventory, customized solutions, fast response, and improved customer intimacy. Technology enablers include sophisticated Internet connectivity, substantial Web-server capacity, personalization software, customer service and support applications, transaction processing capabilities, and electronic links with distribution partners. Companies should shift sales and service processes to the Web.
Shifting back-office operations to lower-cost locations: Many enterprises have administrative operations in expensive downtown or suburban offices that house large percentages of administrative staff. Redeploying administrative operations can save bundles, particularly in reduced occupancy cost and property taxes. Doing this requires standardized order entry, billing and collection systems, high-speed data connectivity, and workflow. Additionally, sophisticated customer support applications are critical to ensure effective administrative support, inside and outside the enterprise. Enterprises should evaluate opportunities to redeploy, reduce, or eliminate back-office operations.
By integrating IT facilities, companies can eliminate or reduce facilities capacity, improve employee flexibility, and improve customer service and response. The truth is that the traditional workplace is incompatible with the mobile and collaborative style of the knowledge-based workforce. Managers who fail to align IT strategy with facilities and real estate strategy are missing a big opportunity to save money and improve the effectiveness of their business.
Barb Gomolski is a research director at Gartner Group Inc., a Stamford, Conn.-based research firm that helps clients achieve their business objectives through intelligent and efficient use of technology.