Enterprise Toolbox

SAN MATEO (01/31/2000) - The business case for implementing broadband technologies is quite appealing. A new breed of rich-media applications, such as e-commerce systems that leverage interactive video and audio, could provide a competitive advantage for many companies. What's more, business-to-business connectivity costs should fall dramatically as broadband speeds achieve near parity with traditional, more expensive WAN connections.

If current research proves anything close to accurate, broadband should definitely be on your radar. For example, recent Gartner Group Inc. data shows that by 2001 more than 60 percent of U.S. homes will be equipped with high-speed data services such as cable modems or DSL. Moreover, estimates show that by 2004 close to 9 million U.S. homes will have cable-modem service while another 7 million will have DSL service of some kind.

These estimates provide a potent draw for companies that want to enhance customer experiences and business-partner relationships. And I believe this is where much of the forthcoming broadband discussion will center. Yet there is another, less visible aspect to broadband that can yield tangible corporate benefits. I'm speaking, of course, about integrating broadband technologies and rich-media applications into corporate culture and internal business processes.

If one evaluates the expected influx of cable modems and DSL connections within the context of a traditional organizational structure, there are obvious benefits. For example, maintaining Web-based employee orientation materials using video content will prove more cost-effective than setting up monthly new-employee sessions in a classroom.

Likewise, producing training materials or purchasing external training products and services will prove more efficient than sending employees to off-site education courses. Travel expenditures will decrease, and your staff can use interactive video to achieve a classroom-like experience.

Traditional organizational structures have revolved primarily around location-specific activities and face-to-face communication. I believe broadband technologies will play a significant role in redefining what we now think of as the typical organizational structure. The availability of higher bandwidth, together with rich-media applications such as online collaboration and video-and audio-conferencing solutions, will in large part remove the requirement to maintain an organization that is dependent on specific locations. In fact, traditional structures may well become less efficient as companies that adopt the location-independent model respond more rapidly to market changes.

Aside from competitive advantages, this new organizational model can bring other benefits. For example, less office space will be needed to support the tasks that require location-specific personnel.

Staff productivity will likely increase as commute times decrease.

Environmental conditions would also improve in the process. And employees would be able to better balance work and family life.

Taking it one step further, your employees could be based "virtually" anywhere.

As long as you can measure their workloads and insure their accountability, there is no reason why your virtual team might not include geographically dispersed persons. Your recruitment efforts could expand greatly and enable you to find the best and brightest minds to work toward corporate goals.

However, adopting the locationless organizational model is not without its challenges. For example, Congress is already examining how a far-flung workforce will affect existing employment laws. Concern has also been raised over insuring employer-provided equipment in distributed settings. And many companies are struggling with supporting a distributed workforce.

Yet these legal, insurance, and people-related issues can be resolved. The help desk itself might be a distributed workforce.

I've examined two types of corporate approaches to changing the organizational model with the onset of broadband and rich-media applications. In the first method, I've seen organizations attempt to implement these new technologies within the confines of a traditional structure.

Many of these firms have implemented cable-modem or DSL connectivity for occasional teleworking employees. However, in many cases, that is where the effort stops. The wealth of communication and collaboration tools available is often passed over in favor of the traditional face-to-face communication. In this case, the remote connectivity becomes just one more function for IT to support.

By contrast, I've observed several companies that have completely adopted the locationless model. At these firms, communication and collaboration are increased, business decisions are made more rapidly, and the distributed employees are very productive.

At many companies, the leap to locationless working may be a real culture shock. The best way to examine this new organizational model is to try a pilot program with a small virtual team. The results may surprise you.

Have you thought about the organization of the future yet? Write to me at maggie_biggs@infoworld.com.

Maggie Biggs is director of the InfoWorld Test Center. She has more than 15 years of strategic and tactical IT experience in the financial sector.

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