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02 November 2009
Email alone has done more to change the culture of organisations than all the fancy change agents, gurus and management consultants you care to mention. But is all this change really for the good? Technology apologists (not that many actually feel the need to apologise) claim that this increased connectivity has increased the flow of communication - after all even junior clerks are just a click away from direct access to senior partners across the globe. But without wishing to sound like some antediluvian Luddite, harping back to 'the good old days', there was a time when communication meant more than just sending messages. Communicating used to actually involve being interpreted and understood. And interpretation is easier to control in a personal exchange than in the cold and often harsh world of email.
For those at the top of organisations, it is difficult to overplay the seriousness of the technological challenge. As the opportunities to disseminate information increase dramatically with new channels opening all the time (next up, real-time broadcasts of board meetings to employee desktops) the real challenge will be how to keep continuity. Greater choice for employees to say how and where they receive messages and even what information they receive could easily lead to a further breakdown of culture. The technology already exists to allow employees to create individual desktop websites whereby they decide what information they want on their desktop. The company intranet will give way to the employee portal, through which employees are able to see and amend their holiday records, benefits and personnel files. It's a level of transparency that not many firms are able to cope with at the moment, but which all will have to sign up to if they do not want to lose key staff to competing organisations that are wise to the information game.
But in the short term, while a few leading-edge employers play with the concept of employee portals, many more are grappling with the more prosaic issue of internet access and employee trust. Technological development means that most new computers are shipped with pre-installed internet access, which makes it more difficult to prevent employees using it. The argument gets even muddier as more staff can stake a plausible claim to needing internet access to be able to get their work done. The problem is that employers can easily end up paying people to spend entire days shopping online for a new fridge or searching out the best deal for a flight to Spain.
Of course some of the arguments, and many of the policies, are merely rehashed versions of those used to police the use of work telephones to make personal calls, but with one major difference. Emailing a group of friends to arrange a night out, or surfing the web to find out what your old school friends are up to, can be hard to differentiate from work.
It's not until clients start to complain, or worse still, switch their business to a rival firm, that the lack of work becomes apparent. The problem is that draconian codes for access can be equally damaging to productivity. For many, the ability to get the odd personal chore done at work means they are less concerned about working the long hours that many firms now demand. And as more firms line up to offer more web-based payroll and benefits information, or even web-based concierge services, providing just the sort of lifestyle management facilities that employees are effectively sorting for themselves through the web, their position begins to look increasingly untenable. It's time more employers faced up to the fact that investing trust in staff, especially in a professional environment, is almost always rewarded with a responsible attitude from staff.