Sunday, March 7, 2010

In a Down Economy, Businesses Are "Searching" For Something They've Lost. Productivity!

Since late 2008 we've all been suffering, and by "all" I mean everyone who participates in the global economy, through hard economic times in one way or another.  That is true for us as individuals and also true for the businesses people own themselves or work for as an employee/contractor. 

In these tough times, being in the business of selling communication and collaboration solutions to business customers has been, and still is, a big challenge. Businesses have been very reluctant to buy new equipment given their economic worries. In times like this both consumers and businesses stop spending and "batten down the hatches" in the hope of "riding out the storm below decks" hoping they don't get "blown into the rocks". 

It's been over 18 months now with hatches battened down tight and at last it seems the equity markets are relatively stable. So people are wondering if we are at last on the road to recovery. But despite the market stability there are still big problems. Layoffs have slowed but still continue. Unemployment is at 20 year highs. Business revenues continue to be soft and shaky. The workers who still have jobs are being asked to do more with less resources and less staff. One result of this "do more with less" state of business operations is recent data shows that productivity "per worker" is up.

But this increase in worker productivity is not turning into improved efficiency and success for businesses on an aggregate basis. The "per person" productivity numbers may be up but that is not translating into improved business productivity and equivalent increases in top line growth or bottom line results. This would seem counterintuitive wouldn't it? Employees are definitely working more hours and delivering more work per person. All the wasteful excess of travel, training, employee morale programs, pensions, benefits, heat, air conditioning and any other potentially "perk-like" compensation for employees is gone. Added to that savings it's safe to bet that all the the workers that these businesses perceived as "low producing" or "lower producing" have been let go during the layoffs. Shouldn't the result of all this "streamlining" and "rightsizing" be a lot of significantly more efficient and productive businesses? Why is that not happening? What's going on here?

Human psychology is what is going on here. Despite the recent focus by CEO's on trimming waste, excess and fat, an undeniable reality of business success is the human element. Turns out that the old platitude we heard a lot from corporate leadership and HR in the booming 90s that "people are our greatest asset" is again being proved true. Another human truism is when we work together in collaborative teams in the context of high morale we become more powerful and productive than when we work as individuals in low morale environments. Yes, we are proving to ourselves once again through this downturn that to have successful and thriving and profitable businesses, people actually matter. 

The reason I think this realization is happening again is something I saw when I started doing some investigating this week into what people were searching for related to "business collaboration". In using Google's ad-words keyword suggestion tool I saw some very intriguing keyword phrases suggested for me when I entered "business collaboration" as a set of seed keywords. Here is what popped out as the top 25 most searched for keyword phrases related to "business collaboration". This list and the search rankings tell a very interesting story.

The thing that immediately jumps out of this data for me is it looks like businesses are struggling with managing information and workflow in team contexts and are searching for solutions specific to team environments. I believe much of this is a result of a ramp up in use of highly distributed teams and the deep cuts in staff size. 

In the past a lot of information would get processed and problems solved by having face to face interactions in a common office location where communication fidelity was high. Another natural outcome of having teams physically working in a common location is "team cohesiveness" can be higher as people run into each other regularly/randomly in the physical environment of an office. These chance physical encounters very often result in very productive ad hoc meetings where workers make significant progress in solving a problem or agreeing to work together to produce a result.  "Chance" meetings would allow people to more regularly collaborate and address issues before they even emerge as problems. Now we have globally distributed teams spanning continents and cultures and all that sorting through info that was done in these face to face encounters has been lost.

The first 4 entries that are searched for most tell a story of people hoping to find innovative and free "open source" collaboration technology solutions to their "distributed and smaller workforces" productivity problems. The next 6 or 8 entries tell the story of where the problems are showing up, "supply chain, document management, procurement, workflow, team building, teamwork, content management".  It's clear businesses are struggling with teaming and process topics in the workplace. They are looking hard for technology to solve these productivity problems for them in the context of the new "globally distributed workplace".

Is the only solution a return to the days of large office buildings full of hundreds or thousands of centrally located workers? I don't think so. I think globally distributed and "virtual" workforces can work. But we need some new types of collaboration solutions for the enterprise worker and also some new "best practices" in using the collaboration technologies we already have. I'm convinced the teaming benefits of regular chance encounters, and the organic productivity those encounters delivered, can be recaptured.

But how do we do that given the economic and cultural challenges we face with the globally distributed workforce?  I have some ideas I will blog about in a follow-on post with a working title "Planning for Unplanned Collaboration". 

What's your take on this topic? Is your business suffering a loss of productivity due to loss of teamwork dynamics? Do the technologies you have at your fingertips today actually address the problems? Or do they perhaps even make them worse? How do you think we can "think differently" about how we use collaboration technologies to solve this problem?

Looking forward to your thoughts.
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