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Innovation--There and Not There

| On 01, Nov 2007

Jack Hipple

In a Business Week issue last year (Special Report,12/11/06) there was a fascinating article about Best Buy (the giant electonics retailer) pushing the limits of workers not being required to be at their workplaces. This follows trends established by AT&T, IBM, and Sun Microsystems, allowing–and in fact encouraging–employees to work at home or wherever they want to. Sun, for instance, reported they were saving $300million/yr. in real estate costs by not needing to pay for office space. The Best Buy manager who manages this program described it as “ TiVo for your work”. It’s also part of their recruiting pitch, certainly attractive to the “baby boomers” worrying about eldercare and “yuppies” worried about child care issues. All these “positives” relate to cost savings and employee convenience and morale. These seem to be the primary drivers and little thought has been give to the impact on other oraganizational actitities and strategy.This trend is still growing, as evidenced by a parallel Boston Consulting Group study of CEO’s expecting a big rise in the number of “unleashed” workers over the next five years.

We might ask, unleashed to do what? Have we thought about the affect of this on organizational innovation? There are certainly pros and cons. First, not everyone at work on a team is physically there at all times for meetings and discussions. Many traditional meetings will be held and decisions will be made by teleconference and video style meetings. This might make it easier to have meetings whenever we want them (or maybe not?), but if we are discussing a radical new idea or business concept, will we be able to read between the lines? See the facial expressions that might tell us that someone is not really comfortable with a decision and feels inhibited in expressing? What if their role is critical? Suppose we have a large number of Myers Briggs “introverts” overwhelmed by a few “extroverts”–will the remote discussions be as effective? Will more decisions be made by edict? Will we make a special effort to gain input from someone whose views we know are different, but is hard to find that day? Will certain meeting and decisions be scheduled for times when we know “disagreerers” are not likely to be able to attend? (“we know they’ll be picking up kids at that time”).

On the other hand, people not chained to their office furniture 8 hours a day might be exposed to trends and things they’ll never see at their workplace. They might see some interesting trend material on CNN while taking a break while working from home, a new product at the mall, a curiousity in a newspaper or publication they didn’t have time to read before, etc. This certainly has happened to me! Any of these might prompt some new product or business ideas they didn’t have before. Injecting these into their normal work situations might be a real positive. How do we make sure this happens? How about asking those “remote” workers, “what did you see that was different today?”

What will happen to teamwork? Will it be the same? Will we make what will now be a special effort to understand others’ styles and approaches to problem solving and idea generation? Will the constructive dialogue be the same over the phone or a video conference? Can you really tell where someone is coming from in an EM? Maybe if you have gotten to know them well, but what if you don’t actually spend some physical time together? Can you imagine what Ideo does being done remotely? On the other hand, consumer product research might improve with added external insights.

I find, as a TRIZ consultant working out of a home office situation, that the lack of contact with others for any significant length of time, begins to build frustration after a while and I just have to get out in the real world and talk to people other than EMailing. After 3 or 4 EM’s where we discuss something that has a disagreement or misunderstanding, I just have to pick up the phone. I’m considering changing my phone plan away from unlimited minutes as it is used so seldom any more! What are your experiences with this new trend and its effects on innovation? Positive? Negative? In what ways? How can we have the best of both worlds? Are such tools as Microsoft Live Meeting and Webex adequate substitutes?