New skills, new era

Tim at Cutting Through reads the same newspaper as me. He, too, was struck by an article in today’s Guardian about the changes in media habits of the current generation of 14-21-year-olds: a third of all young people online have launched their own blog or website.

As Tim points out, this generation of the ‘ultrawired’ will be joining the nation’s workforce in the next few years, bringing new expectations and technological capabilities. Not only does this threaten the future of the corporate IT function, I think it may also bring radical changes to the devices and software routinely employed. It may also change the nature of organisations.

I point out in my book that mobile telephones are no longer solely used for voice communications, but have evolved into more sophisticated devices that offer personal organisers, text messaging, web-browsing, email, cameras, video and music playback, and games. … And the computer in the living room might at different times be used additionally as a television, digital radio, music player, video recorder, digital editing suite, games console and – with VOIP – even a telephone.

Moreover, the emergence of reliable, always-on wireless technologies could mark the end of the proliferation of separate devices with built-in processors. We may find ourselves using one central unit to connect to the internet, combining the roles of firewall, router, switch, wireless access point and computer, and capable of managing data, voice and other audio, and images and videos. Depending on our different needs, we could then use a variety of simple interface devices that send and receive data from this central unit for telephony, audio and video entertainment, office communications, etc.

Combine these developments one stage further and we may find ourselves using mobile devices that act as conduits to applications and data – for both work and leisure – remotely hosted in a variety of secure repositories somewhere out on the internet.

Looking for a life-style that takes advantage of the mobile working opportunities offered by such new technologies, some individuals may opt to work as freelances, undertaking a succession of contracts of their own choice instead of working for an employer. Just as small firms might combine with others with complementary skills and/or resources, so individual professionals could combine with other independent practitioners to compete for work and then form part of the multi-disciplinary team appointed to undertake projects.

Being formed of a group of independent ‘e-lances’ or ‘tech-nomads’, the operational overheads of such a multi-disciplinary consortium are also likely to be lower, making their services more cost-effective – an advantage likely to be underlined if the team also uses low-cost collaboration technology to manage and share its data. The increasing ease-of-use and growing reliability of IT, the growing use of ‘Software as a Service’ or ASP solutions, and the (slowly) growing numbers of mobile, home-based workers may also accelerate organisational changes. Corporate IT departments may reduce in size or even become unnecessary.

Taken further (and probably stretching the blue skies stuff too far!), the organisations themselves might also become smaller or even break up altogether. Could we see loose ‘federations’ of self-employed individuals each recruited to undertake particular roles (from senior management down to the workface)? Such individuals might also – as far as IT is concerned – be self-servicing, taking out contracts with hardware and service providers to obtain and use the mobile devices they need to interface with the software and data repositories they routinely use for their work and play.

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SaaS: view from the trenches

An article presents some of the pros and cons of Software as a Service (SaaS) from the perspective of an independent software vendor (Chris Miranda of eMeta) who is clearly an SaaS enthusiast. He added a couple of advantages that I hadn’t fully realised.

One argument that will find favour with softwaver vendors is that "Piracy issues cease to exist in the SaaS world — they simply go away. Since users have to visit a Web site to gain access to software, what can be pirated?"

From the customers’ perspective, another advantage arises from the lower costs involved in changing between different SaaS providers: "software quality will likely increase industry-wide, due to the heightened competition that should result from lower switching costs. Both vendor and customer win with the service model."

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Teleworking revolution: not yet

A leading article discusses the latest findings from an Office of National Statistics (ONS) study of teleworking in the UK.

The headline figures sound promising: home-working has more than doubled in the past eight years with 2.5 million Britons working at home. However, as points out, the majority were self-employed, and only a measly four per cent of employees were allowed to be teleworkers. The conclusion: "businesses have some way to go in providing the technologies and policies that enable a truly mobile and flexible workforce".

In my view, the increasing ease-of-use and growing reliability of IT, the growing use of ASP-delivered solutions (such as extranets), and the emergence in many organisations of mobile, home-based workers – so-called ‘tech nomads’ – may accelerate change. The higher expectations created by ASPs may also motivate organisations to demand more of their IT departments and vendors of traditional IT tools.

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Do exhibitions work? (2)

Following my 22 September post, I visited the PropIT show at London’s Olympia this morning. It wasn’t very busy. I spoke to four different exhibitors and they all told roughly the same story: it was busy first thing yesterday but then tailed off, while today had started like yesterday afternoon….

I commiserated with the organiser Mike Sherrard who – as usual – had put in a lot of effort to promote the event. I am not convinced that running the event alongside a show focused on FM products and services providers works for IT vendors; it particularly falls short where those IT vendors’ products are intended for the early design and construction phases of a building project, as opposed to FM.

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EC Harris stays with Citadon

Citadon has announced that EC Harris has signed a new contract to use Citadon Collaboration Workspace (CW) to drive collaboration on up to 50 new construction projects throughout Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

It’s not a major development. The deal continues a relationship between the businesses dating back to 2000 when EC Harris was one of the investors in the ill-fated UK Bidcom Ltd joint venture (with fellow UK construction firms Carillion and Wates, plus KPMG). Bidcom Ltd was acquired by Citadon – itself the result of a 2000 merger between US-based Bidcom Inc and Cephren – in 2002 (Bidcom’s old ProjectNet solution is still marketed in the UK, through e-box – see recent post).

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Trusting the internet

One objection some people have to use of web-based technologies concerns security, and their lack of trust in the technologies to manage confidential or sensitive information. Yet, this uncertainty is slowly declining – the latest evidence comes from a survey of attitudes to online banking. The survey (reported by here) suggests more than a third of people in the UK (38 per cent) will be banking online in five years’ time (based on a sample of 2,115 people surveyed by the Future Foundation). This compares to only three per cent of respondents who were using internet banking in 1999, and 18 per cent this year.

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Charging crisis (2)

In my initial Charging crisis post I wondered about the ‘elephant hunter’ sales person analogy.

BIW CEO Colin Smith has filled in a gap in my knowledge. In IT businesses, apparently, sales personnel were advised to nurture three different types of account: ‘rabbits’ that could be converted into frequent, small sales; ‘deer’ that would yield medium-sized sales but less frequently; and ‘elephants’ – infrequent and difficult to finish off but yielding big money.

This doesn’t leave me any closer to an analogy for ASP salespeople. After all, the ASP will be receiving regular, small payments from its customer, not getting a single up-front licence payment; maybe we could liken them to honey-bees, returning regularly to particular flowers to collect nectar? Anyone get a better suggestion?

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No, it’s not a misprint. IPCRES is the strange name given to a group of UK businesses, describing themselves as "the industry-leading Project Management & Property IT Solution Providers". One of the group is extranet provider Cadweb; the others are ICON (design standards software), EPC Integration (project management) and The FM Company (facilities management).

I tried finding a rationale for the IPCRES name, but the website isn’t forthcoming on that issue. It can’t be an abbreviation or acronym formed from the initials of the four companies. It doesn’t appear to have any links with the Insurers Property Crime RESearch working group or the Indiana Pervasive Computing RESearch Initiative. And there is no obvious link to "The Ipcress File", the Len Deighton novel and film (starring Michael Caine): an espionage and brainwashing thriller where IPCRESS means ‘Induction of Psychoneuroses by Conditioned Reflex Under Stress’ (as Michael might add: "And not a lot of people know that").

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Social aspects of collaboration

As a sociologist (OK, my doctorate was in criminology, but I had to do all the sociological stuff first) now working in the construction industry, I have long been interested in team dynamics – an interest stimulated still further by the challenge of incorporating technology into the mix. Thanks to the guys at Cutting Through on two counts.

First, they link to an interesting recent paper by Dr Niki Panteli from Bath University School of Management, looking at how to develop trust within virtual teams.

Second, they expanded on some of the issues, highlighting three ways in which technology can play a part in the communication process. Their focus does not appear to be project extranets, but the ideas can certainly be applied to implementation of construction collaboration technologies:

  1. ensure that there’s at least one physical face-to-face meeting between team members during the course of the project. On most construction projects, this should not be a problem – face-to-face meetings have long been a regular feature of project teamwork, and most extranet implementation processes tend to include initial face-to-face workshops and training sessions with team members; on some projects, teams also hold periodic user group meetings too.
  2. put together a ‘biography page’ somewhere on the project intranet. They suggest each team member should contribute a mugshot, a potted biography and some social detail (eg: ‘three things no-one knows about me’). For intranet, read extranet also, I think – too many user profiles contain little more than name, company and contact details.
  3. build on the background by using a project blog as a means of communicating between team members so that an individual’s personal style comes through instead of being throttled by dry and impersonal project documentation. I like this idea too, but some traditional construction professionals might be nervous about how ‘chatty’ exchanges might be accommodated alongside the formal interactions – particularly when one output of the extranet will be a complete archive and audit trail of all individual project-related interactions. Running a separate project blog, however, runs the risk of creating a parallel route for communications, undermining the completeness of the project extranet.

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Differentiation by extranet

I have written so much over the past year or so that I sometimes forget what’s been published. While browsing the legal sector blog, Knowledgeline, I found a post about how extranets can help legal firms differentiate themselves from their competitors.

This reminded that I wrote an article (September 2004) on a similar topic for the Construction Marketing Community (a great resource for construction industry marketeers). Entitled What Construction Marketing Professionals Need to Know about Collaboration Technology, my article outlined several potential opportunities for AEC firms to differentiate themselves. For example:

  • Meet customers’ demands that their supply chain partners are ‘internet-literate’
  • Build new service offers by, for example, combining their traditional strengths with expertise in implementing and supporting collaboration technology (eg: IT audits, consultancy, training)
  • Achieve market positioning as innovators – championing the Latham and Egan principles of partnering, lean construction and integration
  • Build better processes – collaboration technology can help improve the business’s internal processes, and improve their control and management of projects and supply chains
  • Make pricing more competitive – by knowing the cost savings that can arise from using the technology, consultants or contractors can also price their services more competitively.

I also argued that increased use of collaboration technology may also lead supply chain SMEs to rethink how they respond to customer opportunities. They might, for example, form temporary consortia – Egan described them as ‘virtual companies’ in Rethinking Construction – pooling resources so that they can collectively respond more effectively to their customers’ demands.

On their own, many small contractors, subcontractors and consultants may be unable to provide required levels of service. But by combining with other enterprises with complementary skills and resources, and using collaboration technology to share data, they could become valuable members of the client’s team.

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