Doing Business in the Digital Age

Last week, I attended a conference in Baltimore on business portals, content, and collaboration that was hosted by the Gartner research organization. Although geared primarily toward information technology professionals, I found it incredibly useful – and relevant to this week’s readings – from a communication professional’s perspective.

The overarching theme of the conference was how to successfully implement Web 2.0 technologies in the business environment in a way that fosters an organically collaborative environment. Just as Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams say in their book Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, the speakers at this gathering continually emphasized that industries and firms need to harness mass collaboration to create real value for their employees.

Much of what is beginning to happen in the business world, as was made clear through case studies presented in the book, by the speakers at the conference, and even in today’s newspapers, has come about because the men and women now entering the workforce view communication and collaboration in a new way. Unlike what has occurred in the past, when technology made its way first from the business world and then to the public at large, technological change is being pushed from the public onto businesses.

The experiences younger workers today have with programs such as MySpace, YouTube, Twitter, or Wikipedia have given them very different ideas about privacy and greater trust in shared collaborative knowledge. They expect the same type of open, transparent structure they have grown accustomed to in their personal lives – and access to the same technology they use at home – to be just as readily available in the workplace.

This consumerist view that the new workforce brings to the office poses new challenges to businesses and other organizations. Not only do businesses have to rethink how they interact with their clients, vendors, and customers, they also have to think about how to relinquish control within their organizations. Businesses need to understand that the new tools will have tremendous implications for how people work, and that the line between the workplace and personal space is already blurred.

As much as Tapscott and Williams extol the virtues of the collaborative and open work environment that make up their idea of Wikinomics, enabling transparency among departments and breaking down internal silos of information can be tricky to accomplish even without the digital technologies now available to businesses. For companies that do attempt to implement social networking, blogs, wikis, and other collaboration tools, it can be a challenge to let these tools develop and grow organically. The traditional, hierarchical organizational structures and the communication channels that have developed to work in that environment need to be set aside entirely, which is a step many will find hard to take. There are, for example, legal, regulatory, and other compliance issues that are at stake.

Culturally, particularly for global organizations, implementing social and collaborative technologies can be even more difficult. Some cultures may take offense more easily over what others may see as simply regular online give and take. Language differences could slow down communication between countries, leading to misinterpretation over a medium that favors instant messaging and real-time communication.

Unleashing this type of environment should therefore be done gradually and with clear guidelines for employees – just as with any new system or workflow we have discussed in this class. Understanding your organization’s culture as well as its business product can help with this process. Moving from collaboration as a step in the work process to an attribute of the business as a whole requires new management, governance techniques, and process designs. Companies should identify the devotees to new technologies and let them evangelize to the others in the company.

Most important, companies need to target suitable groups first, link the new work environment and tools to existing business structures, but then let the new structure grow organically, understanding that using these new tools enable emergent processes to develop in unexpected ways. This is, after all, the point of the new digital age – in business and in our daily personal lives.

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