Over the past six months or so, I’ve been increasingly hearing from IT leaders in organizations who have been surprised by a shift in how people work digitally. The work patterns related to this shift are far from new and, in fact, are well over a decade old.
Nonetheless, some have been surprised by who, why, and how broadly and rapidly the change is happening. Those caught by surprise are often in IT departments, and they are surprised by the changing work patterns of sales, teleworkers, and others in the field and away from the office. Looking at these shifts in detail, how those who are surprised by these shifts came to be surprised isn’t so surprising.
Over the past 3 to 4 years, there has been a shift in how people work. Advancements in mobile devices and applications is part of it, but the prevalence of touch tablets has been a large contributor to the change. The light weight and ability use them for much of users’ daily work makes tablets a relatively good choice for those working on the road or away from the office. Initially, many thought that not having Microsoft Office was going to be a hinderance for tablet use, but that has not been the case.
But, the same time touch tablets were becoming a largely viable option, how and where information and knowledge work was happening shifted too. Work was increasingly happening in online services where text and data was entered into an online service, often one with collaborative or social functionality. The daily report was no longer a document completed in Word and then uploaded; it is now text that is entered in a service that connects colleagues and team members who do follow-on work with that input. The conversations happens around the information and the content shared initially can be edited, commented on, and linked to externally.
Those in the field may not be online all the time, but they are collecting notes and information throughout their day, often doing so in small, lightweight, text-focused apps. The small writing apps often have Markdown as their means to add structure (structure replaced style), including headers, bold, italics, bullets, links (to web pages, online spreadsheets, images, or other). Markdown isn’t new and many of the online services people are using have handled Markdown text for years. Up to this point, Markdown had mostly been in the geek domain, but now sales folks, admins, field workers, and other traditionally non-tech-centric workers are using it as well.
Frequent users say that the 6 to 8 regular Markdown annotations (such as heading levels, bold, italics, links, and pull quotes) were quick and easy to learn. MS Word has nearly 200 functions in its ribbons these days, but many people use only 15 to 20 of those, and most often use 6 to 10, for which they use keystrokes. Yes, the common 6 to 10 most used and easily found Word functions map to those provided within Markdown. Many text apps have buttons for Markdown for user convenience.
This shift to simplified text focus (that doesn’t require Microsoft Word) has delivered quite a few benefits. The first is that it is incredibly easy to share contents and files with anybody, as there are no “I have the wrong version of Word” or “I copied it into my document and my document is now a mess” problems. The files sizes are also lightweight and easy to email or upload, even in environments with network bandwidth constraints. Most of their work is going to be copied into text boxes in an online system anyway, or, if folks are working in a Word Document, it will likely be parsed and turned into plain text, rich text, or HTML (things Markdown-related tools easily output as alternate options).
But, of all these small benefits, the largest is the increase in productivity. Many of those working in this manner, mostly because they were on devices that didn’t have Microsoft Word, found they were “far more productive outside their old productivity tools.” Nearly every person I have talked with who has watched this shift happen has uttered this statement or something very similar about productivity. Workers are no longer battling their tools (Office / Word), but are simply producing.
Shift Sneaks Up When You are Headsdown Building Past Models
Without exception, every person in IT who has tracked me down to have this discussion (with the aim of finding out if they are alone and how to start thinking about it), is coming out of a very long SharePoint implementation. They were heads down on their (initially) 2 to 4 month Sharepoint project, that ended up being an order of magnitude longer, more expensive, and larger in scale and scope than expected, so they didn’t see this shift happening.
Often, these folks in IT were pointed in my direction by someone in a different division within the organization who I talked with or worked with on collaborative and social working projects to support their needs. These systems and services provide the text boxes into which their workers were pasting text from their tablet text-writing apps. Their work and work models shifted drastically while IT was heavily focused on a solution that wasn’t solving needs for large portions of the organization.
IT really wasn’t aware of this shift until they went to renew their Microsoft Office licenses and were being moved to Office 365, which seemed like it was going to meet the online working needs of the systems they had been asked to deliver years back. What IT was not expecting was that 25% to 40% (or, as I have been hearing over the past couple weeks, 60%) of their workers, many of whom are working out in the field or virtually, refuse to go back to using Office (often voicing this refusal loudly and strongly). IT found they had paid for seats that wouldn’t be used, an incredibly expensive proposition. Office 365 can be justifiable to many when it is being used, but to sit unused is another story. The senior IT folks have been saying their percentage of workers shifting to this new (Office-free) model is going up by 2% each month, as means of working more easily and efficiently in other ways spreads (e.g. 25% in April 2013 to 27% in May 2013).
More Productive Not Using Productivity Tools
This big shift relates to the fact that traditional productivity tools weren’t based on efficient productivity. Most standard productivity tools grew from a paper-based model and world moved to the digital world. As work has largely changed from passing documents around to posting and working on content in more open collaborative and group environments that align with what our modern work has became, the model of a “doc” disappeared. The document as an object was the focus of the “system of record,” but now, in a “systems of engagement” model, focus is on the milestones met and status marker activities in the online collaborative, collective, and team (including group / community / network) interaction systems.
Tools that got in the way of productivity and didn’t meet needs as people began to work more interactively in digital-focused and digital-appropriate environments are no longer the default tools of choice. We are working a little more like humans interact naturally and having technology adapt to these ways of working, rather than making humans learn a lot about how to adapt to traditional technology to do their work.