From Changing Tools to Making Progress

When a new tool is introduced into an existing setting, the existing setting has some degree of stability (hopefully more than less). In order for the new tool to have a practical impact on the existing setting, it needs to be embraced into the setting; it needs to change what is already there. This involves a degree of de-stabilisation – of change to the existing setting.

One way of thinking about it is that the existing setting has three design elements:

1. Office design – the physicality of the work place. e.g., the physical environment in which people get their work done – the office layout, shared desk areas, individual working spaces, private offices, open plan spaces, etc.

2. Task design – the nature of the work task. e.g., the elements of the process that people follow or embrace to get their work done – what information they access, what systems they use, which people they collaborate with, etc.

3. Cultural design – the fragrance of the work environment, the rules of engagement, and shared values. Perhaps that’s a funny way to think about culture, but to me culture is about smell – whether working in a place smells good or stinks.

Imagine a glass of water representing the existing setting, and an effervescent tablet the newly introduced change. If the water is frozen, the tablet will do nothing; it will just sit on the top. If two of the three slices of the existing setting are frozen, the tablet will have a concentrated effect on the liquid slice, but not do much to the others.

So if you drop new mobile devices into an existing setting, how far will the change go? One or more of the following could happen:

1. It could change office design, in that people are no longer tied to a physical desk or place to access work materials (using a tethered computer). People can now do their work at different places, such as remote offices, telecommuting arrangements, and third places (e.g., cafes).

2. It could change task design, so that people rely more on lightweight apps for doing their work than heavyweight IT systems. It could also give greater ability to support on-the-go tasks and in-the-moment data capture.

3. It could change cultural design, for example by increasing the quantity and quality of face-to-face interaction with customers, with real-time access to data to answer questions, solve problems, and provide service.

Or it could just be used as a new status symbol – something that contributes little to re-imagining effective work.

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