UK: SHARING IN AN IT FUTURE - "COMPUTER SUPPORTER CO-OPERATIVE WORKING". - Robert Heller sees "computer supporter co-operative working" as a trend not to be resisted.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Robert Heller sees "computer supporter co-operative working" as a trend not to be resisted.

Ask today's average senior manager about virtuality, groupware and the electronic boardroom, and a glazed look may cross the eyes - three times. Nor will the initials CSCW mean much more, even when expanded to 'computer supported co-operative working'. Tomorrow's manager in tomorrow's company will be better informed, for this is the new wave in the IT revolution.

For IT revolutionaries, of course, new waves are old hat. The pattern of development in this onrushing field is that the nerds and the cybermen use routinely what the routine manager regards as state-of-the-art. When management starts to catch up, the leaders are already far ahead. But that is less true today, on one researched view: 'The gap between IT and business is shrinking rapidly.' The gap was a great divide. Only six years ago, according to the Times/ Arthur Andersen survey, only 10% of directors thought it worth their while to know anything whatsoever about IT. Today's picture, as unveiled by Sema Consulting Group, is radically different: 83% of those surveyed 'felt that they understood the potential role of IT in their business', and '92% agreed that such an understanding was necessary'.

The old moans have dwindled: instead of complaints about over-time, over-cost, prematurely obsolescent and underperforming systems, two-thirds of the survey 'had confidence in IT in their organisation based on a history of successful projects'. What's more, IT ranks second only to finance (85% versus 95%) in making management contributions that are 'significant' or 'very significant'.

The picture glows less brightly, though, when IT uses are examined. Two-fifths of the respondents 'agreed strongly that IT was adding value' in automating procedures. Only a quarter felt the same way about the provision of new information. 'Sustaining change' attracted a lower score still: a fifth. That's the area where the newer and most sophisticated hardware and software makes its contribution: in enabling business transformation through cultural change. The most extreme transformation creates the 'virtual organisation', in which products are made to order with near-instantaneous delivery, and with the most effective use of resources throughout the business system - meaning not only the ultimate seller, but everybody along the entire supply chain. Neither the virtual ideal nor the increasingly necessary approaches towards that ideal can be achieved without simultaneous, group access to information and decisions.

While the business logic is compelling, managers also have the best of personal reasons for moving off the IT sidelines - if you believe research by Princeton's Alan B Krueger. Over the 1980s, computer-users outearned their computerless counterparts by a minimum of 10%. So did the brighter, higher-potential managers take to the computer more readily, rather than the computer creating the potential? The answer hardly matters.

First, if the brightest and best are wised up to the computer's management powers, less starry managers dare not compete with less electronic back-up. Second, two ineluctable trends are forcing managers into the IT age. To quote Fortune, 'The core of the new economy consists of converging telecommunications and computer technologies, and to succeed you will need to use them.' Moreover, 'more and more work will be done by teams addressing projects that have a beginning and end'.

Vauxhall's new Omega executive car used, not one team, but 14 teams within the team, each one composed of representatives from the same 10 corporate functions. Co-operative teamwork can be conducted without groupware, just as airlines used to operate without computer terminals, or store chains without electronic point of sale. But only a managerial masochist sticks to outdated ways - and these days, that won't be for long.

That's simply because the business will be run out of town by its far more competitive rivals. Resistance to the electronic tide would make some kind of sense if its acceptance involved great understanding of tricky technology. The technological wonders, however, can now be taken for granted: the non-technical manager can happily ignore the acronyms and neologisms. The latter abound - as in a new book, Groupware in the 21st Century, which charts the path into the millennium. But it's the words of Microsoft's Bill Gates that resound: 'It's simply allowing everyone in your company to collaborate, allowing you to track everything you've done on a new product design, everything you've done with customers.' Put like that, with any major function in the business system inserted for 'new product design', the concept is both simple and irresistible. After all, what are progressive leaders trying to achieve? They seek greater speed of execution and response: to mobilise all the talents in the organisation and assemble them selectively to tackle its challenges; and to collect and analyse all the facts relating to those problems and opportunities.

Having built the right platform for decisions, the vital next stage is to share those decisions and to mobilise the support which turns decisions into actions - fast. The Sema prescription fits these conditions: 'flexible client/server architectures; networked PCs supporting groupware applications; wide area networks for sharing information; advanced telecommunications to support constantly changing needs'. If top managers aren't investing in these, they're heading for trouble. If they don't know what they mean, they're in trouble already.

US industry is booming - industrial production is rising at 5% per annum. Despite this, US firms are continuing to strive for productivity gains and are keeping a tight rein on costs. As a result, the close link between changes in capacity use and unit labour costs in the manufacturing sector has broken down: costs have continued to fall while utilisation rates have risen. This minor productivity miracle has been aided by strong investment growth, led by increased spending on computers. The incentive to increase productivity is found in corporate comments about a lack of pricing power and the continued competitiveness of US markets, says Schroder Economics. Overseas firms have become increasingly involved in the US, such that imports now account for a quarter of final goods sales. Underlying this has been a sharp rise in exports from the Far East and an increased push from European firms starved of sales at home. This competition has kept a lid on US producer prices, forcing companies to watch their cost base. Looking ahead, overseas firms are unlikely to surrender market share even when their domestic markets recover. As the drive from the Far East continues, competition will remain intense and the search for productivity gains will persist.

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