Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Put mobile tools in employees' hands

Diane Jermyn

Individual productivity is the next frontier of growth for business,” says Antoine Leblond, senior vice-president of the Office Productivity Applications Group at Microsoft. “Software has a huge role to play in that. It’s really magical when people have these tools in their hands and get to make what they want.”

In the past 10 to 20 years, business has looked to technology to increase their business and hike productivity, explains the Montreal-born Mr. Leblond. But typically, it’s been focused on business processes – the way an enterprise functions – so it tends to be infrastructure focused. Now, however, he sees that businesses are starting to focus on the productivity of individuals within a corporation.

“It’s hard to measure that,” he says. “You can look at business processes and measure them effectively, but not individuals. At the same time, seeing how you can make the people in your organization more effective makes a whole lot of sense. The value of companies tend to be based on the ideas people have and what they are able to do.”

One issue is that companies are sometimes a little bit nervous about giving employees access to their technology.

“Giving people access to technology within the context of what they do is the key to all of this,” Mr. Leblond says. “You have to put these tools in people’s hands and let them figure out how to use them best.”

The millennial generation [born between 1980 and 2000] entering the work force has created another transformation about how people think about and use technology, Mr. Leblond says, because they have different expectations of technology. Because they use all sorts of social networking tools such as Facebook, Mr. Leblond believes this connection to people is a pivot point for finding information and communicating in different ways.

“They’re bringing social networking into the workplace and showing how that can actually meet the needs of business,” Mr. Leblond says. “Trends like that are really what’s behind the technical shifts that are going on right now.”

Millennials are very mobile, so they expect to be able to do things on their mobile phone browsers when they’re on the run and don’t have access to their home or office computer, Mr. Leblond says. It’s key to be responsive to the expectations and needs that the millennials have, so that a business has applications that run on a desktop or a laptop, but also ones that work on the phone.

Social computing is another hot trend that’s changing the way people work, according to Mr. Leblond. Social networking is a part of that, and so are collaboration and co-authoring – working on documents together and being able to share information effectively. Tools such as SharePoint, a social computing platform, gives users the places where they can actually work collaboratively in an efficient way, Mr. Leblond says.

The mobile work force is made up of the people who are not at their office, Mr. Leblond says. “There’s this huge dispersal geographically now of the work force. If you look at organizations in general, over 80 per cent now have remote workers, whether these are people who work in other locations or who telecommute from home. It’s not just figuring out how to let people connect, but how to let them connect together?”

One concern companies have is security. They want to have some level of control over the information they share outside of their organizations.

“Organizations are really eager to embrace a lot of these social networking things, but they’re also nervous about making sure they don’t lose control,” Mr. Leblond says. “The downside of most existing social networks is that they’re all very public. When we build social collaboration, a lot of the functionality is about how you manage that information, who has access to what and what kind of information is being exposed, because all that really matters to a business.”

The Canadian Oilers hockey team is a great example of collaboration and technology at work, Mr. Leblond says.

“The Oilers are really looking forward to the draft next season, but the draft is a challenging thing to manage,” he says.

“With scouts out looking at hundreds of players all over the country in Canada and the U.S., they needed to be able to assemble all that information and compare different players. So they had a tough information management problem. To solve it, they built this incredibly cool tool [on SharePoint] that’s become their draft and scouting tool. It’s a place for them to store and compare all the information about these players that they’re out scouting. It’s made a huge difference to them to be able to go through this process efficiently, yet in a very distributed and mobile way.”