Co-engineering the Workplace

For the record, I don’t have an iPhone or an iPad, and I’m still not entirely sold on the idea of always being tethered to one device or another. But I will credit both devices (and the countless lower priced clones that are following them) with increasing our comfort with “apps”. An app can be described as a simple, user friendly encapsulation of some functionality (though an app can certainly be highly functional and complex). Apps are easy to develop, deploy and learn, in contrast to traditional desktop applications, which are typically complex affairs with multiple menus, windows and manuals.

This proliferation of app use, along with the ubiquity of mobile computing and social media and the dispersion of informatics and programming skills among professionals (the New Literacy) is a critical confluence of trends. It has already changed the way we do many things, such as socializing, shopping and traveling. I wanted to write about another arena where this trend will impact us – how we work. More specifically, I think that these trends will create new opportunities for us to actively shape our workplaces – something I will call “co-engineering the workplace”.

The best way to describe this idea is with an illustration. Say that Jim and Erica are coworkers and Jim provides some service to Erica (and other people like her within the company). Jim thus has to deal with multiple internal clients who are constantly calling and emailing him to learn about the progress of their specific requests. Having to manage many relationships becomes cumbersome for Jim and detracts from the work he does. Currently, there are several options for dealing with this:

  • Stay with the status quo.
  • Implement a project management mega-system to track and manage projects and work items.
  • Make use of small scale project management software, very likely as SaaS (Software as a Service).

However, I think that the three trends I described above can lend themselves to another option: Jim,Erica and their employer co-engineer a solution (think of Jim and Erica as typical employees and not IT personnel). It goes something like this:

  1. Jim tracks his work items on a spreadsheet. He decides to make a part of his spreadsheet available internally through an API.
  2. Jim contacts the corporate IT department. An advisor looks over his concept, checking for any critical issues with privacy, security or scalability.
  3. Jim creates the API and registers it with the corporate intranet or the internal corporate cloud.
  4. Jim emails all potential users about his API. Those that are interested receive API keys from Jim.
  5. Erica creates a small app that polls the API for the status of her work items and displays it as a widget on her desktop or homepage. Mike creates an even better app that does some simple analytics to predict the time of work item completion.
  6. Both share their apps on an internal company “app store” after receiving approval.
  7. Corporate IT monitors and tracks usage of apps and flags any issues.

In my opinion, this approach is much more incremental and organic, primarily because it allows individuals to create the functionality they need as they need it. The company benefits because it harnesses individual creativity to obtain software at costs that are probably going to be much lower than if the functionality had been implemented by consultants or vendors. More importantly, companies can use internal crowdsourcing to manage their portfolio of apps – by monitoring usage, corporate IT can delete or archive applications that receive no use or provide no benefit.

This approach is not going to replace ERP systems. But I think it can be an important niche in the corporate IT portfolio that complements the mega-systems typically used by companies to manage internal information and processes. I would be very interested in hearing from individuals that have blogged about this or worked in a company that has tried this model.

Update: Maybe I should have called this “Pull in the Workplace”. “Pull” is author David Siegel’s vision of a world where the Semantic Web gives us unprecedented control over information – instead of having it “pushed” to us (which is to a large part the current paradigm) we will be in control and “pull” it as we fit. This “overhaul of our information infrastructure” can potentially rewrite the rules in just about every aspect of our lives where digital information plays a role. He has written a book and blogs as well. I recommend both for some eye opening thoughts and great business ideas.

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