A remarkable thing about human perspective is that it often extends only to the horizon of modern life and work. It's easy to forget that a half-century ago, secretaries, typewriters, telephones, snail mail and steno pools powered the business world. Human resources—aka the personnel department—was still buried in paper résumés and a tangle of forms.
The introduction of computers—and particularly personal computers—transformed business in myriad ways. The PC ushered in a new era of efficiency and automation that led to significant changes in the way we work … and interact. However, the most profound advances couldn't take place until computers were connected to one another and to the entire world.
That's where the Internet enters the picture. Although its origins date back to the 1960s, it wasn't until the mid-'90s that the Net went commercial and companies began unfurling websites, intranets and email on a widespread basis. Today, tablets, smartphones, social media, collaboration software, cloud computing and a spate of other tools and technologies continue to transform the enterprise.
"The Internet has driven enormous cultural changes that extend throughout the business world," says Libby Sartain, an independent business adviser who serves on the board of directors for Peet's Coffee & Tea and Manpower Inc., and previously worked in HR at Yahoo Inc. and Southwest Airlines Co. "The Internet and resulting technology have created enormous disruption but also huge opportunities for performance and productivity gains."
To be sure, activities that used to take days or weeks now occur in minutes or seconds. More important, the Internet—along with mobility—has ushered in an era of collaboration that would have been unimaginable only a couple of decades ago. Workers can connect with others using social media apps and quickly identify someone who has the technical expertise they need to complete a task or project. This knowledge sharing occurs in an ad hoc and dynamic way that mirrors the way people actually think and work. In addition, the cloud increasingly allows workers to sync data—files, contacts, calendars and more—across devices.
An "office without walls" is how some describe this new order. "Historically a 'workplace' was a physical location with four walls, a fixed set of hours and a fixed set of people," says Ryan McCune, senior director of Workplace Enablement Services for Accenture and Avanade. "The Internet has enabled a massive blurring of the lines. Today's virtual workplace, enabled by Internet technologies, allows people to work from anywhere, anytime, across teams and organizational boundaries."
McCune believes that the technology not only turbocharges output, but also it creates entirely new ways to work. "In addition to productivity, you can't discount the impact of flexibility. More than ever, employees, through a virtual workplace, are able to take on high-impact part-time and flextime roles that weren't possible in the past." Adds Sartain: "The ability to work in a more flexible way provides tangible benefits for many people. It has helped create more work-life balance."
But the technology cuts both ways. Today, many workers feel a need to stay constantly wired into work and wind up checking emails and instant messages on the weekends and on vacation. Moreover, communication sometimes winds up garbled in the electronic translation. As McCune puts it: "You can't discount the value of 'face time.' Even with modern technology, we frequently hear stories from people who miss the in-person, social aspects associated with the physical workplace."
As a result, some highly virtual companies are turning to local community events, like retreats or dinners, to help people address this challenge. At these meetings, workers interact and get to know one another. Another problem is a "new generation of workers" who don't understand how to utilize the best tool for the task, McCune says. "Picking up the telephone can often address in two minutes what might take 20 minutes in an IM conversation. In addition, tone and inflection are often lost in emails and IM."
The Internet—particularly the introduction of sophisticated Web and mobile tools—has changed HR in other ways. "The talent marketplace is global and, as a result of today's technology, it's possible to tap into the best available talent regardless of geography," Sartain says. This, in turn, is affecting areas as diverse as career management, financial planning, employee referral programs and wellness. "It is driving enormous changes in behavior for the enterprise as well as individuals," she says.
Although the traditional résumé isn't anywhere close to dead, it's clear that a great deal of hiring now takes place through social media sites, particularly LinkedIn. As employees load apps onto their iPhones and smartphones, the technology also ushers in new and powerful capabilities related to managing a 401(k) or a weight-loss and exercise program. What used to take reams of paper and manual calculations now occurs in an instant—along with attractive and useful charts and graphics. Some of these apps even operate as games and provide incentives that drive real-world results.
The technology is also forcing HR along with IT departments to venture into new and somewhat foreboding territory. Over the past few years, employees—particularly younger workers—have demanded to use their mobile electronic devices at work. A 2011 Accenture report, Jumping the Boundaries of Corporate IT, found that 87 percent of U.S millennials decide where they will work based on their ability to use state-of-the-art technology. Moreover, these individuals expect to use their own technology at work and tap into their preferred technology apps regardless of any compliance policy.
Andrew McAfee, the author of Enterprise 2.0 and a principal research scientist at the Center for Digital Business at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, argues that the migration to consumer technology has profound implications for the organization as well as HR. "Executives must alter their thinking and modify their ideas and expectations—even though this is the opposite of what many of them believe in," he says. "In many cases, millennials are on the right track with the way they want to use technology in their jobs. They're holding a flashlight to the future."
The technology has also spawned entirely new ways to work. Companies like Google Inc. have created alternative office environments that break down traditional walls and provide collaborative spaces. Google employees can use 20 percent of their work time to pursue special projects that interest them—something that's facilitated by the Web, videoconferencing, social media and Web 2.0 tools. While this somewhat unstructured approach isn't likely to go mainstream anytime soon, bits and pieces of this thinking are catching on in the working world.
McCune believes that business and human resources are at an inflection point. "While today we have a rich set of tools at our disposal, we're still early days in terms of usability and employee effectiveness. We have a ways to go before the technology is push-button and 'just works.' Today's complexity is limiting, and I think we'll see some major changes which help more workers more effectively use collaboration tools—not just the tech savvy and new generation of workers."
Over the next few years, McCune expects the Internet and technology to further evolve and push an array of other changes into the enterprise. His predictions include: better integration of software and tools, persistent connectivity through mobile wireless broadband connections and higher-speed connections at home that enable high-definition video and other capabilities. Says he: "The Internet and Web have fundamentally changed the nature of work … and they will continue to do so in the years ahead."
Samuel Greengard is a writer based in West Linn, Oregon. Comment below or email firstname.lastname@example.org.