--> Gill Blog: Academia Provides Template for Telework and BCP

Gill Blog

Friday, November 18, 2005

Academia Provides Template for Telework and BCP

I had a fascinating chat yesterday with our financial advisor, Ralph Gill. We began by discussing the costs and benefits of telework, as well as the same old institutional impediments that slow its rate of adoption – namely, the reluctance of middle management to embrace it fearing that it may somehow affect worker productivity. As we've discussed many times before, the common belief among middle managers is that in order for a worker to be productive, he/she must be within their superior's line of sight.

One of the challenges management often wrestles with is simply if a more decentralized work environment is created (regardless of the degree to which telework is implemented in this new structure), how will such a reconfiguration affect the productivity level of workers? Additionally, how will it be possible to measure worker performance when workers are out of sight? After thinking about this for a while Ralph provided an analysis I’d never previously considered, but one that really hit the mark.

He said that a corporate world that is the midst of substantial change needn’t look any further than the world of academia for guidance, as its underlying structure has been decentralized since the very beginning. Wait a minute here, are we talking about that fabled bastion of slackers and people who refuse to grow up? It’s time to engage in a little rethink on this one, for as much as we may perceive that environment through our own biases, it is actually one that counters its openness by imposing very strict deadlines. More surprisingly, it actually provides the model for more forward thinking organizations to emulate as they organize future work activities around telework. This becomes particularly important as our economy sheds its production-based past and moves toward one that is more knowledge-based.

Think this is wacky? Read on. Let’s begin by considering the concept of a term paper or a final exam. When assigned to students, there is an implicit message that goes along with it: choose to do whatever you want between now and then, but remember, this assignment has an absolute drop-dead date (with no exceptions) - fail to meet it, and you’re going to get an F, no questions asked. In a sense then, an academic environment is one that despite appearances to the contrary imposes a system that very effectively organizes work. Given the longevity of academia, as well as the innovation that springs from its hallowed halls, one sees that not only are deadlines a fundamental element of academic structures, but more importantly, it shows that people seem to respond to deadlines. Let’s not forget that it is also one that thrives on its decentralized structure (to get more information on the growing link between academia and corporations, you may wish to read this paper I wrote on this a few years back – a bit dated, but still relevant).

Consider for a moment what might happen if the structures used in a corporate environment are applied to academia. In fact, we have seen such applications, and one of the best examples of this is called Study Hall. The idea is fairly simple, make students come to a central location for 3-4 hours, have them sit and try and get some work done in carefully monitored silence. Now anyone who has actually been exposed to such a torture chamber knows very well that such a model simply doesn’t work on campus. If students needed constant supervision, the simple fact is that they wouldn’t learn anything. Innovation and productivity springs from a more flexible environment.

Now, let’s do a little bit of compare and contrast for a moment and analyze the standards that drive productivity in a corporation. How many times have you been in a meeting where the manager says: “we need more time on this, so let’s move the deadline back by a week”. In fact, this happens more times than not in many work environments, and unfortunately is emblematic of a pervasive culture of “letting things slide.” What this nakedly exposes is that institutionalized systems are in place that actually absolve people from responsibility. The whole notion of the “death by firing squad” structures that are firmly in place within academia, are foreign concepts in a corporate environment – a factor that removes or significantly reduces accountability. Instead of the judgment cast by the corporate world on academia, it might be argued that in fact someone who has spent a lifetime in academia could look at their corporate counterparts and quite correctly remark that, despite appearances, such workplaces are sloppy and undisciplined.

Now let's return to the thing that started today’s rant – that is the concern expressed by middle managers, namely, the difficulty in measuring worker performance in a decentralized environment. Our example shows that there are indeed very tangible ways in which performance can be measured. Surely, we're not suggesting that workers have to do term papers, but we are saying that there are an entirely new range of information-based products that can be used to efficiently monitor employee performance remotely – and when knowledge work becomes more prevalent, this can be regarded as nothing but good news!

Faculty and staff on a university campus can be likened to the original knowledge workers and operate within a very productive sub-culture. It may not be so apparent now, but the fact remains that as our economy shifts from a production-oriented model to one that is more knowledge based, the optimal management strategies will be those that best align to the nature of the work. One of the fundamental disconnects that exists today as we find ourselves in the midst of this shift between production-oriented activities to those that are knowledge-based, is that management still uses the old 9-5 centralized location management model to govern knowledge work, which is in fact a vestige of our production-based economic past. If we hope to compete in a global economy, one of last changes we need to make is to readjust ourselves to new management structures that better align with knowledge work. We could do a whole lot worse than looking to academia for some clues as to how this will be accomplished.

I’m well aware that some of our readers will question the relevance of this tangent I’ve gone on and wonder what connection this has to anything we’ve previously discussed. In my mind, the connection is crystal clear: telework – a strategy that is centered around the deconcentration of people – will become a key component of a business continuity strategy (just watch the buzz as we move closer to avian flu), but before it does, critics will argue that it will negatively affect worker productivity, thus slowing its adoption. It's time for us to question this line of thinking, for as far as I’m concerned, I left study hall behind long ago.