Three technologies for knowledge workers to succeed

This article is based on the webinar delivered by David Smith, a global director at Virtual Learning Solutions and Virtual Gurus. It can be viewed here.

Austrian-born US management consultant Peter F. Drucker, whose writings contributed to the philosophical and practical foundations of the modern business corporation, founded the concept of management by objectives. He coined the phrase ‘knowledge worker’, and said “the most important contribution management needs to make in the 21st century is to increase the productivity of knowledge work and the knowledge worker.”

But in today’s digitally focused world, how do we help knowledge workers to communicate, collaborate and connect more effectively? Due to the array of remote working technologies and tools available to us, we are able to connect with individuals across a far wider geographic reach than ever before and there are great benefits to be had from doing so. For this reason, knowledge workers are invariably virtual workers as well, placed in disparate locations around the world.

Unfortunately, many businesses still choose to work in traditional ways i.e. through face-to-face meetings, and travelling long distances to see clients. Increasingly managers need to be considering whether this is a good use of time and energy, says David Smith. “Ask yourself, as a manager, could I be helping my knowledge workers to do more?”

The technology isn’t new to us, argues Smith, and we’ve probably been using it for a long time. Email continues to be strong as a tool for collaborative working, for example. “It’s the way we’ve always done it,” is probably one of the most damaging phrases in business today, says Smith.“Businesses need to think about where they need to change and evolve. The digital age provides us with digital solutions which we should be leveraging. In modern business we’re expecting employees to do so much in a working day, but not providing ways for them to operate more efficiently.”

Email in particular is making us less efficient, says Smith. “We need to think about how it’s supporting, or thwarting, the pace of collaboration,” he argues. According to research by the McKinsey Global Institute and IDC, “we spend more time answering and responding to emails than we do communicating and collaborating with our co-workers or searching and gathering information. The only thing that takes more time is “role-specific tasks”, otherwise known as “doing our actual job”.

Research published in Inc magazine said “reducing each knowledge worker’s unproductive time by 25% can yield an extra six weeks in productivity each year, per employee”. It’s a no-brainer to help increase the productivity of our knowledge workers. Research shows that when technology is added, people do work much better together. But “more often than not, companies provide the technology, but then leave the employee to figure out how to use it themselves,” Smith explains. There will be a natural skills gap when employees are asked to move across to a more digital way of working. A study by IDC found that time wasted due to inadequate digital skills adds up to 21% of total productivity for digital workers. According to Deloitte, most companies have a skills half-life of just 2.5 years, and “organisations are failing to adapt their training programmes quickly enough.”

“Unless we evolve and provide these new technologies, we will no longer be able to achieve what we need to within our working day,” says Smith. There are three technologies Smith believes companies should provide to help their workers be more efficient and productive…

Collaboration tools

The need for effective collaboration has become increasingly critical within organisations. Collaboration, Smith says, “is about bringing different minds together and creating a better output than if we tried to do it on our own. It is intentional group processes plus software to support these.”

The five most commonly used collaboration platforms, according to Smith, are (in no order of priority):

  • Slack
  • Podio
  • Sharepoint
  • Wrike
  • Smartsheet

The reality is these tools can make a huge difference when used properly. A company called Atos managed to decrease its email traffic by 60% over a three year period, by turning to collaborative platforms instead to communicate with one another.

One of the key benefits of collaboration tools, says Smith, is that you’re creating virtual workspaces with your colleagues, which can be task-based. The tools can also be synchronised with your calendar so that deadlines and milestones are not forgotten. “Everything’s in one place, and not across 300 disparate emails,” he explains. “It allows for instant messaging which is project-specific.”

But Smith warns against adopting the “if we build it, they will come” mentality. “You need structure, process and training,” he says. Instead he recommends a three-stage approach to successful implementation:

  1. Define your strategy and target groups. It won’t be applicable to everyone in the business.
  2. Select and deploy the best tool for your business.
  3. Roll out and train your people.

Web conferencing tools

“Web conferencing is a game changer for organisations. On average, there is a 30% reduction in travel costs for companies that employ web conferences,” shares Smith.

For companies worried about the lack of physical presence through web conferencing, Smith says to think about the number of times we use our mobile phone throughout the working day, without thinking twice about the lack of physical presence. Web conferencing needs to become a part of company culture, for usage to become natural.

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place,” wrote George Bernard Shaw. The cultural differences of working together creates a significant challenge, says Smith. “When we communicate through just the written word, i.e. via email, does this mean that the recipient has been able to interpret exactly what’s been asked of them, and actioned it?” he questions.“But if we use something like GoToMeeting, it transforms the way you can work as a business, bringing everyone together on the same page”. Only a fraction of the population are happy to take in information through auditory means. According to John Medina, author of ‘Brain Rules’, there’s much more we can consume knowledge-wise if we add visuals, which can enable retention of information by up to as much as 65% (compared to 10% when just auditory).

Smith advises managers to properly equip their team to make sure they’re well-placed to make the best of their web conferencing tool. Provide them with a USB headset, and webcams are also a must. “Unfortunately only 23% of workers receive video etiquette training,” says Smith.“Yet the use of desktop video conferencing is going through the roof, and there is the expectation it will see a six-fold increase from 2014 to 2018, reaching approximately 3m users.”

When using video, Smith says to think carefully about how you will come across. He recommends this simple checklist:

  • Distance – are you too close, or too far away from the computer?
  • Angle – of where webcam is pointing. Make sure that you’re facing the camera directly, while you also look at your screen.
  • Background – is it distraction free? Be aware of any sensitive company information that may be in shot.
  • Lighting – are you in silhouette?

File sharing tools

Although most companies today are investing an awful lot in IT security, the reality is that employees are most troublesome when it comes to file sharing, says Smith. “In most case, file sharing tends to involve attaching a document to email, and sending it to people. The problem with this method is that file sizes are usually restricted via email. Additionally, we’re often not as vigilant enough about the security of file sharing as we should be,” he explains. According to a Frost and Sullivan survey, 80% of employees admit to using non-approved SaaS applications to get their jobs done. According to a GlobalScape study, about 63% of employees use remote insecure storage devices like USBs or mobile devices for business file sharing.

Useful file sharing tools that Smith recommends include:

  • Dropbox Business
  • OneDrive for Business
  • iCloud drive
  • Google drive
  • Box

While many of us may use these tools within our personal lives, for photo storage etc, not so many are making use of the business tools available for the sharing of information and knowledge, as the stats above demonstrate. Features these tools can offer include unlimited file size, file synchronisation, version control, online editing, and a mobile app version.

“It’s not about deciding on and providing the technology, but rather about planning it out. It’s deciding and agreeing how you are going to use these technologies, and offering best practice guidance on how to use them”, says Smith.

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