How Workforce Trends Are Impacting Technology Decisions and Adoption

0315PalmerArtThe office technology landscape is changing by leaps and bounds. Most of these changes have been fueled by revolutionary advancements in computing technology and network infrastructure. At the same time, we have seen monumental transformation occur within the structure and dynamics of the workforce itself. At no point in our history have these two issues been so closely linked. It is interesting to look at how workforce trends are impacting technology adoption and implementation across various sectors.

Improving Efficiencies … Going Paperless

Virtually every organization today is intensely focused on driving worker productivity and improving process efficiencies. Businesses today are operating as lean as possible, and almost every company is struggling to find ways to accomplish more with fewer people, fewer assets, and smaller budgets. Businesses are focusing in a variety of areas to gain operational efficiencies, such as consolidating assets, resources, partners, and suppliers. In other instances, the approach is much more employee-centric and often involves revised individual roles, or rules surrounding access to information.

For many businesses, streamlining paper-based workflow is a natural place to optimize business processes and drive operational efficiencies. This can take several forms: from automating existing paper-based processes to reducing or eliminating print and hardcopy storage. The number of companies pursuing paperless strategies will continue to grow in the coming year. If not to completely eliminate the use of paper, many businesses will at least seek to identify best practices and workflow strategies to lessen the dependence on paper and reduce the overhead and cost burdens associated with paper-intensive processes. A strategic implementation plan is crucial to success. Going paperless can provide a number of operational benefits for most organizations, but without proper planning it can also prove disruptive. 

The Freelance Consultant 

With fewer assets and less time to respond to changing market conditions, businesses are also outsourcing more work than ever before. At the same time, the number of freelance workers, consultants, and independent contractors in the U.S. workforce is rising quickly. A recent article in Fortune Magazine quoted statistics from the General Accounting Office showing that the U.S. workforce includes as many as 42 million people defined as freelancers and contractors. The U.S. Department of Labor is projecting that number to grow to 65 million over the next five years, but some analysts suggest that contract workers could outnumber traditional employees by 2020. 

There are a variety of reasons behind the shifting dynamics of the workforce. Many individuals caught in the downsizing trends that began with the 2008 recession have reentered the workforce either as contractors or as workers for multiple employers. Meanwhile, research has shown that millennials have shown a much greater tendency to enter the workforce either as self-employed or as independent consultants. Naturally, trends around mobility and the “flexible work environment” are also contributing factors. Mobile technology is not only enabling a whole new wave of remote employees, it is also making it simpler for businesses to hire outside consultants and independent contractors on an ad hoc basis.

Collaboration Tools

The changing workforce has placed greater emphasis on the need for collaborative computing systems. Improvements in cloud-based document sharing services, such as Dropbox, Box, and Evernote, have made it easier for remote employees and contractors to access work-related documents and content. Nevertheless, individuals have started to push the limits of what is capable with most free services, and the need for greater control and security is pushing organizations to investigate alternative collaboration tools and platforms.

Increasing collaboration has become a top priority for many organizations, again as a means to drive productivity and improve efficiencies. The process has become much more complicated, however, with the need to collaborate across multiple devices and multiple operating systems. Converting to a compatible file format, for example, has become a crucial element in the collaboration process.

Historically, individuals working in the same organization have typically found it fairly simple to work within the same document type, such as a Microsoft Word or PowerPoint file because most are on the same operating platform. In today’s world, however, those collaborating could include individuals running Windows, Mac, Android, iOS, or a host of other operating systems. At the same time, these same individuals could be working from desktop computers, tablets, or even a smartphone. Formatting issues and problems with fonts are really just the tip of the iceberg. Maintaining document integrity across so many different users, device types, and platforms could become an IT nightmare if not managed effectively.

Remember, too, that many workers are not content with the software applications their IT has deployed or “approved.” Along with the BYOD phenomenon that has occurred in the corporate environment has been an increasing trend toward BYOP: “Bring Your Own Process.” Individuals have their favorite apps, and they are making their own decisions about how and when to use them—often circumventing existing corporate policies and procedures. In most cases, this is the result of individuals finding their own methods for utilizing mobile technology and applications as a means of convenience.

These trends are driving developers to invest in technologies that not only allow for greater flexibility and compatibility across multiple platforms—particularly mobile device platforms—but also provide for better integration between applications. In some cases, this type of integration and customization is already happening at the end user level. Going forward, however, we expect to see greater emphasis from software developers to create more collaboration tools that provide higher levels of integration and interoperability.

Big Data and Business Intelligence

Big data has become a focal point for many businesses. Knowledge workers today are capturing, creating, and consuming massive amounts of information. At the same time, the fully connected office of the future offers up even more opportunities for data gathering and mining. The Internet of Things (IoT) will enable intelligent devices that can collect usage data for as long as they are installed and connected. Gaining access to all of this information for data analytics, predictive analytics, and real-time business intelligence is high on the list of IT initiatives for most organizations. 

The challenge is putting the proper systems in place to access and manage the massive amounts of structured and unstructured data in order to leverage it in meaningful ways. There is a growing demand for business intelligence services to help organizations simply gain access to data that may be locked, restricted, or could reside across multiple disparate silos. Assessment and data discovery services are expected to become more widespread in the coming year. Meanwhile, expect to see solutions aimed at helping even small- and medium-size businesses mine these large data sets to deliver practical results to drive actionable business decisions. 

This article originally appeared in the March 2015 issue of Workflow.