Innovation at work

When we talk about innovation to improve our daily lives, many of the technologies, techniques and thinking revolve around the office and any building deemed as the workplace. The office is a legacy of the 19th century, still strong in the 21st century with no indication that it is ever diminishing. The office is also a legacy, which is deeply aligned to the way we interact and develop social and technical skills.

That is why when we think of work, we inevitably think of the office, which may be a brilliantly lit edifice filled with creative people, mingling and exchanging ideas to create super products and services. Or, it could be filled with people who do nothing but do paperwork, answer calls, make marketing or investment pitches to unwary customers, or respond to customer complaints and grievances.

People commute to office by train, bus, car, motorcycle, bicycle, forcing themselves to wake up far too early just to avoid traffic congestion or wake up at an acceptable time but endurehourr of crawling traffic. This mode of commuting has been the convention for decades and it is likely not to change in decades to come, unless a new idea of working from home is officially introduced.

But there is an old idea, which still has not gained traction – telecommuting, perhaps the most misunderstood form of work and management ever conceived. Telecommuting has been around since the time when mobile communication took off commercially but despite the ubiquity of smartphones and 24/7 contact, only a fraction of all companies and government services apply this innovative form of work.

The reluctance of many companies to adopt telecommuting(in its easiest definition the means to carry out work at home or at places outside the office), has more to do with the human psyche, insecurity and pride than it is to do with its technical complexities.

Many CEOs, COOs and their managers, have been weaned on the latest communication technologies over the years such as groupware, virtual private networks, conference calling, videoconferencing, and Voice over IP (VOIP); besides intranets, email, IRC and lately, social media like Facebook and Twitter (where instant or continuous contact is routine). However, they cannot let go the basic human psyche of wanting to assert control over subordinates.

This inability to let go represents the main reason why telecommuting has not taken off in a big way. Even the most savviest managers with the smartest communication technologies as their disposal cannot imagine not seeing their workers come to office. The old adage, “if I don’t see you means you aren’t working” still rings true today despite state of the art monitoring systems. The need for human contact, sometimes intimately, is simply too strong to be severed.

But consider the idea of telecommuting as an idea whose existence is way overdue. Companies could start by letting go their field staff to operate from wherever it is they call their mobile office – even if it means a roadside stall or café, or other people’s office, or for some, the home.

The idea of most work is to sell something, either product or service, and the best way to sell them is to make eye contact with the customer. That’s why beat police, journalists, salesmen, insurance agents and marketers work mostly out of the office. It is where the action is.

Even then, these workers are still compelled to report back to an office, base or headquarters for the sole reason that their managers, supervisors or bosses want to get a personal debriefing despite the fact that such maneuvers can be done by smartphones with teleconferencing, even visual ‘face-to-face’ conversations.

But consider this innovative means of letting not just field workers work outside without the need to come to office, at least not on a daily basis but, say, once or twice a week. If every company and government department does this, think of the lighter traffic load, think of the petrol and commuting fares saved, and think of the daily stress avoided.

Then expand the telecommuting workforce to creative and technical staff and then you see a bearable traffic system: no need to build overpasses or expand the roads. Millions saved. But human psyche, being the tribal and communitydriven society that they are, cannot get into this method of work, even if it means assuming new powers to control time management and incorporate conveniences of the daily grind.

The advent of high speed broadband ensures that communication and contact is virtually intact at all times. However, big corporations won’t let most of its workers telecommute because of the need to maintain corporate image and pride: if no one turns up at the office, it won’t be economical to maintain the workplace in terms of rental and maintenance. Moreover, how can you do business if there are so few people there?

Besides, a corporate office teeming with people suggests high confidence in service and products and hence, acts as a viral conduit to impress customers and would be clients.The best that telecommuting can hope for is when corporations re-brand the individual as part of an organisation’s collective strength, which means work is possible anywhere, anytime, its flexibility is a key part of the corporation’s image, product and service.It also means managers have to be taught that their leadership is not to shepherd workers as if they are sheep but to instruct, inspire, teach and enlighten their subordinates to think innovative, creatively and collectively to produce the best, not simply by productivity but also by breakthroughs.

Workers are free to their own devices, be part of the creative/ideas-filled cog that is paramount to innovation, even if they are working far from each other.

Dato Dr Kamal Jit Singh dubbed ‘Dr Innovation’ by industry leaders is an ardent advocate of thinking skills and he holds a Doctorate in Strategic Management and is the founder of GIRC.

Not only was Dr Kamal the pioneering spearhead who encouraged British Telecoms to set up an Asian Research Centre in Malaysia, he also went on to be its CEO for eight years.

Dr Kamal is regularly invited to speak at international industry events and sits on numerous government and industry advisory boards and panels.

Dr Kamal is currently the chief executive officer of Unit Inovasi Khas, a special purpose vehicle within the office of the Prime Minister of Malaysia, established to fast-track the development of innovation in the country.

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