Workforce Planning and Management

Microsoft Man Dave Coplin Plots Work 2.0 Upgrade

The charge sheet against Dave Coplin might at first sight appear long. After all, he sports a pony tail, a beard and he works for the Evil Empire of Microsoft as something called a Chief Envisioning Officer, spreading his views on the present and future to conference-circuit attendees. But in fact, an hour or so spent in his company is time well spent as he is self-deprecating, passionate and funny – his Twitter handle includes the line, “Inventor of Pretentious Job Titles”.

Coplin has a fist-sized bee in his bonnet about the way we work today. His new book, Business Reimagined (read our review here), is a diatribe, polemic, samizdat: a hand-grenade lobbed in the general direction of Work 1.0. In essence, he is against 9-to-5, clocking in, deskwork, fixed hierarchies, rigid business processes and the quotidian gruel of unchallenged opinion and relying on top-down management or consensus of opinion. He is for openness to change, new ways of working, flexibility, agility, the right to innovate and the general unfettering of workplace shackles. Of course, there are many sectors that have to be very carefully managed and where processes need to be adhered to, but in the knowledge economy, there has to be something better.

Coplin works for Microsoft but he isn’t what the clichéd view of a Microsoftie might be. That is to say, his views are untrammelled and not the departure point on a road that leads to selling you an Enterprise Agreement software licence.

“When I was in consulting, our way of mocking projects that weren’t well managed was to refer to them as being like five-year-olds chasing a football,” says this ex-KPMG man. “In reality, that’s not always a bad way to go today.”

He is exaggerating of course, but he is an enthusiast for anything that releases creativity in enterprises where a risk-averse attitude has led to inertia and an inability to see around the corner. ‘Try it, fail, learn, try again’ might be the toast he raises.

The old focus on fixed business processes that are simply refined until all latency has gone are not fit for purpose today, he argues, because change is happening faster. The big-brand high-street casualties may have suffered not because they had bad processes but because they had lost sight of the wider business landscape. Their eyes were on the ball at all times but they should have been scanning the horizon… and that meant they couldn’t respond to change quickly enough.

OK, so which company is the iconic model, the North Star that should guide the enlightened new business manager? Not including Microsoft, obviously…

Coplin scores only half a point by electing to name Yammer, the social software company which was recently acquired by the Colossus of Redmond.

Recognising the risk of corniness he nonetheless praises Yammer CTO Adam Pisoni’s mantra of “leadership, not management”, saying that it’s critical to liberate creativity without losing guidance, vision and example-setting.

He characterises the old world of work as one dominated by “process standardisation … if we want to break down how to make cars, let’s break down that process into a series of widgets. ‘I no longer make cars, I make widgets’.”

That was fine in terms of business process management but it left organisations resistant to change and it contributed to a world where today, as one poll suggests, 7 out of 10 of us are “disengaged and disenfranchised”.

Coplin says that, leaving aside old philosophical chestnuts over whether it’s better to live to work or to work to live, a fully engaged workforce will necessarily make a huge difference to the culture, and, ultimately, success of most organisations.

In an age where the empowered consumer can Tweet the guy who is responsible for a lousy experience, management has to change and not hide behind a desk or the badge of authority, he argues.

An example: Qi Lu runs online services at Microsoft and Coplin, (when not ‘envisioning’), also works in the bing search division. During a Yammer discussion, Li popped up in a discussion about the lack of bing-branded apparel in the Microsoft store and contributed thoughts. While some might see this as getting too far into the weeds, Coplin contends that it’s actually an example of a senior executive willing to engage “in the pointy end” of business operations. “It showed you can talk to this guy without seven layers of management intervening.”

He says that just as government is opening up data, companies can benefit by exposing the innards of departments such as finance and marketing, not necessarily with a fixed outcome set in stone, but with the view that the voyage may lead to discoveries.

He says Microsoft is moving in that direction and suggests others will too as “hundreds of years of command-and-control” come to a juddering halt.

A man of strong opinions, he is “inclined to call BS on the generational thing”; that is, the notion that Generation X works one way, Generation Y another and the oldsters will run a mile from anything that isn’t the status quo.

He wants to see an end to the dependence on large cities for working, proposing the idea that facilities could be set up in towns to provide the basic resources for remote working and for people to swap ideas by chance social osmosis. That could help protect great institutions such as libraries, for example, and unclog our road and rail arteries.

“If all I ever do is hang about with a bunch of people from my own company, the chances of me coming up with something radical are likely to be constrained whereas if I work from the library or a club, the chances of serendipitous discovery and something random happening are dramatically improved.”

As a parting shot, I ask him for his vision of the future. He sees globalising leading to more portfolio careers where “the country boundary will disappear or be very different” and we spend parts of the year in different continents. We will make very different use of office space. Digital activity will be embedded everywhere and cease to be seen as a separate topic.

A combination of empirical data and gut feeling might be the formula for success, he says. People don’t need micro-managing, only a safety net when they take a leap of faith. And many projects will inevitably fail but that’s no reason to not try things.

“You’ve got to be quite confident in terms of cocking things up as well as getting things right.”


Martin Veitch is editorial director of IDG Connect. Sam Spencer also contributed to this story


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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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