Business Management

Nelson Phillips (Global) - Humans vs. Machines: Managing People and Resources in Today's Modern Enterprise

I recently read an interesting scenario, where a disgruntled employee of Frost and Sullivan's embarked on a three-year sabotage spree, repeatedly squirting Cillit Bang cleaning fluid into the company's computers. The employee was apparently annoyed at the company for failing to grant him a pay rise. To me, this fascinating example points to both the vulnerability of organisations today, and the fragile nature of our human condition.

Taking the organisational aspect first; there are the growing challenges businesses face to support continuous operation and information availability. The past year has provided a perfect storm showcasing how diverse and unpredictable these hurdles can be. We've had extreme weather, major technology failures from global brands, significant security breaches and workplace disruption. We've even had a blackout at the Super Bowl.

The severity of these challenges is highlighted further in recent research from SunGard Availability Services, which found that 80% of organisations across the UK, France and Nordics, admit to not having the right resources to completely manage business availability and operations effectively. The repercussions of this extend beyond purely business operations, overlapping into staff satisfaction and morale - the research also found that the majority of companies admit that customer and employee expectations of availability are not always met, due to this lack of resource.

Successful businesses are those that can achieve a balancing act; juggling the management of technology with the interests of staff and workers. In today's connected culture, IT resources are more important than ever - acting as the hub connecting workers, data, processes and operations. The Cillit Bang incident, which caused system failures and £32,000 worth of damage to the company, illustrates exactly this - take out the computing power and a company can be crippled. However, there's no escaping the fact that staff remain the most valuable asset to any business. What's absolutely crucial is that management strategies take a holistic view, where the integration of technology is done within the context of its impact on the workforce: how will it impact the way staff work, what skills will they need to learn, what will it mean for their daily responsibilities?

Regarding the people aspect, the priority should be that workers do not feel displaced by the growing dependency on technology. This is a collective task. Businesses need to educate staff on the opportunities that modern technology can provide: increased productivity, a greater variety in how they work, and more choice in the ways they deliver value to a company. From the worker's perspective, there's the need to be vocal and demand training and clarification on the ways in which their roles could change, and the ways in which their business is evolving to deliver 24/7 availability.

As Isaac Asimov, American author and professor of biochemistry, famously said; "I do not fear computers. I fear the lack of them." What was true then carries even more weight now as we become more dependent on technology and IT, in our business lives and personal ones. This obviously brings with it potential benefits such as 24/7 availability, truly mobile operations and new ways of working, but also a significant shift and period of transition, which we all need to adapt to.

By Nelson Phillips, Professor of Strategy and Organisational Behaviour at Imperial College London


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