Dec 31 2009

Coming Together From Wherever

Virtual work environments offer collaborative advantages for the next-generation federal workforce.

With 50 percent of the government’s workforce eligible for retirement by 2010, it’s imperative that every agency look for appealing ways to retain existing talent and be competitive with new talent.

One innovative approach is to create virtual work environments that will boost workers’ efficiency within the office and extend their contributions beyond agencies’ brick-and-mortar confines. So what is a VWE? It’s a virtual space that provides the ability to conduct daily functions without the constraints of the physical work environment.

The Internet does more than allow agencies to retrieve data — they can now retrieve people from anywhere in the world to work on programs and bring them to completion, even if those employees are never seen or seen only virtually. And although the government is usually considered behind the times, in the case of VWEs, it’s leading the pack.

Why a Virtual Environment?

Work environments housed in brick-and-mortar structures — with employees working on computers, file cabinets holding every document produced and hard drives storing data — are simply outdated. This work environment has not radically changed for more than 20 years, with the exception of the addition of e-mail.

E-mail has become the main method of work communications and processes and for disseminating and storing organizational knowledge. Over the last five to 10 years, e-mail has become one of the chief methods of conducting business. Add to this telephone communications and face-to-face meetings, and one gets a full picture of how most agencies conduct the bulk of their daily activities and maintain institutional knowledge.

This portrayal of the current work environment should be viewed as fragile and susceptible to contributing to inefficiencies. But it also points up workers’ reliance on the Internet via e-mail for a major part of their knowledge management, albeit in a method that does not make this knowledge easy to search, retrieve, share or archive.

The 80/20 Formula

Applying a standard formula, people, process and training jointly account for 80 percent of a workplace program’s success or failure, while the choice of technology will account for the remaining 20 percent. When launching a VWE, there are hurdles and challenges connected to each of these items:

People challenges include shifting worker behaviors away from habits such as sending knowledge in the form of attachments in e-mail; having major discussions in e-mail; or relying on workers to keep track of actions, goals and situational awareness through memories and recollections.

Process challenges occur at two levels. The first process level is the business process level, where the hurdle lies in embracing more collaborative processes to include knowledge management (KM) and knowledge sharing. Within this context is the second level of process, which is transforming current processes within the virtual environment and the KM framework. One of the common mistakes in developing a virtual environment is to simply attempt to take current processes and assume that some form of automation equates to VWE processes. This is akin to “paving over cow paths to make roads.”

Training is the final piece of the 80 percent side of the formula. Traditional training takes the approach of modifying and refining worker skills (usually to learn the technology). VWE training, from the start, is oriented toward a cost-efficient procedure to engage workers in the VWE process. By learning the overall concept, they can more quickly learn, adapt and translate the technical details into their daily work. Recognizing the training objective difference is important. Traditional training focuses on the technical details while VWE training focuses on understanding the concepts and principles. Knowing why this new work method is successful aids in quick adoption. Successes then foster the sharing of experiences and exponential adoption across an organization.

Technology is the fourth and most supportive component in a virtual work environment. Although hundreds of technology tools have some of the necessary features and capabilities, Microsoft SharePoint and workplace applications for the SharePoint platform have proven to be significantly powerful VWEs in rollouts at the Marine Corps and the Federal Aviation Administration (see sidebar). SharePoint is a powerful and scalable collaboration platform with many modular applications available that complement it. With this platform, users can add a layer of critical simplicity to traditional solution development.

Using this development platform to build VWE solutions requires little technical expertise. In this environment, modestly skilled knowledge workers can build virtual offices. They can proto­type offices and processes quickly, which translates to more time to focus on people and process issues. Plus, as an organization matures, the technical environment is flexible enough to accommodate changes.

Consider the future of a VWE. Agencies could shift traditional work to virtual offices that knowledge workers anywhere in the world could use to do their work and interact with team members, partners, stakeholders and customers. Telework would become not simply working in one’s physical office but rather working in a virtual office. As managers and workers grow accustomed to existing in a virtual world, disaster response and continuous operations planning could be pro-actively solved.