Despite the claims of many marketing brochures filled with words ending in ‘-ability’, there are only three real tangible benefits to consider when evaluating a product or service; value, cost and risk. When it comes to turning the bottom line from red to black – as is often the case during recession and government cuts – companies generally look to just one of these – cost cutting. Its counterpart – value growth – whilst popular during boom years is far harder to find in a downturn. It requires companies, and more often individuals, to go out on a limb; something they are much more wary of as they look to protect their own position.
This leaves the third benefit – risk mitigation. On the face of it this seems a negative subject only to be addressed when something goes horribly wrong. A catastrophic disk crash introduces many to the concept of regular backups. A security breach highlights the vulnerability of data assets. A volcanic eruption highlights the value of alternatives to air travel and buying comprehensive travel insurance. Adaptability and flexibility help reduce risk; these ‘-abilities’ in particular can deliver real benefits, allowing agile organisations to pounce on unexpected opportunities as well as stave off unforeseen problems.
Hence, when problems create opportunities, a lack of flexibility can often get in the way of capitalising on them. An example of this was apparent during the travel crisis as a result of the ash from the Icelandic volcano eruption. It was thought that some travel operators were profiteering by ramping up the cost of one-way ‘cheap’ tickets by hundreds of pounds. However, those travelling would have been surprised to see quite a few empty seats on the plane. Presumably, those with tickets booked as returns but unable to travel on the outward leg didn’t show up, leaving a raft of available seats only identified at the departure gate. Many companies with tight booking processes appear to have no way of reselling those seats as ‘standby’ on a first come, first served basis at the airport – or over the web. Filling even 5 extra seats on a plane would have been massively profitable for the airline concerned. It might be tricky to introduce with current systems, but a more adaptable model of reselling empty seats might have done wonders not only for the bottom line but perhaps also avoiding the negative media perception of air travel that was created by the crisis.
When problems occur, it also leads to a positive view of those who can cope in these sorts of crises – for example, when large numbers of workers were disrupted by apparently unexpected heavy snowfalls in the UK in early 2010 (well, it was in winter). Mobile phones, laptops and remote access to enterprise systems are all now in widespread use. Those organisations that had implemented more flexible solutions or worked with more flexible suppliers, were able to manage the sudden increase in user load as everyone equipped to occasionally work remotely did so all at once.
It is not only limitations or constraints in the technology that amplify problems when a glitch occurs, but also lack of flexibility in service offerings, levels and tariffs. Businesses should no longer simply look for the cheapest options, even during a recession, but those that deliver the best overall value. This means putting a value on flexibility.
Flexibility can be supported by appropriate use of suitable technology, but it really comes into its own when there is the right commercial framework backing it. No wonder then that ‘as a service’ models are springing up to offer a pay as you go model, where incremental changes in either direction are simpler to make. Whether we call this cloud, hosted, managed or on demand doesn’t really matter, the value is about pushing the complexity and upfront costs onto someone outside who’s a specialist, and then renting the service back from them.
Need more software licenses to cope with a sudden surge or more bandwidth at the end of the month, or perhaps fewer desks and phones as you’ve moved office workers to a ‘hot-desking’ model? No problem – the service provider will “flex”
This flexibility goes further, as the rented service can be delivered ‘anywhere’, no longer tying its use to specific locations or office premises. Mobile working, not as in working on the move, but moving the place of work, becomes a doddle right?
To a point, but with all of the benefits of flexibility, there has to be some consideration and evaluation of what has been given up to get it. The main challenge is dealing with a loss of top down control. When something critical is outsourced, hosted on an external server, or available anytime from a cloud at the end of a network cable, can you really trust that the network or service provider can deliver the quality of service you need, or that your data is really secure? These are assurances that must be sought, rather than seeing such services as a money saving exercise, and there are now many companies able to deliver safe, secure and reliable services.
More mobile and flexible working looks on the face of it to benefit both employer and employee, but there are caveats, and again it boils down to quality of service and assurance. Management tools and processes need to evolve to convince some managers that employees are not simply engaging in social network conversations, playing games or surfing the web while ‘working from home’. Similarly employees need to be assured that “off” means “off” and expectations of 24/7 availability, simply because the network is there, are not fair.
Applying suitable metrics for measurement and controls to ensure goals are met will become an increasing challenge in dealing with both employee and service provider flexibility. The old metrics of hours in the office and narrow objectives will no longer work for many individuals, just as network outages will no longer be sufficient for measuring service provision. Part of the problem in working out new business goal oriented metrics is that companies have been based and built up on a rigid top down hierarchical command and control system.
This is where flexibility still needs to be applied by many organisations. When it is perhaps some of the apparently chaotic concepts that have emerged in IT and communications – the internet, open source, ad hoc collaboration, social networking – will ultimately lead to a new flexibility in management systems.