Big ideas for advancing telework

FRAMINGHAM (11/07/2003) - Telework has come a long way, with many professionals routinely working away from the office. But can technology take it to the next level -- get it to places that today can't support it? The Telework Consortium, a nonprofit organization charged with addressing the question, says it believes ubiquitous 100M bit/sec broadband and videoconferencing is the key. With its research, lab tests and technology trials, the group wants to profoundly change the way we work. John Starke, its president, recently spoke with Network World's Net.Worker Managing Editor Toni Kistner about the group's strategy.

What's your view of the current state of telework?

Telework is clearly stalled. . . .Now there are people who could be natural teleworkers if their business processes changed. For instance, there are a lot of people processing grants for the federal government who have to go into the office because the grants are all on paper. To get that class of people teleworking you have to get management's attention and shake them up. So we're starting with the argument -- in this new research -- that we're spending a lot of money on road construction when telework is a cheap alternative. We're making a major effort to get this report discussed by business people and politicians. Then the next issue is how do we take that from public cost to organizational cost. Because businesses won't change their processes for some abstract reason.

They don't want to pay for it.

But they might if they think they're going to get something for it. Our biggest task is educating management. This report isn't intended to just sit on a shelf. We're going to hit people over the head with it. The human resources argument hasn't worked. The increased productivity argument hasn't worked. Pollution and road congestion are too abstract to get businesses to change. We have to get senior executives to think they're going to affect their bottom line.

How can you get them to change business processes?

We're going to take this first study, then add a second that looks at the productivity of teleworkers who use average broadband -- DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) and cable modems. We can demonstrate real performance increases for some classes of teleworkers, and also that sometimes jobs and people don't like to telework because they either need face-to-face time or the informal network to support them. Then we'll study whether providing them with higher-speed broadband and cost-effective video makes a difference. Not in the form of increased productivity, but in increased quality of decision making and faster decision-making times, which leads to faster time to market.

How does adding video equal faster time to market?

If you're trying to decide something really complex, it requires a lot of interchange of information. The biomedical field is a good example. The information isn't just a matter of listening or reading a paper -- it's a matter of argument and understanding nuance. To the extent that you can get to a person who can expand your understanding of a problem quickly, get the nuance, exchange information, then get to somebody else quickly the same way, you're able to arrive at a decision to synthesize a complex idea faster. Now say you have somebody who's working on a new synthetic vaccine, where the expertise isn't located in one building or one state, but is scattered all over the country or the world. You can get on a plane and spend four days at a conference. Or instead, we can take that period of time and create 100 high-fidelity interactions with people; we could arrive at an understanding of the problem and solutions faster. We've looked at the quality of productivity cycle time cost, and it's exceeding our expectations. We'll soon be able to demonstrate that ultra high-speed broadband is affordable, and should be ubiquitous.

Aren't we're pretty far from that though?

I have 100M bit/sec wireless connection to my new house that costs me no more than a cable modem. The cost of bandwidth -- it's a really confused market right now -- and the technology isn't exactly shrink-wrapped from Best Buy (Co. Inc.) yet. But looking at the trend in prices and computing power, we know we can solve the face-to-face problem virtually anywhere in the U.S.

How soon?

Lots of people who have been using good video for years, but they're on Internet 2. It fails the cost test. We're looking for technologies that work over the open Internet, so if you can get to it, you can have a face-to-face conversation with someone. Stuff you can buy at your corner computer store. We're not quite there but we expect to see solutions in two years, maybe a year.

What are the global implications?

We're moving to a new knowledge economy in which there won't be enough bright people with enough knowledge in any one place to have the kind of face-to-face collaboration we'll need. For us to remain competitive, we're going to need the communications infrastructure for the bright people to communicate with each other. Work is evolving, which will result in changes in real-estate values, land use patterns and enormous changes in the performance of the economy. And we want the U.S. to be the leader in this.

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