The internet cannot yet be said to have had a revolutionary impact on the
way we work. But while change is never instant, says Stephen Overell, it is
The most abused word in HR is ‘revolution’. In a perfect world, the term
would be banned from the present tense and only used in retrospect. But with
all due caution, it is fair to say we are living through a revolution in
working life caused by new communications technology. But it’s a revolution of
a subtle, ambiguous and paradoxical character. Or characters.
Two facts capture the dilemma. In the UK, just two out of 10 people send
e-mail regularly in the course of their work1, thus making computers far less
revolutionary than the car. However, while the telephone was invented in the
1870s, it was not until the 1980s that telephone banking took off.
The internet has boomed, busted and rampaged across the globe in just seven
years, and it is a pretty sleepy bank that doesn’t do internet banking. After a
madcap infancy, the revolution is entering its troubled toddler stage.
Revolution of the old guard
In Frances Cairncross’ book, The Company of the Future2, the contention is
that now the dotcom bubble has popped, the real revolutionary effect on
old-economy businesses can become clear.
And what has happened is that the internet has massively accelerated what
was already going on.
"The most widespread revolution in the workplace will come from the
rise in collaboration and the decline of hierarchy," Cairncross writes.
Thus, the internet enables globalisation. Efficient outsourcing and
management of external suppliers is made easier.
Now that information no longer flows from the top downwards, it allows flat
corporate architecture and web-like structures to operate smoothly.
E-mail is great and maddening, but it has raised the value of face-to-face
contact, not lessened it. Physical meetings have qualities that even the
fanciest broadband gizmos cannot emulate; human contact sparks innovation3 –
that is why Newport Pagnell service station on the M1 has become an important
rendezvous for mobile workers.
The electronic Ubermensch
Remember the halcyon days of the new economy – baggy shorts, air-drumming,
share opt- ions? Workers – some workers – had bargaining power. But what about
now? Has the communications revolution shifted power towards employees?
In one sense, it has. The internet has inverted the old Marxist argument
that workers are powerless if they don’t own the means of production; the value
of owning the means of production is declining all the time while the value of
intangible assets like knowledge continues to rise. In theory, this should put
employees in a strong position.
But in another sense, the answer is also no. In chilly economic times, a
desire for security has returned.
The internet is seen as the enemy of job security. Career paths are becoming
more complex and less uniform; people work for a succession of shifting,
forming and re-forming projects. The communications revolution means an
ineluctable trend towards instability and flux. Highly marketable workers have
choices; they can work flexibly if they want, auction their skills, and move if
they get bored. Most people do not.
Tick tock goes the clock
In the internet age, output is king. The clock is slowly declining in
importance as the years roll on. Output attracts prices, not how long it takes
to do something. This will be revolutionary.
Working life is wedded to the idea of sacrificing time for money.
No hiding place
The internet has blurred the boundaries between work and life. Work is more
intrusive in more ways to more people. It is always possible to do a bit more,
spend some quality time with the laptop.
In previous generations, 24-hour commitment to work was the preserve of the
lofty. In the 1850s, James de Rothschild, scion of the great banking family,
complained that the telegraph interfered with his enjoyment of the waters
during his summer holiday: "One has too much to think about when bathing,
which is not good," he sighed. Intrusion is now democratic.
Increasing anger about work colonising life has in turn sparked the
work-life debate, plenty of ineffective legislation and the boom in
From a company perspective, the transformed feelings about work among some
of the most desirable employees carry their own difficulties.
Squads of ‘knowledge nomads’ can be troublesome to manage and reward.
How do you foster a sense of belonging with a freelance network? HR
directors in some sectors behave like theatrical casting agents; they staff
work, not jobs. A key decision for HR will be whether to buy or rent.
The new hierarchy
One in five British people cannot find a plumber in the Yellow Pages; one in
four of us cannot calculate the change from £255. The revolution augurs
exclusion. To its credit, the Government has foreseen the problem. Yet as some hierarchies
are levelled, others are spawned.
Hierarchy booms, too, at the top of the labour market. Senior managers need
armies of PAs to manage their time and sift torrents of trash. The typing pool
Less than human
In December 1999, Exult won BP’s HR contract. Unisys was next. But outside
recruitment, e-HR has been non-revolutionary. That may change. Only 13 per cent
of UK firms have implemented an e-HR system yet 40 per cent think it could be
beneficial6.Show me the money
In 1987, Robert Solow, a nobel laureate in economics, famously remarked:
"You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity
Productivity growth was good between 1995 and 2000, before faltering, but
the revolution has never been an unqualified success, which is odd considering
the scope it gives for passing on costs to someone else. It will succeed,
according to consultants Bain & Company. Partner Gerry Mulvin reckons the
revolution is corresponding to type. Electricity was born in the 1860s and in
the 1890s, General Electric almost went bust. "It came right in the
end," he says.
In turn he predicts that the IT revolution may allow companies to shed 15
per cent of their costs over the next decade or so. Like all revolutions, only
time will tell.