The Blurry Corporation

What if computer systems ​were designed so that desk workers could collaborate, regardless of ​their​ employer, their location, or ​the​ time of day?

Geoff Peters / Flickr

Who works for a company? That may seem like a simple question, but the reality is that companies collaborate constantly with people who are not their employees. There are ad-hoc collaborators, contract workers, external consultants, and so on, all of whom are working for—or at least with—people who are on staff. Yet increasingly the technology that companies purport to use doesn’t accommodate this basic fact.

Historically, what is known as enterprise computing—the hardware and software that drives business operations—has been devised and locked down inside corporations, in the hope of providing security, stability, and manageability. The technology companies who make this software have a particular vision in mind: a hive of activity on some sort of corporate campus, with all the work and collaboration taking place within that perimeter, or (occasionally) by some remote user.

There are a lot of people—those who are working outside the company or those who are in it only temporarily—for whom this does not work well. Beyond the Task Rabbits and Uber drivers, we are seeing a growing number of professionals for whom a corporation provides a specific set of needs and resources to either exploit or work around in the course of a career that involves multiple jobs, gigs, or contracts.

The enterprise model of software—fixated on stable roles, responsibilities, and locations—is taking a long time to adjust to this new type of career. Business IT is deeply influenced by a normative vision of “work” as something that occurs in a singular place, secured and enjoyed by authorized people who enter and exit at clearly defined times. But as anyone working today knows, the office is as proximate as their pocket. An architecture of connected computer systems makes work less about place and more about access across sites, times, and devices. This change in the quality of availability gives rise to new technical, logistical, and psychological challenges not just for workers but for managers and technology suppliers. From a traditional enterprise standpoint, mobile and cloud infrastructure can make intellectual property appear less secure and the work day less predictable. But for workers equipped with technology that allows them to define the terms of their own productivity, this dynamic environment reflects their growing autonomy.

The end of lifelong employment works in two directions: Companies can offshore, outsource, and lay off workers more readily, but conversely, individuals can develop their own professional relationships and associations to maintain connections and employability. These networks are part of the asset base a worker brings to a company, a foundation of assistance on hand to help new hires succeed quickly.

From the point of view of the worker, it is in everyone’s interests to facilitate communication across departments and make use of collaborative tools and services. Whether it is in the firm’s interests remains to be seen. Corporations expect exclusive ownership of workers’ hours and ideas, but they now face a challenge in making an internal audience the most compelling channel for employees’ thoughts and innovations.

The present scenario is one in which the enterprise is leaky. Employees in-house often operate in a permanent state of exception in order to use preferred software and hardware in spite of authorized company offerings—a pattern IT departments delightfully term “shadow IT.” Meanwhile, consumer-oriented productivity tools and services feed the appetite for personal preferences in such a way that they compete with the firm for users’ brand loyalty. In this situation, hygienic “managed” solutions typical of old-style business computing can feel as though the company is preventing a worker from exercising discretion in choosing the tools of her trade.

Away from the claustrophobia of the firm, users are assembling tools and devising strategies that enable them to orchestrate and control their own priorities. Future business frameworks need to adjust to the reality that consumer and enterprise categories maintain unhelpful obstacles for users trying to get work done wherever they are, whatever time it is.