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Tyranny, Stealing Office Supplies and Arbitrage Among Networks

Tools give us leverage, they augment our human capabilities. In the corporate business environment, software tools continue to increase productivity at ever growing rates. In many occupations, the employee’s primary tools consist of some type of computer, an office software suite and network connection. Much of the existence of the corporate enterprise is now inscribed in software. And for the most part, the people who manage the enterprise have little or no idea how the software works. They see better productivity and increased visibility into business processes—and that’s sufficient. The hardware and software toolset is owned by the IT department. This group knows about hardware and software, but generally, not about running a business. But they have power over the toolset and its provisioning—in essence the vehicle of augmentation and therefore leveraged productivity.

When tools are working well they disappear, we don’t think about them. Software disappears into our working lives to the extent that it works well. When it breaks or frustrates us, we see the critical dependencies that have formed and how we’ve become embedded in a system of software. The leverage we gain from augmenting our productive capabilities is critical to satisfying the demand for ever more growth from our corporations. One can do what it took many to accomplish in the past, or as it’s sometimes called revenue per unit of headcount. It could be said that for many businesses it’s only by increased leverage through networked software that productivity gains will be achieved.

Before the iPhone opened a port to the Network from anywhere with public WiFi or cellular coverage, I often wanted a personal network overlaying the corporate network. I missed the ability to pivot from one network to the other. This isn’t multitasking, but rather fast switching among different networks, electronic and otherwise. Quarantine to a single network is an unnatural state of affairs—it’s the reduction of the human to gadget or prisoner. Because of the arrival of Network access through the cellular system, the personal network now overlays the professional network—and it’s resulted in an interesting change in the balance of power.

Scott Brinker, in his Marketing Technologist blog, pulled a quote by Dave Codack, vice president of employee technology at TD Bank, from a ComputerWorld story. Codack indicated that he’d coined the phrase “the tyranny of consumerization.”

He called the process a form a tyranny because “the enterprise is not dictating technology with these devices, the revolt is coming from the end user community

Codack’s comment refers to the launch of the iPad2 and the excitement that it caused within his department and in the enterprise in general. The feature set combined with its ease of use makes the very existence of the iPad a challenge to corporate IT departments. These devices provide workers with working leverage from outside of the standard issue corporate toolkit.

Sociology professor Mark Granovetter, in his paper The Impact of Social Structure on Economic Outcomes, talks about the idea of social embeddedness of the economy. This has to do with the fact that economic action lives within the mesh of social networks, culture, politics and religion.

The notion that people often deploy resources from outside the economy to enjoy cost advantages in producing goods and services raises important questions, usually sidestepped in social theory, about how the economy interacts with other social institutions. Such deployment resembles arbitrage in using resources acquired cheaply in one setting for profit in another. As with classic arbitrage, it need not create economic profits for any particular actor, since if all are able to make the same use of non-economic resources, none has any cost advantage over any other. Yet, overall efficiency may then be improved by reducing everyone’s costs and freeing some resources for other users.

… But despite intimate connections between social networks and the modern economy, the two have not merged or become identical. Indeed, norms often develop that limit the merger of sectors. For example, when economic actors buy and sell political influence, threatening to merge political and economic institutions, this is condemned as “corruption.” Such condemnation invokes the norm that political officials are responsible to their constituents rather than to the highest bidder, and that the goals and procedures of the polity are and should be different and separate from those of the economy.

Personal consumer networks now overlay professional business networks, and the arbitrage moves from the personal and public to the corporate. We now steal office supplies from home to use at work. We’re still looking for leverage, for new ways to augment our capabilities, to get more done with less effort. And just as in the example of the merging of political and economic networks, the corporate IT department sees this as an illegitimate exercise of power and an undermining of the chain of command.

Person-to-person video calls used to be the province of science fiction. When we imagined what it would be like, we assumed it would start in the halls of government and the biggest corporations and eventually make its way to the broad consumer markets. If you’ve ever tried to use a corporate video conferencing system you’ll understand that’s not what will happen. While it looks good on paper, it’s never delivered on the promise. Corporate video conferencing is the equivalent of an operator-assisted phone call. The parties must always be connected by a representative of the corporate IT department. Compare this to the simplicity of Apple’s FaceTime—mobile video conferencing built into the device. Select, connect, talk. More office supplies taken from home and leveraged to make business work better.

How can the corporate IT department respond to the Tyranny of Consumerization? It’s too late to lock the personal network out of the corporate network. The castle walls have already been breached. And while the iPad and real-time message streams can be adopted as corporate tools, that’s only part of the arbitrage taking place. If economic growth can only be achieved through increased augmentation and leverage, the power of the personal network will have to be legitimized. But this won’t be a case of the corporate IT fish eating the personal IT fish, something else has come along to eat them both.

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