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Rudolf Melik

Quality Insider

The Flat World Fitness Challenge

Seven obstacles to a project-based planet.

Published: Sunday, November 11, 2007 - 22:00

Our spherical world has been declared flat once again, and you’ve likely found that your old way of doing business fits about as well as the suit you wore 30 pounds ago. Many operations scattered to the four corners of the globe, and the attitudes of the workforce have undergone a similar shift. People no longer expect to follow a predictable, hierarchical career path. They now expect to take part in numerous quick-forming, quick-dissolving teams that implement a series of short-term projects that, together, make up their long-term career.

In short, everything has changed. If you’re trying to force yesterday’s rigid business practices to match up to today’s dynamic, project-based world, you’re doomed to failure. After all, talent is the biggest differentiator between businesses these days, and how you manage it will determine your destiny.

Our established ways of getting work done, of accounting for this work, of monitoring compliance, and of analyzing work-in-progress for intelligence that will help us do future work faster, better, cheaper, and smarter are through. They are no longer enough. Today’s companies will have to learn how to function in a short-term, project-based business world. Unfortunately for many companies this skill set is not yet their strong suit.

Companies face numerous challenges in their quest to adapt their business practices to the brave new flat world. Read on to learn about seven of the most prevalent:

  • Workers have a whole new set of expectations. The generations that will make up the flattened world’s workforce grew up and are growing up in an era where technology rules, where information is just a click away and in which they can easily do multiple things at once. They have shorter attention spans and, frankly, they don’t want to be stuck behind a desk all day bogged down in spreadsheets and emails. They’ve also seen the long-term jobs of their parents outsourced or downsized, and this has changed their attitudes about work. Today’s young workers don’t view their careers as a couple of long-term stints with different companies or in different positions but as a series of short-term projects that will keep them interested and allow them to develop their skills over time. They’re the first generation in the new business world’s Project Workforce and any company that can’t understand their priorities and work parameters will be left behind.
  • Current business systems on their own don’t match up with the operations needed in a flattened world. Modern versions of business automation tools such as enterprise resource planning (ERP), customer relationship management (CRM), and project management software are simply not designed to plan, schedule, manage, audit, and optimize work that gets done in a flat world. These systems want to impose a certain rigidity within business processes and fail to address the dynamic interplay and constantly shifting relationships between projects and people, which occurs naturally in the flat world and characterizes today’s business. Companies end up trying to force fit these rigid solutions to their project workforce needs. That is why so many ERP, project management and workforce management systems are so heavily customized and why so many revert.
  • Rapidly accelerating globalization has changed all the rules. At the start of this shift, organizations moved simple tasks such as assembly and manufacturing to developing countries where this work could be completed more economically. In globalization’s current wave, organizations are outsourcing knowledge work as well. At first, only large multinational corporations outsourced operations—but that is quickly changing. In the current wave, all organizations—even those with just a few employees—are outsourcing and conducting business globally. The Internet, fast networks, and a globally connected workforce are the driving forces behind this trend. While globalization offers many opportunities for those who do it right, it takes only one mistake for a company to end up in a huge mess. The safety, ethical, and strategic challenges imposed by going global will act as huge obstacles for any company without the proper tools in place to ensure operations are being constantly checked and balanced.
  • Companies must learn to operate as fragmented enterprises. The conventional company has its entire workforce under one roof. It’s easy to reach out to people who work on projects and external parties are mainly suppliers with discrete deliverables that don’t collaborate with the company’s workers on a frequent or constant basis. Today’s work is defined by atomized segments that are delivered by specialized workers inside and outside the company. The fragmented enterprise of today assigns work to internal or outsourced teams based on costs, available talent, the nature of work, and customer expectations. It’s much harder to communicate, collaborate, and coordinate with a highly dispersed workforce that operates in multiple geographies and time zones, and yet companies have no choice but to do so to tap into the global talent pool they need.
  • The government is watching with an eagle eye. As organizations have become more fragmented, they also have become subject to greater regulatory scrutiny. Today’s businesses must achieve and maintain compliance with regulations such as Sarbanes-Oxley, which directly affect project execution and workforce management. To meet new regulatory standards, companies need more thorough and expansive systems for assigning, tracking, and managing accountability for the work being done. The good news is these controls protect everyone: workers, customers, suppliers—effectively, all of the organization’s stakeholders.
  • The traditional “chain of command” has been broken. In a flat world, top-down decision making is replaced by bottom-up empowerment. That’s one aspect that the new generation of workers finds so appealing, but it will also pose challenges for leaders and managers who are used to being first in command. Widely-distributed companies cannot use an authoritative command-and-control structure. Instead, market leaders will need to find ways to remove the red tape shackles from their project teams and empower them to get work done and make local decisions on their own.
  • Current systems produce a blizzard of assorted and often conflicting data that can be difficult for businesses to overcome. Spreadsheet-based tracking and reporting is used as a “cure all remaining gaps” approach in today’s business world, and the amount of conflicting information that it creates is overwhelming for most companies. Disconnected or manually integrated systems, a mish-mash of unapproved data, and a wild e-mail exchange of spreadsheets leads to an environment that is ripe for revenue leakages, errors, fraud, and systemic control weakness. Disconnected systems result in dozens and, in large corporations, easily hundreds of spreadsheets to track work, to import and export data, and to report on customers, projects, and workers. To further complicate matters, some of these applications are used on-demand and others remain on-premise systems.

Businesses must synthesize four aspects of their operations—human capital management, project management, business process management, and cost/revenue accounting—into one solution called project workforce management. This new system enables them to meet the cooperative collaboration challenges of a flat world.

Clearly, companies who are unable to overcome the aforementioned challenges will find surviving in a flat world difficult, if not impossible. Confused or lost companies must make these changes if they want to stay competitive. This is a scary time, but it’s also an exciting one. Adapt to the new realities and the world is, quite literally, at your fingertips.


About The Author

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Rudolf Melik

Rudolf Melik, currently serving as CEO, is one of the original founders of Tenrox. He has more than 15 years of experience in software engineering and the project workforce management industry. He has extensive knowledge of and speaks regularly about software solutions that support compliance initiatives such as Sarbanes-Oxley, Defense Contract Audit Agency, generally accepted accounting principles project cost accounting, revenue recognition, and labor laws such as Family and Medical Leave act and Fair Labor Standards Act. He was also the principal author of the first book on professional services automation. Melik holds a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering from McGill University.