Whether you like it or not, your boss may want you to start acting more like a programmer. In offices ranging from a museum to a car dealership or the IT department, the workforce is adopting a tech industry concept called agile computing.

No doubt, Silicon Valley has changed how we work, for better or worse. Our smartphones keep us connected to the office all the time while internet searches bring the world’s information to our fingertips.

But people may not realise that it is the more subtle aspects of how tech companies operate that often have a more lasting effect on other industries. The idea has been around for at least 15 years.

The agile part of this increasingly popular management concept is simple. Rather than try to do big projects that take months or even years, create small teams that do a bit at a time. This way, small problems don’t balloon into enormous ones hidden inside a huge bureaucracy and progress can be measured in small steps; one little project at a time.

 “Folks want to talk about the Airbnb and Uber, but this is like when the assembly line showed up,” said Douglas Safford, vice-president of technology innovation at Allstate, the insurance giant. “All the layers and specialisation are breaking down. Instead of a year, we want to put an idea in front of a customer in a week,” he said.
Tech culture finding its way into other industries is nothing new. Decades ago, Intel’s founders tried to create an equal culture where the chief executive sat among his employees, and everyone at the company shared in the risks and rewards through stock options.

In more recent years, Google’s drive to take care of employees’ everyday needs, like commuting or dry cleaning (so they could focus on work), has been adopted with mixed success in other industries.

Now cloud computing is having an ripple influence. Cloud computing (a technology) and agile computing (a management concept) have proved to be a strong combination for creating and tweaking products faster than the competition.

New technologies and the management ideas that come with them have always presented risks to rank-and-file workers. Email improved communication and helped do away with a layer of management that was responsible for that communication inside big companies. Global fibre networks joined the world together and made it easier for jobs to be outsourced to other countries, and automation and robotics have wiped out countless manufacturing jobs.

With cloud computing, the risk appears more subtle. The average worker may have more flexible hours. What that can really mean is they are expected to work all the time. And they are expected to react faster to bosses’ demands with more varied skills.

“Work has changed and everyone needs more expertise, more consultation,” said Pamela Hinds, a professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University. “There’s more speed with which projects have to get out, because of competition, and people are pulled on and off projects much more.”
There is also a question of identity in this new workplace: If you are asked to be flexible and jump from one little project to another without hesitation, what sense of ownership do you have of your work?

“It’s like you have to constantly walk through walls, producing fast, with no chance to regroup,” she said. “As humans, we crave being known for something. If you’re constantly moving in and out of teams, what’s your identity?”

If agile type work is the new organisational pattern, it will be in a long tradition of companies styling themselves after the technology they consume. Standard corporate organisation charts looked something like assembly-line factories, with strictly defined jobs moving up narrow silos of production.
If you don’t want to live like a coder for life. Good luck, said Safford.

This article first appeared in The New York Times.

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