Thinking Managers

Robert Heller of looks back at the first glimpses he had of the ‘networked age’ and the ‘virtual office’.

Where is ‘The Office’?

I was commissioned by Rank Xerox to write a book back in 1990. It was called Culture Shock: The Office Revolution.

Now, I must admit that before I started my research for the book, I had no clear thoughts of where corporate culture might be heading as it absorbed the frantic progression of the Silicon Age. But I had a real revelation in a Rank office in High Holborn, where one whiz-kid crossed the Atlantic in a metaphorical sense, travelled coast-to-coast to LA, and accessed a colleague’s PC file to add his own input.

The conclusion became obvious to me. It seemed clear that the networked PC was bound to conquer the globe and revolutionise corporate culture all around the world. Collaborative working immediately took on a whole new significance and potential. Subsequent advances have since proved huge across the board.

However, too many were blind to the revolution back then in 1990. In a similar way, lots of people failed to understand the World Wide Web’s significance when it rose to prominence approximately three years after my book was published. Inexcusably, many remain blind to that significance in 2008. Trouble waits for them.

Ignorance of the real revolution was directly linked to Wall Street’s mania and downfall. Amazon was so often derided because it made no money for so long, yet there was a scramble to invest in the daydreams of conmen who poured their venture capital on themselves up-front. Crazy amounts were paid on the basis of ‘hits’ and ‘eyeballs’ and the clientele built up was unreal.

It’s hardly surprising that most of these ventures ended in failure. Equally unsurprisingly, the firms that operated in the real world with real markets, like Amazon, survived the test of time, making genuine breakthroughs and winning real rewards for their historic innovations. Competition had achieved complete madness, just like the sub-prime debacle some years later.

There were plenty of big disappointments (as well as vast ephemeral rewards) in the years that followed 1990 for followers of The Cult of Shareholder Value and The Cult of the Chief Executive. Those two cults represented naked invitations to maximise both the share price and the sums of money the boss could suck from the stock markets.

In spite of all the financial scandals and fiascos, managerial IT is far fitter for purpose than it was in 1990 or 2000 – and why shouldn’t it be? Those two Rank Xerox employees I witnessed networking while 7,000 miles apart were forerunners of whole armies of collaborators, sharing electronic information to remould their businesses, organisations and corporate cultures.

‘The office’ is now anywhere and everywhere – and everyone’s now a home worker. Also, a worker’s knowledge of what’s actually happening inside their organisation and outside is now much more thorough and gained at a higher speed. The new cult is has to be the Cult of Collaboration, which I saw a first glimpse of in 1990.

About the author
Robert Heller is one of the world’s best selling authors on business management.