The Downside of Personalization

Rethinking Communications

The Downside of Personalization

By Jon Arnold, Principal, J Arnold & Associates  |  September 03, 2013

This month I’m continuing the theme from my last column where I explored how end users see collaboration. The virtues of collaboration have been taken as gospel lately by senior management, and since most UC vendors are banking their future on it, this is the current almost everyone is swimming with.

I say almost since collaboration presents some new challenges for IT, and I’ve touched on this in recent columns here. They certainly support the rationale and can see why this is important to management, but from a network perspective this places new demands on IT without much reward for a job well done. Employees, of course, are the bigger issue, and that’s what I started assessing last month. They have enough on their plate already, and for many, greater collaboration is more about pleasing management than making their jobs easier.

I’m not trying to dismiss the merits of collaboration – it definitely has value – and it’s not an issue of making employees do things they’re not qualified to do. Far from it – most of us are perfectly capable of using UC tools to improve teamwork. The pushback comes if collaboration is imposed with expectations of working harder for the good of the business.

This becomes even more of a one-way street if the definition of productivity is vague and there are no incentives tied to improved performance. While it may be clear why management wants these things, if employees appear more as an after-thought, you don’t have to wonder any longer as to why UC has been slow to gain traction.

What I’m really talking about here is positioning collaboration in a way that is relevant to employees. The underlying tools and technologies work well and can drive great results, but only if end users buy into the concept. Getting this buy-in is tricky on a few levels, and even if you dangled financial incentives with achievable targets, there are both obvious and not-so-obvious factors that can get in the way of using UC to collaborate more effectively.

Remember the me generation? You probably haven’t heard that term in a while – and maybe never at all – but this was a defining characteristic of the baby boomers from the 1960s that essentially created the template for today’s consumer society. This was the first generation that had the gall – or confidence, depending on your values – to put greater emphasis on personal needs and wants than those of others around them.

Over time this has become the new normal, and today’s youth culture takes it for granted that the world revolves around them. I’ll save the moralizing about sliding standards for another forum, but the evolution of today’s consumer technologies have only served to reinforce, encourage and reward these norms. The concept of seeing movies in a theater, watching TV with the family or playing board games where you interact and share with others are starting to look like quaint pastimes. These are real-time, in-person social experiences that cannot be duplicated with today’s technologies.

Virtual experiences continue to gain currency, and the majority of technologies, services and applications are designed for personal use. Everyone has his or her own phone now and nobody answers the home phone anymore, let alone call someone else’s home phone. The same holds true for every form of technology that is commonly used, and if we so choose, the tools are there to live full and happy lives with hardly any human interaction outside a virtual setting. This isn’t the world I live in, but I’m sure you get the picture.

Bringing the conversation back to UC, my message here is that the further along that path people go in their personal lives, the more hard-wired these behaviors become. Once this spills over into the workplace, it becomes increasingly difficult to encourage collaboration when there are so many options to perform tasks using personalized tools that cater to our individual preferences. Of course, these are learned behaviors, but given how pervasive personal-use technology has become, there is a real challenge in getting employees to use these same tools to support team or business-level collective objectives.

Personalization has fantastic utility for consumers and has made vast fortunes for the likes of Apple (News - Alert), Nintendo, Sony, etc. At the same time, this can also make it difficult for younger employees to see how UC tools can have value beyond serving their personal needs.

Turning the me generation into the we generation will never be easy, but when UC can strike a viable balance here, it comes much closer to fulfilling its true potential.

Jon Arnold (News - Alert) is principal of J Arnold & Associates, an independent telecom analyst and marketing consultancy with a focus on IP communications, and writes the Analyst 2.0 blog. Previously, he was the VoIP program leader at Frost & Sullivan (News - Alert).

Edited by Alisen Downey