New prescription: Adapt to project-based work or perish

Oct. 11, 2007
If your company has any age on it at all, you’ve likely found that your “old way” of doing business fits about as well as the suit you wore 30 lb ago.

Many operations have scattered to the four corners of the globe, and workforce attitudes 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 work on a series of short-term projects that, together, make up their long-term career.

In short, things have changed. And if you’re trying to force yesterday’s rigid business practices to match today’s dynamic, projectbased world, author Rudolf Melik says you’re doomed to failure. He claims talent is the biggest differentiator between businesses these days, and how you manage it will determine your success.

“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,” says Melik, author of The Rise of the Project Workforce: Managing People and Projects in a Flat World. “They are no longer enough. Today’s companies must learn how to function in a shortterm, project-based business world. Unfortunately for many companies this skill set is not yet a strong suit.”

Companies face numerous challenges in their quest to adapt business practices to the brave new flat world. Melik addresses 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 e-mails.

“They’ve also seen the ‘long-term’ jobs of their parents outsourced or downsized, and this has changed their attitudes about work,” notes Melik. “Today’s young workers do not 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 let them 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 ERP, 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,” says Melik. “Companies end up trying to force fit these rigid solutions to their project workforce needs.”

Rapidly accelerating globalization has changed all the rules.
At the start of this shift, organizations moved simple tasks like 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,” says Melik. “The Internet, fast networks, and a globally connected workforce are the driving forces behind this trend.

And while globalization offers many opportunities for those who do it right, only one mistake can put a company in a huge mess. The safety, ethical, and strategic challenges imposed by going global will act as 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 is easy to reach out to people who work on projects and external parties are mainly suppliers with discrete deliverables that do not 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 both 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 is 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 if they are 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 impact 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, and suppliers.

The traditional chain of command has been broken.
In a flat world, topdown decision making is replaced by bottom-up empowerment. “That’s one aspect 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,” says Melik.

“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 let them 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,” says Melik. “To further complicate matters, some of these applications are used on-demand and others remain on-premise systems.”

Rudolf Melik has over 15 years of experience in software engineering and the projectworkforce-management industry. Visit his Web site at

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