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Updated: November 21, 2010 16:56 IST

Bypassing sacred structures for greater good

D. Murali
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How to save business from itself and you from business? Find the answers in ‘Hacking Work: Breaking stupid rules for smart results’ by Bill Jensen and Josh Klein (www.penguin.com). But employers, be warned, especially the ones in the traditional mould of command and control, because the book can disturb your sleep.

Get work done

For the rest of us, the great news is that once employees know the ‘cheat codes’ to hack their work, everything is up for grabs – how we work, when and where we work, how we define effectiveness and success, as the book assures.

The preface speaks of ‘Josh’s early days of snarfing Wi-Fi passwords in Seattle to his recent consulting work with US intelligence agencies,’ all involving the hacking of technologies and putting them back together, and how this kind of systems thinking could be applied to people and organisations, not just to technology.

‘The biggest open secret of the working world’ that the book reveals is that today’s top performers are taking matters into their own hands, and bypassing sacred structures and breaking all sorts of rules just to get their work done.

Out of sync

Why so? Because business’s love of lingering bureaucracy, legacy technologies, and deeply embedded procedures is killing us, the authors reason. They find that more and more of us are finding our work tools and structures to be completely out of sync with what we need to do our best; and that most of our daily needs, dreams, desires, and goals are far ahead of our employer’s technological, procedural, and social adoption curves.

“Business’s infrastructure is not keeping up with us. That which was supposed to help us now dictates too much of what we can’t get done. Our tools have become more bossy than our bosses.”

As a result, even though business spent $1.5 trillion on info tech in 2010, the tools we have outside of work are leapfrogging past what we use on the job, inform Jensen and Klein. They wonder how you can pretend to be competitive when a twelve-year-old can gather information faster, process it better, reference more diverse professionals, and get volunteer guidance from better sources than you can at work. “When you have more empowering tools in your mobile phone for your personal use than what your company provides or approves for your projects – how can you work within, or be saved from, devastating market forces?”

Bending the rules

The simple answer to how you can work smarter rather than harder is that you start hacking, by taking the usual ways of doing things and working around them to produce improved results, and bending the rules for the good of all, as what benevolent hackers do. And the mantra for those who want to be a better manager, leader, or entrepreneur is to ‘embrace the hackers around you and learn from them.’

Lest you feel being tugged towards the forbidden land, the authors remind that new technologies have so radically changed the social, cultural, and economic landscape of human connections that, increasingly, everyone participates as hackers. “Are you looking for a picture of a mermaid on roller skates to use in a presentation? Use Flickr! Want the best deal on a new product? Use RetailMeNot, BuyWithMe, Ebates, or Stingier! Want to run for president of the US without owing your soul to special-interest groups? Bypass how it’s usually done and go directly to the masses for millions of $25 donations! Want to max out your 64 GB iPod Touch? Find what you need on ThePirateBay or Spotify or use your (or your kid’s) university’s free file-sharing system!”

New openness to hacking

The end result, as the authors see, is that with the global economy moving so fast that most of its systems cannot keep up, and with new technologies creating opportunities to be exploited by everyone everywhere, hacking is now part of the global economic engine, more so, the hacking of any system that is too slow, too bureaucratic, too unresponsive, or too costly.

Usefully, there is a new openness to hacking, even among the established big enterprises, as evident from this quote of Bill Gates at a recent TED conference: “There are some very important problems that don’t get worked on naturally… The market does not drive the scientists, the communicators, the thinkers, the governments, to do the right things. And only by paying attention to these things, and having brilliant people who care and draw other people in, can we make as much progress as we need to.”

Jumping corporate firewalls

A section titled ‘today’s most common hack’ has stuff that your IT department may not like to read. It is about executives jumping corporate firewalls and working around their restrictions and tools (such as Microsoft’s SharePoint servers), in open computing environments (like Google Documents), and then bringing the work back over the firewall and presenting it to bosses as if the corporate tools had actually been used!

All this is necessary, the authors argue, because the tools that so many of us are given to use are corporate-centred, that is, designed to help the company succeed, but not necessarily designed for our needs. In contrast, “the universe of tools available to us in the outside world, like Gmail and Google Docs and iPhone apps, are user-centred – easily customised for each individual’s needs.”

Annoying accountants

Another example of ‘work-arounds from the field’ that a box item in the book highlights is of Danny, who was tired of carrying pockets full of receipts while travelling for business. What made it worse was the six to eight hours a month he had to spend doing his expense reports according to his employer’s policies, the authors narrate. “This receipt had to be handed in a certain way, that form had to be filled out in a certain way.”

This is crazy, felt Danny; and he was also not happy that his billable client time was getting cut by eight hours a month. So, he chose the alternative: running his financial life on Mint.com, getting a one-page printout with all details. “Now, rather than save receipts he just orders up duplicate sets to match his expenses from SalesReceiptStore.com, a service that prints and mails receipt copies for expense reports. Then he attaches them to the one-pager from Mint.com and submits them to accounting.”

Surprise the supervisor

If that was a work-around to annoy your accounting department, here is one that can elicit hate from the establishment team. The tale is of Jessica, working in a company that was stingy with time-off allocations even while demanding a lot of overtime. What made her situation worse was that while she was putting in all that overtime, her supervisor worked just enough to get by and always took off as soon as their boss left for the day.

“I knew that all our work involved the same network. Since I was in charge of the network, I wrote a script to send me an email every time my supervisor logged in and out. I wrote the same script to track my log-in and log-out times. I imported all the data into a spreadsheet and could soon accurately compare my sixty-plus-hour workweeks with my supervisor’s forty-plus-hour weeks.”

The clincher in the episode happened when Jessica met both her supervisor and the boss and told them she was going to take an extra week over Christmas holiday to visit her in-laws overseas. “After the yelling had ended, I handed them my spreadsheet comparing my supervisor’s work hours and mine. Instead of the additional week I had requested, they gave me ten additional days off,” she recounts. “Upon my return, I was treated with much greater respect, and my employment with them lasted until I chose to end it.”

Push-back from the rank and file

The authors advise business leaders to be prepared for a lot more push-back from the rank and file than ever seen before. Based on their study of Gen Y, they expect the workforce to follow a bell curve approach to radical transparency; that is, some pockets of rapid-fire revolutionary actions, with the largest number of changes bubbling over time, in social network platforms.

They report a finding that immediately after the announcement of a restrictive corporate policy or procedure, employees were tweeting one another – at first complaining, then building solidarity, then sharing workarounds, within minutes, often during the meetings while the policy was being announced.

The use of social media to get the bosses’ ear will grow at the same rate as the growth of Web tools and apps, as long as bosses continue not listening to their employees, predict Jensen and Klein.

Disruptive read.

**

Tailpiece

“We could save a lot on meeting expenses…”

“Through video-conferencing?”

“More by converting our meeting format to tweeting sessions!”

**

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