Collaborative Communities of Mobile Business Professionals

Greg Lowes, David Ing, Ian Simmonds and Juen Lau


Over the last decade, mobile information technologies have expanded the concept of the workplace to any place that business professionals can work together. The recent interest in communities of practice draws attention to the productivity and organization learning that occurs when teams meet, share ideas, and collaborate. This article suggests that social-informatic space should be considered jointly with physical spaces in the enablement of collaborative work.

The Challenge: Cost justification for an investment in mobility

The traditional workplace situated at an employer's premises is no longer the norm for many work teams. Some business professionals are assigned to offices onsite at customers' locations, as resources dedicated to working hand-in-hand with the customer's staff. Some individuals choose to shift their work schedules and/or avoid long commuting peaks to improve their work-life balance. More and more employees today consider themselves "mobile", and are productive without a permanent desk in the central office.

Faced with trends of this type, the Business Operations Executive of a large professional services company had a challenge. The deployment of a collaborative information infrastructure was an important initiative, but developing its business case was problematic. In a slowing economy driving a corporate focus on streamlining costs, how could he justify the investment? Without an appropriate infrastructure to support the company's mobile knowledge workers, the productivity of each services workgroup could be hindered. A team member struggling with last-generation computers and network connectivity issues is effectively "home alone." He or she can fall out of touch with co-workers, and/or wastes time making tools work, rather than producing deliverables for a client.

The authors of this article were asked to help. As an alternative to just focusing on the operations issues highlighted, we suggested enlarging the perspective to include three other executives. We discovered that these executives were facing related issues, although their goals conflicted and each project was largely unconnected to the others.

  • The Director of IT was facing spiraling support costs for an increasing number of generations of computers and operating systems. A standard configuration of network-enabled notebook computers would reduce purchase, deployment and help desk costs, but a large initial investment would be required.
  • The Director of Real Estate needed to support the needs of a growing number of employees, yet simultaneously had a mandate to reduce real estate costs. No business unit would independently fund new space, and none offered to release space to others.
  • The Director of Human Resources saw a formal mobility program as a way to remain competitive in the job market. Mobility programs have proven to improve employee job satisfaction, and to provide advantage in recruiting and retaining skilled workers. Yet, the costs of changing business policies, asset entitlement, deployment procedures and management training seemed difficult to justify against "soft benefits".

Each of the four executives was unable to develop a business case in isolation. Conflicts arose as each tried to "sell" his or her ideas to the others. We proposed a cross-functional working group, guided by a steering committee. Through facilitated discussions, the working group coordinated activities into a coherent mobility program. The population of mobile employees was increased. Business professionals received upgraded notebook computers. Online facilities were enhanced with instant messaging, web conferencing, and intranet bulletin boards. Mobility centers with booking facilities for desks and meeting rooms were expanded. These upgrades were achieved with a business case that demonstrated significant cost savings to the business as a whole. The investments required in IT and human resource improvements were more than offset by the savings in real estate costs.

The Trend: From personal productivity to building communities

This success story would not have been feasible ten years ago. The tools available to today's professional services companies may have only been a dream then. The steady stream of advances in networking technologies and infrastructures over the last ten years has enabled a truly mobile force of knowledge workers.

Stop for a moment and think about how you were working in 1992. Did you have an office with real walls? How about a window with a view? If you were lucky, maybe you just got that brand new IBM Thinkpad 700C, with the new, backlit color screen and that newfangled Trackpoint device. Were your teammates down the hall from you? If a co-worker was out, maybe you fired up the 3270 emulator, and sent him or her a PROFS note.

How about right now? There's a good possibility that the view outside your office is the back yard of your home. If it isn't, then there's a good chance that at least one of your teammates isn't working in a central office location. You've probably got a high-speed connection with fast access to the Internet, and a tunnel into the corporate intranet. You can check up on news from the corporate home page, and keep up on your team's progress in your private discussion database or teamroom.

The advent of notebook computers encouraged mobility programs to support business professionals working away from the central office. They became popular as individuals sought to improve their work productivity, while increasing the potential for customer "face time". An unfortunate side effect, however, has been a reduction in continued interaction with the community of co-workers. Do you know someone who is "home alone", and out of touch with the bigger changes that are happening in the business? Maybe you know of a co-worker who was assigned to the offices of a customer or a business partner, but who never came back. Knowledge is "sticky" to those closest to the work, and day-to-day interaction via communities of practice is a conduit for passing on this organizational memory.

Although communities of practice have always existed, it's only since 1998 that the phrase has come into common use. Knowledge workers don't learn everything in school. Through the community, practitioners share experiences on what works and what doesn't work. They learn about short cuts, and the "best ways" to get things done. In a world where there's no "water cooler" to rally around, there's a challenge to maintain organizational learning.

An Approach: "Being there" in socio-informatic space

In physical facilities, the availability of meeting rooms and whiteboards encourages meetings where ideas can be shared face-to-face. To reinforce the sense of community, when individuals are at a distance to each other, a parallel enablement should occur in socio-informatic space. Socio-informatic space refers to electronic shared space where people can "meet" or share ideas.

Traditionally, electronic shared places (e.g. newsgroups, teamrooms and web sites) have felt more like libraries. They store artifacts and reflect a legacy. Newer electronic shared places, enabled on the Internet with real-time technologies, have a more "living" sense of place. Web conferencing, instant messaging and chat facilities such as Lotus Sametime and AOL Instant Messaging give individuals a better sense of "being there". Some features mirror aspects of the physical world. Just as a closed door to an office signifies "do not disturb" in physical space, a counterpart for social translucence can help an individual navigate socio-informatic space. The dot or icon on the instant messaging screen is a social proxy indicating that "I am at work", or "I am away from the office". This feature represents an advance in social translucence whereby the computer network is no longer opaque, and we can see each other "through" the Internet.

Workgroups are still climbing the learning curve on social protocols for instant messaging. Messages are generally shorter and less formal than e-mail. Interruptions are expected and tolerated, with initiations of "Got a minute?" sometimes declined with "Try me later". How many messages should go back-and-forth before a telephone call works better? Should back-channel communications behind a meeting or teleconference in progress be considered a convenience, or rudeness? Which conversations are public, and which ones are private? As individuals gain more experience in these new environments, cultures and acceptable behaviors will gradually emerge. Human Resource departments can accelerate the adoption of new norms through training on common and productive ways of interacting.

The Future: Productive mobile collaboration

We've reviewed the world of work as it is today. There's more coming. Notebook computers at home are only a first step. Handheld devices such as Palm Pilots and RIM Blackberries demonstrate the trend towards more pervasive wireless mobile computing. Working prototypes for social proxies on cellular telephones prove that the notion of presence can be taken further, adding in notions of place and distance, in addition to indications of a person's availability.

As the use of socio-informatic spaces matures, it will provide business professionals with an alternate vehicle to enable the social interaction required to sustain communities of practice, without the need to be in a common physical space. Becoming productive through collaboration while also becoming more mobile offers a promising counterpart to Marshall McLuhan's "the medium is the message". Today's workplace is not just the office. It's the infrastructure we share, not only in physical space but also socio-informatic space.

Productive collaboration in the future suggests networking in two senses: the ability to connect and interact in physical space, as well as the ability to connect and interact in socio-informatic space. Business designers should now consider information spaces for workgroups in a way similar to that for physical spaces. Business design will involve ensuring an appropriate diversity of venues. Some venues will be physical and some will be informational. Some venues will be project-oriented, and some will be community oriented. This view was applied by executives in the services company described above, in the rebalancing of physical real estate space and IT investments and in the development of an effective socio-informatic infrastructure.


On "The Trend: From personal productivity to building communities" …

  • Research on these topics is conducted at the IBM Institute for Knowledge-Based Organizations ( )
  • For an edited volume including many ideas in this area, see Eric L. Lesser, Michael A. Fontaine and Jason A. Slusher (editors), Knowledge and Communities, Butterworth-Heinemann (2000).
  • The seminal academic work on communities of practice is Etienne Wenger, Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity, Cambridge University Press, 1998. Etienne Wenger maintains a site at

On "An Approach: "Being there" in socio-informatic space" …

On "The Future: Productive mobile collaboration" …


Greg Lowes is a Practice Leader for IBM Strategy & Change consulting in IBM Global Services, in Markham, Canada. He may be contacted at

David Ing is a Marketing Scientist, on the faculty of the Advanced Business Institute. He may be reached at

Ian Simmonds is a Researcher with the IBM T.J. Watson Research Center, in Hawthorne, NY. His e-mail address is

Juen Lau is an IBM Strategy & Change Consultant with IBM Global Services, in Markham, Canada. Her e-mail address is

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