The Business Implications Of An ‘Always On’ Culture

Always On Culture

A significant proportion of the UK population is now hooked on tech. We’re wired to our smartphones, laptops, iPads and other gadgets from the moment we wake up each morning. A survey in The Economist showed that people would rather go without washing, sex or money than live without the Internet.

We truly are a nation of tech addicts, and this trend has significant implications for businesses and technology in the workplace. The evolving consumer technology scene has raised our expectations and the corporate world is now forced to deliver solutions which perform at a similar level of usability and reliability.

Using increasingly advanced levels of technology in our personal lives means we now expect systems in the workplace to function with similar levels of ease, efficiency and reliability. If they don’t, failure causes frustration and inefficiency. Down-time is not an option – an ‘always-on’ culture has gripped the modern world, and as a result organisations now expect nothing less than uninterrupted service provision.

So what does this mean for businesses? In the past, technology was very much a static entity – you got what you were given, and if the technology failed, the IT guy would emerge from his server room to take it away and fix it. Now technology in the workplace is anything but static. The end-user is able to download their own apps, access work documents on the move, and make purchases from their smartphone. Over the last two to three years we have developed the expectation we will be able to connect to a service provider anytime, anyhow and anywhere, with very few barriers to access.

This causes a headache for many businesses. There has been a lot of discussion about the security issues caused by employees bringing their own devices to work, but an equally fundamental problem is that many of the systems to which those devices seek access were designed for a different age.

A significant number of businesses are hampered by a welter of interconnected legacy systems which have grown organically over many years. These systems have become so deeply entrenched within organisations that they are now difficult, disruptive and expensive to replace, and the risk of doing so is high. But these legacy systems are holding businesses back, not only potentially leading to high profile IT outages, but also creating a disconnect with what modern workers expects from their office environment.

Many organisations are reviewing their infrastructure in light of the business changes which have taken place over the years since the technology was originally implemented. The world has moved on: once systems were run in-house and on-premise; then they were outsourced to IT providers who modernised the infrastructure but still operated within the ‘traditional’ closed IT disciplines; now businesses increasingly rely on third-party cloud providers such as Amazon and Salesforce to provide services and are challenged to find effective means to exercise and monitor controls in an “Software/Platform/Infrastructure as a Service” environment.

This evolution of the way businesses work means that companies are asking whether their own legacy systems are fit for purpose. Can their current systems deliver what their customers and employees need and expect? If not then this can lead to significant losses – from both human capital and customer loyalty perspectives. Businesses need to review their agreements and infrastructure and question whether they are fit for purpose, and comply with the ‘always on’ mandate which has become an immutable aspect of modern business. If they do not, then businesses need to seek replacement or additional solutions to protect their position.

There is no easy fix. Any agreement for a new solution must accurately reflect the risks and dependencies of the interrelationship between the business and the supplier. If the supplier’s service fails and a customer or employee faces downtime, what is the impact on the business? But achieving a satisfactory balance can be more difficult to achieve in a world where control is exercised at the ‘service’ level (in other words, through contracts) rather than at the infrastructure level.

For example, many cloud providers who offer savings from commodity pricing also provide ‘commodity’ levels of support and service. It is not that their services are inherently less secure or efficient than an in-house operation – often the opposite is the case – but the level of contractual protection they are prepared to offer in the event of a failure could often best be described as basic. It is incumbent on businesses themselves to perform due diligence and study contracts carefully.

It is wise to examine the small print behind the 99.99% uptime guarantees and the offer of ‘industry-standard’ service levels. If these checks yield unexpected or unpalatable results, the business must have that conversation with the supplier to verify whether more satisfactory terms can be agreed. The contract must pay sufficient regard to the overall objectives of the business, otherwise the service cannot be said to be fit for purpose.

Increasing reliance on technology and the accessibility and usability of online consumer services are forcing businesses to adapt. ‘Always-on’ is not a “nice to have” anymore; for many network-critical organisations it’s a necessity, a way of life. Unless a business is willing to take a close look at its infrastructure, system provision and partner agreements, it may find itself a turn off to employees and customers alike.

Iain Monaghan

Iain Monaghan is a Partner in Pinsent Masons' TMT & Sourcing Group. A recognised expert on IT matters, he has drafted and negotiated contracts on systems integration and outsourcing projects in the UK and abroad and is active in both the public and private sectors. His clients have included the Department for Work and Pensions, Fujitsu Services, Royal & SunAlliance, Bank of Ireland and Kuala Lumpur International Airports. Iain is the author of ‘Computer Contracts: the User’s Perspective’ in the print and on-line encyclopaedia of ‘Commercial Contracts’ (PLC). He has also contributed to various publications on IT and the law.