Wednesday, 4 January 2012

The President endorses Telework - in Iran

2011 was an unusual year for me in all kinds of ways.  But one thing I could never have predicted was that I would share a platform with President Ahmadinejad of Iran, talking about telework.

I'm not sure the President knew I was there, however.  When I say 'share a platform', I have to say that my presence in the auditorium was virtual.  My presentation was remote via Microsoft Lync, so it was a 'walk the talk' kind of occasion for someone who advocates remote working and using technology to save the planet and so forth.

President Ahmadinejad's address was on the topic 'Telework - a Necessity not an Option'.  And I have to say that whatever your views about politics and sanctions and everything, it is actually really good to see the leadership of a nation get behind the need to modernise the way government works.  Expert after expert says that unless the top level of an organisation gets behind the programme, change will always be an uphill battle.

I was able to capture this image from a camera in the wings.  Here is the President of Iran exhorting senior civil servants to get moving on implementing telework, and outlining the benefits of doing so.

And for a country like Iran, there are many challenges too, not least the lack of a comprehensive broadband infrastructure.

I went on to run workshops over three days for managers, employees and for policymakers.  And while they couldn't be as interactive as if I had been there in person, these workshops were fascinating to do.  We had hours of Q&A from the delegates - and some very challenging questions too.  Like 'Hadn't telework failed in the UK if so few people in the government were doing it full time?'

What strikes me most is how similar were many of the concerns to people anywhere before remote working is introduced.  Issues like isolation, career progression, information security, people shirking, applicability to different sectors, etc.

There were some differences too in some of the concerns. Unlike most Western countries now that have seen extensive privatisation, the government sector is seen as a key direct provider of jobs in many sectors of the economy.  And there were undercurrents of concern and the occasional direct question about whether some of the efficiency benefits and having fewer properties would lead to the loss of lower skill jobs that many people depend on.

One significant difference in outlook that came up again and again, though, was an apparent expectation that Telework is or should be a kind of complete and regulated system that is introduced as a well-defined method of work.  Our approach over here has very much been one of uneven progress, and in government an ad hoc and multispeed approach.

I guess there are pros and cons to this approach.  Over here we could certainly have done with being a bit more coordinated and coherent, rther than every public sector body doing its own thing.  The Iranian Telework Regulations, to some extent like the Telework Enhancement Act in the USA, do provide a coherent framework for the development of telework/homeworking for public sector workers.  There is an outline of the benefits, and a duty set on each agency of government to define what they are trying to achieve, set targets, measure impacts, train managers and employees and monitor welfare.

All that is exemplary.  At the same time, I always get a little worried about viewing Telework (with a capital T) as a kind of special and separate system of working.  Basically, it's doing what you normally do, only having the capability of doing it somewhere else.  Somewhere that is more effective for the business and convenient for the employee.  The risk is in making it all too complicated, or having too many hoops to jump through so that it starts to seem like you have a mountain to climb.

And this is particularly so in developing countries with patchy infrastructure.  Back in the early 1990s, when Flexibility began, we started working from home with dial-up modems and with (so it would seem now) wind-up computers that would crash every hour or two, and a pile of floppy disks to keep our data on. The Internet was barely up and running then, and it was a case of the World Wide What?  And if you had a mobile phone, it was best if you had staff to carry it.  Portable computing devices? Even mobile phones were barely portable.  And many aspects of business and political culture were hostile to the whole notion of flexible working.

But we did it.  And these were useful, learning, developmental experiences.  And still worth doing at the time in terms of getting the work done.

The key question for Iranian civil servants perhaps is around the pace of change.  How far can they go in implementing telework if their infrastructure isn't up to it and, as some delegates indicated, many managers manage in quite traditional ways?

Well, I hope they don't wait for perfect systems to develop, and just move on fast in areas where it is possible to do so.  Lessons will be learnt, and the best implementations will be imitated. 

And the infrastructure will develop.  It is  a country with a very young and well educated population who are creating a demand for good quality infrastructure and services.  And when it comes they can skip out the intermediate stages we have been going through, perhaps.

Certainly a country to watch, and we have to wish them well with this aspect of modernising government.


Bridget said...

Interesting the Iranian and American approaches are similar creating Telework as a regulated system operating alongside ordinary office based work. I'm of the same mind as you that telework is simply an extension of mobility in and out of the office

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