E L S U A ~ A KM Blog by Luis Suarez

From the blog

Connectivity – The Achilles Heel of Remote Knowledge Web Work

Gran Canaria - Roque Nublo As Seen from Roque Bentayga in the WinterLast week at work was, perhaps, one of the most excruciating, rather annoying and frustrating weeks that I can remember in my 16 years of work with my current employer and it was not because of the sheer madness, rather hectic and busy work schedules, you know, those are business as usual and quite good fun still (Already having crossed through the second month on the new job!), but more because for the first time in a long while I got to experience what I think is the Achilles Heel for Knowledge (Web) workers in this digital age. Specially, for those of us who are working remotely, away from the traditional office. Yes, indeed, last week I experienced, in full force, what it would be like having an intermittent connection to internal networks, through VPN, as well as the Internet in general, through my ISP. And I tell you, it wasn’t pretty. At all.

Indeed, like I mentioned above, it was one of those dreadful experiences that clearly reminds us all how fragile remote knowledge (Web) workers are in terms of the dependencies on the availability of a good, reliable and accessible VPN and Internet connections. Most folks out there know by now how, thanks to the “Life Without eMail” movement I started over 5 years ago, I have now been successful in having moved over 98% of my daily work to the Web, whether on the Intranet or the Internet. Yet, last week was perhaps one of the quietest times I have gone through that I can remember. Why? Because I was offline for the vast majority of it. Both my VPN connection as well as my local ISP were having continuous issues helping me remain connected and eventually ended up in me putting a bunch of extra hours at work just trying to catch up with things when they would become more stable. And some times they did, and some others, they didn’t.

But right there I realised how when you are working from the traditional office space things are relatively good in terms of connectivity. You know, everyone working along through the same pipes, so to speak, and if the Internet or the Intranet goes down, that’s just fine, it’s down for everyone, so you are in equal terms for that matter and might as well enjoying a coffee or two while the system goes up to support back again several hundreds of office knowledge workers. However, when you are a remote knowledge worker, who depends on the Web for the majority of your work, things are much different.

As a starting point, you are alone. You are, typically, in the middle of nowhere (my closest IBM office is about 1,200 KM away from where I live / work), trying to get connected to the rest of the world that flies passed by you at a lightning speed, and that you hope to jump into the bandwagon which is the Internet, so that you can catch up. Well, last week, my train never showed up, helping me understand the challenges of what it would be like if, all of a sudden, remote knowledge (Web) workers, get to suffer from intermittent (Or permanent, for that matter!) connectivity issues in order to carry out their digital work.Gran Canaria - Roque Bentayga in the Winter

It just won’t happen. And, you know, work won’t stop. It never does. It will just keep carrying on and piling up, which means that, as a remote employee or knowledge worker, your dependency on a good VPN and ISP connectivity are going to be critical. Otherwise, it’s just like one of those dead tentacles you can just chop off and no-one will notice. And while I can see how that may well not be too worrying for companies and businesses, since it’s just an isolated case or two, perhaps a few hundred (tops), the reality is that for you it’s like the whole world just collapsed and decided to stop spinning around.

Yes, I know, I realise I am putting a little bit of extra drama on the huge impact of network connectivity for remote employees, but is it really that much of an exaggeration? Because, somehow I feel it’s not, specially, if you consider how, unless you live in a rather large urban place, you, as a remote worker depending on the Web to get your work done, are doomed and big time. And, most probably, no-one would even notice.

And, let’s face it. We are entering the stage where broadband penetration, at least, in (Western) Europe, is pretty much a good myth, specially, if you don’t live in big cities. If you live in relatively small towns, or rural / remote areas, that pervasive connectivity is non-existent, which comes to fight the argument that the Web keeps us all hyperconnected and networked no matter what. Well, it matters, connectivity, at least, in Europe, is not as pervasive as what most folks feel, and if you have been reading my recent business trips across several European countries, it’s more of a wider issue than anything else, not necessarily related to a specific country or local region.

It bugs me. I tell you, it bugs me quite a lot, actually, because, last week, I realised how I was no longer capable of accessing the most precious thing that makes the Internet a wonderful thing: free information. And I don’t mean free as in you don’t have to pay for it. I mean it from the perspective of no longer being capable of accessing free flows of information to allow me to get my work done in an effective and efficient manner. Never mind the good amount of conversations I could no longer have in terms of nurturing and continuing to build my personal business relationships, including blogging away over here, which I couldn’t, as some of you have well observed through offline interactions.

Ugly. Very ugly state of things, if we have to keep depending on that reliability of connectivity for that major shift of the knowledge workforce that’s already well underway, where more and more people are becoming remote employees, or even no longer attached to companies but doing freelance work, and still needing to have that connection to the Web. That shift is not going to change, nor disappear, but to accelerate greatly over the next couple of years and seeing how urban places are starting to become more jammed and overpopulated, it’s going to be a huge issue if those remote workers from small, rural places can’t keep connected in a reliable manner. Or if, all of a sudden, ISPs decide to sacrifice their quality service to reduce costs or companies decide that good, robust VPN solutions are not worth the investment anymore, therefore forcing their remote employees to trash off the flexibility they once had and return back to the traditional office, no matter at what costs.

Gran Canaria - Roque Nublo As Seen from Roque Bentayga in the WinterOf course, we have got email to fix that problem. I am sure you all have been thinking about that very same thought all along while reading this article, and, to be frank, no, we don’t. Email will not solve the problem, because, yes, you can work offline through your mailbox and everything, but you still need the connectivity to send those emails across and when exchanging large rich media files, or presentations, proposals, status project reports and what not; you are going to have a need for a rather fast and robust network connection. We are no longer in the mid-90s where a regular analogue line could get you through the daily email in a matter of minutes. Plus, I am not sure I would want to venture to state that email is safe in the current workplace just because we don’t have enough broadband capacity or a rather robust VPN set of solutions. It would be just totally wrong and for a good number of reasons.

We need to step up, we need to level up the game and start embracing the fact that over the course of time, the vast majority of your companies’ work is going to be executed, done and dealt with by people who are not working at the traditional office anymore, and, as such, we would need to ensure they are reliably connected to the Web to get their work done. As more and more of us progress further away from firewalls and internal protected networks into the Open Social Web, I guess we would be saying good-bye to VPNs, but then again, if you have been watching the news over the course of the last few months, and, lately, in the last week or so, you would know how some conversations would still need to take place in a secure, private, protected space, although still open and accessible to everyone concerned (i.e. employees, customers and business partners, for that matter).

So the need for ISPs to understand how freelancers work remotely and how much they rely on that network connection for a whole lot more than just sending an email, also correlates to the need from businesses to understand how critical good, reliable VPN connections are to allow those employees to stay connected in a world that’s become more virtual, distributed and remote than ever. Upping the game will get us all there, eventually. Not doing anything, though, thinking things will be all right, after all, will help us go into a Dark Age I doubt we’d ever be able to recover from accordingly. All of us.

Now, imagine if all ISPs, while they are going to become more under pressure over time, decide to take us through on to those dark ages … for good. Imagine, if, all of a sudden, after seeing last few weeks’ global events all over the place (Take your pick as there are a lot of those to choose from!) things just collapse. Just like that. Well, don’t imagine it. Let’s just work really hard on not making it happen any time soon, because somehow the trend keeps showing how we are heading towards that collapse, without remedy. I know, I know, I don’t plan to finish off this article with a negative thought of what might happen. Instead, I would want to finish it off with a rather outrageous, optimistic and heretic trend of thought on what’s at stake at this point in time, so please do allow me to leave you with this absolutely stunning, rather inspiring and incredibly thought-provoking presentation from one of my favourite thinkers of the 21st century that I just can’t have enough of in terms of showing the way of where we are heading, not only in the business world, but in our society. Check out Manuel Castells‘ recent RSA speech on “Networks of Outrage and Hope“, which will also confirm, for that matter, why social networking is here to stay and for a good few years, not only as matter of expressing yourself, but perhaps altogether as a matter of finding a new purpose, a new focus and a new meaning altogether: a better world for all of us.

No exceptions. 

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  1. Losing Internet is a real issue for all mobile and remote knowledge workers. That’s why I continue to use Notes to push out local replicas of mail and other key databases. We may not be in a dial-up analog world any more but the issues remain. Sometimes it pays to be “old school”.

    1. Hi David, thanks for highlighting what’s perhaps one of my major pet peeves of today’s remote “workplace” environment, where, more often than not, our entire productivity depends solely on whether we have got a good, reliable, fast connection to the Internet and to Intranets through VPN. And you bring in a very good point, in terms of whether the Social Web needs to adjust and incorporate offline capabilities, because, somehow, I feel ISPs are not going to adjust fast enough to our needs for an online, constant connection. So, yes, “old school” is good, indeed, at least, for as long as connectivity remains an issue, which I guess it’s no longer going to be much of an “old school”, since the issues are very real!

  2. Connectivity is an infrastructure issue indeed. I am a 2 hour flight from one office and a 5 hour flight from the other. I’ve lost ‘net access at my house before and have headed right to the coffee shop and/or restaurant where I know they have WiFi but you’re right about access.

    The other piece about connectivity that I’ve been thinking about this morning as a fellow remote worker is how do we build trust and gratitude from remote locations…think I may have my own blog post rolling there.

    Keep the connection!

    1. Hi Mark! I wish I were that lucky, or, perhaps, I am grateful I am not that lucky! I am also about 2.5 hours flight away from my closest traditional office, but I don’t have much of an opportunity to go out to a coffee shop in my neighbourhood, since there isn’t a single place where I live that would have such a reliable connection to the Internet with *decent* speeds. I have got 3G for my iPad and iPhone, but the village where I live recently got removed one of the mobile antennas and we lost half of the coverage in the village, the one where I live!! Arrrggghhh

      The second reflection is an entire blog post on its own, I tell you. It’s one of those things where remote workers always need to keep fighting with office workers, since we need to somehow keep “justifying” our non-office existence by perhaps putting a few more hours, making ourselves more visible, being more open and transparent on how we work, so everyone notices, but also understanding that by doing that and taking up flexibility as an additional perk our overall long-term careers would suffer since we always appear at the bottom of the ladder in terms of promotion, salary raises, and whatever other perks, just because “we are not there”… I would love you putting together that blog post that we could contribute to. It’s an important topic, for sure. So thanks for the heads up and for the initial thoughts shared across!

      Good stuff!

  3. Hi Luis. May I ask who your VPN and ISP providers are? Did you get good customer service? It sounds like either way, it took much too long to get fixed. Is this a rare instance or does your VPN/ISP go down often?

    1. Hi Sylvia, my ISP is movistar, in Spain, where I have been a customer for the last 9 years and counting and with some very good performance and overall service. Except this year, where I am starting to suspect they may have started to cut down on costs of service and maintenance and therefore provide poorer quality of service. For instance, in a matter of a year or so, approx. I have gone from 10 mbps download to barely 5 mbps, which I guess it’s not like some other slower speeds, but it’s definitely not the fastest!! And it keeps raising the concern of whether it would ever be upgraded into 21st century speeds altogether.

      About the VPN solution, it’s from my employer and it was identified by customer service relatively quick and it’s all good now.

      Generally speaking the customer service is good, fast and with quality, it’s just that last week, it wasn’t. So I am inclined to reflect it may well have been a one time instance and we can move on, either way, it helped me understand how fragile we all are, as remote knowledge workers to carry on our jobs in a hyperconnected world [in some areas …]

    1. Hi Nancy! Ha! It does actually feel a little bit like that! :-(( I bet you would have plenty more experiences to share from your regular business travelling and I bet it would give you an opportunity to write the odd book or two!

      How do you manage and keep up with such frustrating experiences? I could learn a few tricks to help me set up the right expectations for myself and others, to be frank. Another week without it and I could get in trouble with a few folks!!

  4. Cope? I think I swear a lot. I do a lot of downloading of my Google docs, use an email client that allows offline reading and composing and carry lots of little pen drives! Seriously, I can’t do a lot of my online collaborative work when I’m on the road due to connectivity problems. And frankly, it starts to kill you when you have to do everything on crappy hotel wifi after an 18 hour day.

    So, what I try and do when I can is plan NOT to do a lot of the collaborative work when I know I’m going to a less connected place.

    There is also a flip side advantage. I spend more time in F2F conversation or eating great meals!

    1. Hi Nancy! LOL!!! I know this is going to sound really sad, but I am somewhat glad I am not the only one suffering from these connectivity issues while on the road and I wish we could be offered some good alternatives overall as well, perhaps, like this one, where summer 2014 we will no longer have huge expensively roaming charges across Europe. That’s going to make our lives so much easier altogether, I can imagine! 😀

      I think you also hit the nail on the head on something that I think I need to plenty about: plan!, specially, when I know in advance that connectivity is an issue and eventually should follow your advice as well on spending more time treasuring the F2F conversation and the lovely dinners & drinks than just swearing at a screen that won’t do anything, anyway hehe

  5. Luis – great article and certainly a real reminder of the frailty of our seemingly ubiquitous connectivity.

    We are just not quite on even par with water, electricity (and air 🙂 ).

    I can still remember the IBM commercials run in the late 90’s around utility computing. There was a specific commercial where a “manager” was leaving a conference room when he shut off the lights – and had this epiphany that computing could be had “On Demand”. All I could think about where the “hundreds” of IBMers running around to make that work — a bit of a sarcastic play on what might really happen “behind the scenes”.

    As we move more towards “always connected” tools and technologies for interaction and knowledge work, the risks of connectivity are actually much more impacting. I guess one of the reasons why I still love our good old Lotus Notes… Replication was/is such a great thing 🙂

    I am optimistic we will get there, the challenge is that we are just not there yet, and some folks don’t quite get that point…



    1. Hi Patrick, thanks a lot for reaching out and for the wonderful comments! Glad I am now having a chance to go through them and add some additional thoughts altogether. Good stuff!

      Absolutely! In fact, a couple of days back one of my friends, over in Twitter, shared the the following tweet, which I thought was quite telling on its own:

      Thinking abt ur recent post @elsua RT @euroinnov_philg: Only 2% of #Europeans have ultrafast broadband | New Europe…

      I guess that also puts things into perspective for that matter! Grrr You bring in such a great point in terms of those risks of connectivity, when working in a Web environment: there can be so many things gone wrong (Internet, VPN, browser, internal infrastructure, the actual application and so forth) than just troubleshooting it from whatever we had in the past *is* indeed a nightmare. I, too, miss the replication from Notes in this whole Web environment, because I doubt we would ever reach the level of broadband penetration that would make it doable and everything, so I am wondering we would eventually have to take the Web down with us, vs. us having to go to the Web!

      Yes, I am, too, optimistic about it, although I am just hoping it does happen before we retire, just for the sake of experiencing the future 😀

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