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Business Contingency Planning In The Future: The Office-Less Office

by Michael Seese, M.S., M.A.

Much of the logic behind business contingency planning comes from that old saying, "Don't keep all of your eggs in one basket." The reasoning goes that if an organization has all of its assets - data, equipment, and personnel - in one location, then a catastrophic event at that location would likely result in the demise of that organization. Spreading the assets across a geographical area (perhaps even an entire state or the entire country) prevents a single, localized incident from having a crippling impact.

Taken to an extreme, one way that a business could alleviate the potential loss associated with a disaster striking its headquarters would be to have no headquarters. We're still years away from the "office-less office." But how many? Clearly, social and economic forces will be the ones which drive this revolution. But it is technology which will provide the engine. Perhaps we can set a target - say, ten years - and examine whether IT technology developers seem up to the challenge.

What follows is not a blueprint, but rather a launching point for discussion.

It should come as no surprise that probably the most critical factor is computer processing power. The oft-cited "Moore's Law" would seem to support the hypothesis that computing power will advance sufficiently in the coming decade. In 1965, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore noted that the number of transistors per square inch on an integrated circuit had doubled every year since its inception.

Moore predicted that this trend would continue for the foreseeable future. In subsequent years, the pace slowed down a bit, but data density has doubled approximately every 18 months, and this is the current definition of Moore's Law, which Moore himself has blessed. Most experts, including Moore himself, expect Moore's Law to hold for at least another two decades.

At a 1997 conference, Moore noted, " ‘Some time in the next several years we get to some finite limits, but not before we get through five generations.' … According to one study, the physical limitations could be reached by 2017."

Although this list probably will not hit on all of the requisite technologies, in addition to computing power I foresee the need for advances in three areas: Transmission speeds, monitor technology, and security. And, apart from technology, we also must examine the social and economic issues that would arise from the office-less office.

The first two - transmission speeds and monitor technology - go hand in hand. Despite the tremendous potential benefits from working exclusively from a home office - the lack of a commute, the freedom from purchasing business (and even business casual) attire, and the convenience of being able to answer the door when the cable repairman drops by - people do require some degree of interaction with others. Whether it is to discuss critical issues related to the task at hand or last night's "Desperate Housewives," humans need face-to-face time. Technology may be able to solve this problem.

Improved flat panel screens will take the monitor off of the desk, stretch it to unheard-of proportions (five feet wide? six feet wide?) and mount it to the wall. However, rather than working like the view screen of the Starship Enterprise, in which the person on the other end dominates the screen much like a matinee idol, we would want a monitor which has the capacity to be segregated into multiple smaller windows as needed. Each "picture within the picture" could display data or another person. I liken it to the three-by-three grid which showed the entire "Brady Bunch" during the opening credits. Such a division of the screen would enable a meeting involving, say, a dozen people, each working from his own home office, to take place. The technology for such monitors is coming.

The ever-increasing computer desktop has driven consumers to purchase larger and larger monitors. And whereas a 19" inch screen cost thousands of dollars a decade ago, today one can be had for under $200. Flat panel monitors also have come down in price. Today, a 17" LCD monitor can be found for $300; a 20" flat panel sells for less than $800.

Of course, in order for this arrangement to work, bandwidth speeds would need to increase. Even today's high-speed data delivery modes - cable and DSL - may not allow this much data to flow into a single source in real-time. Fiber optic, though, may be the solution. In 2001, French and Japanese engineers were able to pump 10 trillion bits per second through an optic fiber cable, which "equals about 150 million simultaneous telephone conversations." These speeds dwarf the roughly 1 million bits-per-second rates of DSL and cable. How long before fiber optic cable reaches the average American home is anyone's guess. However, a number of municipalities across America, including Bowling Green, Kentucky and Bristol, Virginia, are investigating or actively pursuing projects to install fiber optic networks for both their own and residential use.

Also, in order to freely conduct business, the distributed workplace will need better cyber-security than is readily available today. The organization's knowledge - both critical data such as customer lists and trade secrets, as well as less-than-critical information such as e-mail - will have to be stored somewhere. This "somewhere" could be in a centralized server farm which is tightly guarded, and thoroughly backed up via redundancy. Such a facility would hearken back to the early days of computing, with the central computer locked safely away and accessible (in this case, physically) only by highly trained and trusted technicians. Although placing an organization's data on a single (huge) server or a group of servers located in one place would appear to represent a single point of failure, I would posit that even today the technology exists to adequately protect data stored in this manner. However, in order to truly decentralize the organization, perhaps the data itself should be decentralized as well, and maintained on the individual machines of the organization's members.

If so, then protecting the data both while it is stored and in transit from one member to another will require unbreakable encryption. Today's encryption algorithms are good. The Advanced Encryption Standard (AES), adopted by the U.S. government in 2002, offers a 256-bit key. Cracking data encrypted using such a key at this time would appear to be a Herculean task. According to one estimate, 1014 computers performing one million calculations per second would still require 1011 years to break a 128-bit key. So the AES would appear to be safe for now. Of course, a 1991 source claimed that data encrypted using the 56-bit key of the AES's predecessor, the Data Encryption Standard, would be safe for 2,000 years. And yet 6,000 modern computers performing a million calculations per second could crack a 56-bit key in 48 days. In short, the at-this-time unimaginable computing power of the future may render even the most powerful encryption methods of today laughably obsolete. Instead, the answer may rest with truly futuristic technologies, such as elliptic curve and quantum cryptography. For additional security, biometrics may be part of the solution. Of course as more and more of our personal information - such as medical and financial records - is stored electronically, biometric access methods such as voice recognition and/or retinal scanning may become the norm for home computing.

Can technology give us the office-less office within a decade? I don't see why not. So the question then becomes, "Can we handle it?" Taking workers out of a formal setting - certainly the dominant paradigm for at least the past 100 years - and putting them into a completely unstructured environment opens a veritable Pandora's box of issues. Here, I can only offer questions. The answers would require another paper.

First, there is the question of structure. Are American workers ready to get their jobs done while sitting comfortably at home? The benefits, as already mentioned, are plentiful. But so are the potential distractions. Letting the cable guy in and showing him the television is one thing. Thinking, "Maybe I have time to paint that bathroom between meetings" is another. And a parent who tries to balance an eight-hour day with child care may find himself inadvertently cheating his employer.

Another issue to consider is economic. Currently, workers in New York City are paid more than those who do comparable jobs in Cleveland. They have to be, to allow for the higher cost of living. So what happens when the Bank Of New York can tap the entire American continent for its workforce? Would their profit margin be high enough - initially, one would assume, it would be - that they would be able to pay New York wages to employees living in Cleveland? If so, they can attract the best and the brightest from a larger pool. But then where will the Bank of Cleveland find its employees? Or for that matter, what is to stop the Bank Of New York from simply hiring workers from a depressed third-world country? The outsourcing of an increasing array of IT jobs has been a hot topic for the past several years. The office-less office likely would exacerbate the problem.

Finally, there is the issue of the division between home and office life. Americans already are the most overworked people in the world, as anyone who has been employed by a multi-national corporation and enviously listened to his European counterparts boast about their six weeks of "holiday" can attest. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Americans work an average of 237.5 days per year, which is "more than any other developed nation, including Japan."

Additionally, employers themselves seem to continually push the envelope, requiring more and more of their employees. A recent newspaper article noted that businesses are using telecommuting as a way of squeezing work out of employees who are at home for medical and family leaves. Further, the convenience of the arrangement may prompt employees on their own accord to put in a few extra hours to complete an important project, potentially creating additional stress for themselves and with their families.

In short, the technology to enable the office-less office at some point will arrive - whether or not we choose to apply it to that purpose. The question is, will the people whose lives this technology is supposed to benefit be prepared to handle this tremendous shift from the world they know?

In conclusion, as organizational assets shift from "things" to knowledge, protecting those assets creates new challenges. Whereas in the past, insurance could replace tangible items, organizational data is largely irreplaceable. As such, businesses must develop sound plans for securely storing, and often duplicating, information. In the future, organizations may move towards the decentralization of workers, the knowledge they possess, and the corporate data they use in order to protect themselves against cataclysmic events.

About the Author:

Michael Seese is an information security consultant and freelance writer in the Cleveland, Ohio area. He holds a Master of Science in Information Security and a Master of Arts in Psychology. With over 15 years of experience as an IT professional and journalist, Michael has had numerous articles published in professional journals. He can be reached at mail@MichaelSeese.com