Nomadic Culture

Cultural Support for Working Anytime Anywhere

by Lei-da Chen and Ravi Nath

Renowned organizational theorist and MIT professor Thomas Malone (2004) has argued that the convergence of technological and economic factors makes it possible for corporations, for the first time in history, to have the best of both worlds: "... the economic and scale efficiencies of large corporations and the human benefits of small ones: freedom, motivation, and flexibility." (Malone, 2004, p. 4)

Today's enterprises consist of an increasingly mobile workforce. A competitive global business environment demands employees to be where their customers and business partners are so that they can react to problems and opportunities in an efficient and effective manner. The workforce also consists of a growing number of female professionals and dual career couples, many of whom have young children. This shift in the workforce composition has been a catalyst for organizations to create work conditions that allow employees to better balance their work and family responsibilities.

Today's advanced telecommunication technologies have made the virtual workplace possible. In a virtual workplace, people work together without being physically close to each other. According to a report released in 2003 by Meta Group, the number of full-time telecommuters in the U.S. had doubled since 2000, and the number of employees who spend more than 20% of their time working outside an office was "booming" (Meta Group, 2003). A more recent study by Meta Group predicted that 95 percent of companies will have some sort of mobile or remote work requirements within the next two years (Electronic News, 2004). A 2002 survey of UK senior-level managers (NOP, 2002) attributed the growing number of remote workers to technological advances (65%), greater desire for a work/life balance (58%), reduced travel (44%), and globalization (36%). A 2004 global survey of 237 senior executives found that the drivers for working remotely in the recent years included better access to networks (62%), better communication facilities (62%), globalization of business operations (48%), focus on cost-cutting (38%), increased number of partners and alliances (28%), business continuity concerns (17%), and pressure from staff (15%) (AT&T/Economist Intelligence Unit, 2004). The dramatic improvements in data communications technologies, notably wireless and broadband technologies, are helping remote employees overcome the information disadvantage they faced traditionally. A recent study conducted as part of the PEW Internet and American Life Project showed that 17% of Internet users have logged on the net using a wireless device such as Internet-connected mobile phones and WiFi-enabled laptops (Rainie, 2004). For mobile workers who want the speed of WiFi and the mobility of 3G, a promising technology, WiMax, supported by the WiMax Forum consisting of over 200 industry members, is designed to have a bandwidth of 40 Mbps over a five-mile range (Wright, 2005).

This paper focuses on organizational issues, such as the enabling role of organizational culture, for a ubiquitous type of computing for organizational "nomads." The article begins by discussing "nomadic computing" and its impact on modern organizations. We then present some existing theories on organizational culture, introduce the notion of a "nomadic culture," and then use a prior published model of organizational culture (defined as artifacts, values and beliefs, and assumptions) to define a nomadic culture. Lists of questions that can be used by organizations to conduct a nomadic culture audit are provided, along with some implications for managers and researchers.

Nomadic Computing
The emergence of the terms "ubiquitous computing" and "nomadic computing" date back to the early 1990s. In his seminal paper, "The Computer for the 21st Century," Mark Weiser (1991) described the ubiquitous computing phenomenon as seamlessly integrating computers into the world we live in. In a ubiquitous computing environment, computers disappear into the background as they become so common and pervasive in every aspect of our daily tasks. Weiser referred to this as "embodied virtuality." He further pointed out that to achieve embodied virtuality, computers must be aware of their locations and come in different sizes and forms to suit different tasks. Weiser also laid down the challenges we face in regards to computer hardware, software, and networks in developing a ubiquitous computing environment.

In 1995, Kleinrock (1995) described a form of ubiquitous computing designed for nomads: nomadic computing. Nomadic computing refers to a new paradigm in the use of computer and communications technology that gives users independence of location, of motion, of platform and widespread access to remote files, systems, and services. Lyytinen and Yoo (2002) coined the term "nomadic information environment" (NIE) to describe "a heterogeneous assemblage of interconnected technological and organizational elements, which enables the physical and social mobility of computing and communication services between organizational actors both within and across organizational borders." A NIE provides the user with the same level of information access as the user moves from device to device and network to network. More importantly, the handover between devices and networks occurs seamlessly.

While the technologies involved in a NIE can be either wired or wireless, wireless technologies such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, WAP, and 2.5G and 3G cellular networks, in particular, play an indispensable role in extending connectivity to locations that were neither economically nor technically feasible previously. These recent advancements in wireless technology have made nomadic computing possible for organizations.

However, the sociotechnical perspective suggests that an organization and its IT infrastructure must adjust to each other until equilibrium is achieved in order to attain optimal performance. While technology itself is often viewed as culture free, the type of technology and the way technology is implemented and used influence the behavior of members in the organization. Therefore, the underlying philosophy of this article is that the increasingly mobile workforce, the need for organizations to be flexible and reactive, changing management styles and mindsets, and the availability of enabling technologies to support nomadic computing will become catalysts for changes in the organization's culture.

Stated differently, we believe that ubiquitous computing technology without cultural support will not realize its true potential. Nomadic computing allows employees to be more distributed without sacrificing productivity and effectiveness, and it is our belief that maintaining and developing an appropriate corporate culture in a dispersed work environment will be a key issue for achieving this. We, therefore, use the term "nomadic culture" to describe this new cultural phenomenon that is being incubated in some organizations today. Nomadic culture will provide the cultural support for technologies and procedures that enable an increasingly mobile workforce to achieve efficiency and effectiveness.

Unlike technologies, corporate culture is much harder to imitate by competitors. Therefore, organizations with a cultural environment that complements and enhances ubiquitous computing technologies are likely to be in a better position to leverage the strategic benefits of nomadic computing.

What Is Organizational Culture?
As defined by Hofstede, culture is: "the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from another." (Hofstede, 1994, p.1) Culture is a collective phenomenon, and it can be manifested at many different levels, such as family, corporation, gender, religion, race and nation. An individual's behavior is dictated by the culture of the group that the individual belongs to. The shared values of the group lead people in the group to think and act similarly (Steinwachs, 1999). Uttal (1983) defines organizational culture as: "a system of shared values (what is important) and beliefs (how things work) that interact with a company's people, organizational structures, and control systems to produce behavioral norms." Schein (1984) defines an organization's culture as having three interrelated levels:

  1. Artifacts, the most observeable level, refers to items such as organization's architecture, technology, and visible and audible behavior patterns. While this layer is visible to an outsider of the organization, it does not reveal the underlying logic behind the behavior of the organization.
  2. Values and beliefs, the second level, governs the behavior of an organization. Understanding the values and beliefs of an organization will help one recognize the rationalization for the behavior of the organization.
  3. Basic underlying assumptions, the final layer, is often taken for granted by group members, but it is what ultimately determines the perceptions, thoughts, and feelings of an organization's members.

Prior research links organizational culture to organizational performance (e.g., Marcoulides and Heck, 1993; Petty and Beadles, 1995; Ogbonna and Harris, 2000): if the organizational culture is in conflict with the organization's structure, goals and objectives, and leadership style, the firm's performance will suffer. For example, Ogbonna and Harris (2000) have provided empirical evidence that the competitive and innovative cultural traits of an organization are directly linked to performance. Organizational culture also impacts employee-related variables such as retention (Sheridan, 1992), commitment, and satisfaction (Lund, 2003).

In the early 1980's Olson (1982) predicted that organizations and employees would no longer be constrained by an office-based work environment and the traditional nine to five work schedule. In order to facilitate this new flexible work environment, organizations would need to alter their physical and authority structures; managers would need to change their attitudes toward remote supervision and remote employees; and employees would need to rethink their relationship to the organization. These predictions are consistent with the likely requirements for nomadic computing.

What Is Nomadic Culture?
Based on the above organizational model by Schein, a nomadic culture consists of a collection of artifacts, beliefs, and basic assumptions that provide the employee with the flexibility to work whenever and wherever she needs to. A nomadic culture facilitates the mobility of services, information, and employees across different devices, networks, and locations. Employees in these organizations have the same or comparable access to information, support mechanism, and opportunities regardless of their location of work. A nomadic culture supports and promotes the so called "no boundary workforce," characterized by a lack of spatial and temporal limitations to working efficiently and effectives.

On a micro level, in an organization that has cultivated a nomadic culture, employees utilize computer and communications technology to work anytime, anywhere. The enabling technologies are made available to employees and supported by the organization. Most importantly, the organization's support for its employees' nomadic behaviors is backed by the organization's beliefs that working anytime and anywhere creates competitive advantages and that information technology has a positive impact on the organization. Such beliefs are at the core of nomadic culture, as without them, an organization's support for employees' nomadic behaviors is superficial and unsustainable.

An organization that has cultivated a nomadic culture differs from an organization that simply uses nomadic computing technology. The former designs its business processes, operational procedures, and reward systems around the needs of nomads as well. Based on Schein (1984), the most observable layer of culture, artifacts, is a manifestation of the inner layers of culture (i.e., beliefs and assumptions). When artifacts are in conflict with beliefs and assumptions, they are unsustainable. This rationale leads us to believe that in an organization that utilizes nomadic computing technology to support its employees' nomadic behaviors, yet its members do not share the beliefs and assumptions of a nomadic culture, the opportunities for nomadic working will be underexplored, and the technology will be underutilized and undersupported.

Is a nomadic culture right for every organization? The answer to this question is "no." The extent to which nomadicity should be supported depends on a number of contextual factors such as the nature of the organization's business and work processes, its strategies, and competitive environment. Cultivating nomadic culture only makes sense where employees' nomadic behaviors have a positive impact on the organization.

Furthermore, while a nomadic culture is expected to make many positive contributions to an organization, it may also result in a number of negative effects. First, working remotely often does not provide employees with the same level of social interaction with co-workers that working at an office offers. Over time, nomads may develop a detachment or sense of isolation from the rich potential of interaction in an office environment. As a result, the cohesiveness of workgroups and organizational members may suffer. In a business world that still largely depends on face-to-face interaction, lack of human interaction may prove to be counterproductive in some cases. Second, the division between work and leisure can become unclear as the employee is no longer limited to the office and regular business hours. Flexible work arrangements give employees more freedom and have been found to lead to higher employee job satisfaction in prior research. However, as one's work load intensifies, the danger of family and leisure time deprivation increases. Third, Sherry and Salvador (2001) point out that while mobile work seemed to offer productivity and efficiency, the potential of disruptions to work and concentration might outweigh the benefits. Productivity can be decreased as nomads attend to constant interruptions that take them away from important activities.

Artifacts, Beliefs, and Assumptioms of Nomadic Cultures
The following sections identify the artifacts, values and beliefs, and basic assumptions that are associated with nomadic culture (see Figure 1), based on existing organizational theories and prior research on remote work arrangements (e.g., telecommuting, alternative work site arrangements, and virtual teamwork). Understanding these layers of culture can help organizations to assess the strength and pervasiveness of culture among its members. Also included are questions that a company can ask during a cultural audit to find out to what extent a nomadic culture exists.

Artifacts As the most visible manifestations of nomadic culture, a nomadic workforce and the availability of nomadic computing technologies for supporting working anytime anywhere are clear signs that an organization is moving towards nomadic culture.

Figure 1. Artifacts, Values and Beliefs, and Assumptions of Nomadic Culture

Nomadic Workforce. Kleinrock (1995) describes nomads as people who use computer and communication devices to access remote information from their home bases, in transit, and at destinations. The terms "nomadic workers" and "mobile workers" are often used interchangeably. However, in this context, nomadic workforce has a broader scope than mobile workforce. In other words, a mobile worker is always a nomadic worker, but a nomadic worker is not necessarily a mobile worker (see Figure 2). In Figure 2, the shaded area represents workers who are qualified as nomadic workers. They are characterized by a higher level of mobility and/or greater distance from the traditional office. Two general groups of nomadic workers emerge from this definition. They are 1) local nomadic workers and 2) telecommuters.

Local nomadic workers consist of employees whose jobs require them to spend a great deal of time away from their desks to attend meetings, interact with co-workers, or solve problems. While they are restricted to the vicinity of their workplace, their jobs still require them to be highly mobile. According to Kleinrock's (1995) definition of nomads, the move from one's office to a conference room constitutes a nomadic move, as the computing environment of the two places may be significantly different.

Employees who work remotely are often referred to as telecommuters. Telecommuting is defined by Belanger (1999) as "working away from the traditional office using computers and telecommunication facilities to maintain a link to the office." Over the years, the scope of telecommuting has broadened as new technologies provided employees with increasing flexibility in the location of work. Today, a telecommuter may be someone who works from home, a hotel room, in the field, or in transit. As Handy (1985, p. 205) pointed out: " the availability of people with the right orientations will be a significant element in the freedom that an organization has to move towards a particular culture." Therefore, an organization that demonstrates strong nomadic culture is signified by a large number of different types of nomadic workers.

Figure 2. Nomadic Workforce

To determine if a nomadic workforce exists, an organization should ask itself the following questions during a culture audit:

Nomadic Computing Technologies. Technologies that support nomadic information environments (NIEs) can be either wired or wireless. Nevertheless, the advancement in the wireless technologies in the recent year has accelerated organizations' efforts to achieve nomadic computing and culture, as these technologies support nomads both within and beyond organizational boundaries. Below, we discuss technologies that are likely to be used in organizations with nomadic cultures.

Today, employees are equipped with a wide variety of computing devices from handsets to laptops for various information processing needs. These devices have helped remote workers increase access to information and expedite field work. Open standards such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth have already for serveral years provided employees with mobility and flexibility at work, and cellular data technologies such as EDGE, CDMA EV-DO, and HSDPA are gradually bringing high-speed access to corporate data resources genuinely everywhere. In addition to the cellular technologies, WiMax (IEEE 802.16) is also emerging as a metropolitan area fixed wireless broadband technology, which will eventually be available also for mobile users. Already a couple of years ago (NOP World - Technology Study, 2003), users credited WLAN with attainment of convenience, flexibility, mobility, time saving and productivity gains, and the same benefits will be even more widely available when the access data rates and ranges increase. Mobile devices are integrating multiple forms of functionality, and software providing support for business tasks is becoming increasingly sophisticated (MobileTechNews, 2005).

Other network services such as Voice over IP (VoIP) and virtual private network (VPN) are helping create unified organizations with a distributed workforce. VoIP offers a cost-effective way for a distributed organization to appear as if all employees are connected to a single system in the same building. In addition, it enables the design and implementation of applications that integrate voice and data applications in an intelligent way. Solutions that enable videoconferencing over IP networks are soon common, too. Companies that have implemented VoIP are reporting significant cost savings as well as improved productivity and mobility of employees (Gareiss, 2003). VPN utilizes powerful encryption and user authentication methods to allow employees to connect to corporate servers securely through the Internet, and it has become the de facto standard for telecommuting today (Vijayan, 2002). New SSL VPN solutions allow the use of corporate resources without special-purpose client software or hardware, and they are giving users added flexibility.

To assess the extent to which the technology exists to support a nomadic culture, an organization should ask itself the following questions during a culture audit:

Values and Beliefs The values and beliefs of an organization allow us to understand the rationalization for the behavior of organization members. While they cannot be observed as easily as artifacts, values and beliefs can be identified by interviewing members of the organization or analyzing artifacts (Schein, 1984). Employees in an organization with a nomadic culture work anytime anywhere with the help of modern information and telecommunication technologies to achieve maximum efficiency and effectiveness. Hence, the corresponding values and beliefs that determine the organization's policies and behaviors include an organization's beliefs about anytime anywhere work, the supervision of anytime anywhere workers, the usage of virtual workgroups, and the value of information technology.

Beliefs on anytime anywhere work. This belief is crucial in forming nomadic culture as an organization that does not believe anytime anywhere work makes employees more efficient and effective, provides strategic advantage, and/or improves morale of employees would not support and facilitate a nomadic work environment.

This belief is also largely reflected in how nomadic workers are being evaluated in the organization. While a nomadic work arrangement offers employees freedom, flexibility, and, in some cases, a competitive edge, a recent survey of HR professionals also found that remote workers are not receiving the same level of training and mentoring opportunities as other employees (Nelson, 2003). As remote workers have limited visibility in the organization and limited interaction with supervisors, their promotability also becomes limited. In Olson's (1982) research, about half of the employees who participated in the alternative work site (AWS) program felt that their career path was limited because of the work arrangement even though their performance had improved. An organization serious about nurturing nomadic culture must evaluate employees based on their performance rather than the time they spend in the office.

The following questions assess an organization's beliefs on anytime anywhere work:

Beliefs on supervision of anytime anywhere workers. The difficulty related to supervising remote workers is one of the top reasons why many organizations shy away from nomadic working arrangements. The changing roles of managers as an organization moves away from the traditional hierarchical leadership style will make some managers feel uneasy. Prior studies have suggested that the fear of lost managerial control was a significant factor that prevented the wide spread of telecommuting more than a decade ago (DeSanctis, 1984; Roderick and Jelley, 1991). Olson (1982) underscored that successful remote supervision required a significant change in the attitude of both managers and employees. In a firm that was experimenting with AWS programs, managers found remote supervision time consuming, difficult to administer, and less ideal. These managers expressed that they would prefer to have the employees "where they could see them." Such attitudes go against the fundamental beliefs and assumptions of nomadic culture and will undoubtedly impede the formation of nomadic culture.

The following questions help assess an organization's beliefs about the supervision of anytime anywhere workers:

Beliefs on virtual workgroups. A nomadic work environment creates a distributed organization. The pervasiveness of teamwork in business today will require employees to work in virtual workgroups, which consist of employees who use technology to work together without regularly meeting face to face. While the use of virtual workgroups has been widespread in recent years in response to organizations' need to be more flexible, responsive and competitive, the findings on the effectiveness of virtual workgroups have been mixed (Powell et al., 2004). Prior research has found that team-building exercises, periodic face-to-face meetings, and fostering an information-sharing culture would enhance the effectiveness of virtual workgroups. An organization that does not believe that virtual workgroups can be as effective as traditional workgroups is unlikely to support a nomadic workforce; therefore, it seems appropriate to suggest that an organization's beliefs on virtual workgroups influence its decision to support its employees' nomadic behaviors.

The following questions assess an organization's beliefs on virtual workgroups:

Beliefs on the value of information technology. As nomadic culture is closely linked to nomadic computing, an organization's view on the value of IT should not be overlooked. When studying why some organizations readily adopt new technologies while other organizations are not willing to, Srinivasan et al. (2002) proposed the concept of technological opportunism. They found that "a technologically opportunistic firm senses and responds proactively to capitalize on (or counter) technology opportunities (or threats)." These organizations are often found to have a future focus, top management support of technology acquisition, and an adhocracy culture within the firm (e.g., Moorman, 1995). Adhocracy culture is characterized by its emphasis on flexibility, creativity, entrepreneurship, and adaptability, and these characteristics are highly consistent with the attributes of nomadic culture. Organizations that value the importance of IT would be more likely to invest in new technologies such as nomadic computing technology to support its employees' nomadic behavior.

The following questions assess the extent to which an organization believes that information technology plays an important role at the individual level:

Basic Assumptions Schein (1984) argued that, to really understand a culture, "it is imperative to delve into the underlying assumptions, which are typically unconscious but which actually determine how group members perceive, think, and feel." In a distributed organizational setting, trust is of paramount importance. In order to create a successful nomadic work environment, employers must trust employees to be self-motivated, trustworthy, responsible and capable of governing themselves, while employees need to trust employers to evaluate and reward them fairly.

A healthy psychological contract, an implicit agreement between employees and employers, is the key to success in a nomadic environment. The lack of a healthy psychological contract, resulting from the misalignment between the expectations from employees and employers, will lead to adverse effects. To build and sustain a nomadic culture, an organization needs to develop a co-operative psychological contract between the management and employees. Handy (1985, p. 44) described a co-operative psychological contract as an implied agreement between employees and their organizations that has the following characteristics:

In this light, the following questions help assess the extent to which a healthy psychological contract exists in an organization:

Implications for Managers and Researchers
For organizations that want to cultivate a nomadic culture, the previous section offers lists of questions to assess the strength and pervasiveness of a nomadic culture. The culture audit exercise may yield a number of areas that the organization must address. Prior research has found that leadership and organizational culture were two intertwining concepts (e.g., Schein, 1992; Bass and Avolio, 1993; Ogbonna and Harris, 2000); the values and beliefs of organizational leaders help shape organizational culture, and, at the same time, organizational leadership is influenced by the resulting culture. Therefore, gaining top management acceptance of a nomadic culture should be emphasized.

A co-operative psychological contract is believed to inspire trust among employees. Employees are more likely to take the initiative to mobilize and take advantage of information and telecommunications technology if they believe that the organization's commitment to nomadic culture is real and long lasting. A recent survey found that only 11% of organizations have made the maintenance of a healthy psychological contract part of their core business objectives (Bentley, 2003). Addressing the issues related to a psychological contract will accelerate the formation of nomadic culture.

The following three research themes are also important for gaining a deeper understanding of nomadic culture. First, formal instruments for measuring the strength and pervasiveness of nomadic culture need to be developed. Second, future studies should attempt to assess the impact of a nomadic culture on organizational performance (e.g., revenues, profits, and customer service quality) and employee-related (e.g., satisfaction, commitment, and retention) variables. Finally, researchers should study the impact of parent cultures (e.g., national and organizational culture) on the formation and sustainability of nomadic culture.

This article offers some insights on the cultural requirements for effective nomadic computing in organizations. It argues that cultivating a nomadic culture is crucial to creating an effective environment in which employees have the flexibility to work anytime anywhere and these nomadic behaviors yield positive results for the organization. For managers interested in conducting a culture audit, the article provides lists of questions for determining the extent to which a nomadic culture exists in an organization. Unlike technologies, organizational culture takes years or even decades to develop. Organizations that have successfully nurtured a nomadic culture can enjoy a sustainable competitive advantage over competitors that are still struggling with the conflicts between their culture and technologies.

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About the Authors
Lei-da Chen, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Information Systems and Technology, College of Business Administration, Creighton University

Ravi Nath, Ph.D., is Jack and Joan McGraw Endowed Chair of Information Technology Management, Director of the Joe Ricketts Center in Electronic Commerce and Database Marketing College of Business Administration, Creighton University