Saturday, March 22, 2014

Saturday Morning Musings – problems with system dependency

This has been a busy topsy turvy week with limited time for writing. It’s also been a frustrating week, one that reminded me (again) of my reliance on sometimes imperfect technology.

Earlier, Livewriter stopped working. I was able to fix that by loading new Microsoft software, but in doing so created another problem. My outlook stopped working, forcing me to rely on web mail. As a consequence, I quickly collided with the mail box size limits.

Then on Thursday I turned the TV on for the first time in two weeks. Not working. The old analog signal has just been turned off in Sydney. I have a digital set top box, but the TV clearly requires some form of retuning that is beyond me at the present time. Youngest, I need you!

During the week the phone systems at work went down several times. along with access to all the on-line functions. The office is part of a large, centralised, cloud based system, and its often rather cranky and slow. I was in Coffs Harbour running a workshop when the worst outage occurred. Apparently, many people simply went home, unable to do their work.

Back at work from the Coffs Harbour workshop, I hit a problem with the NSW Government procurement system. I am familiar with that system. but hadn’t had to process accounts for payment for a while. In the intervening period, a new automated system had been introduced. Now I found that as a contractor, I didn’t have access to the automated system.

We are not talking about approvals here, simply processing. Certain accounts needed to be processed quickly. Since neither I nor the colleague who was working for me on the project could access the automated system properly, we had to find a work-around. We did. Hopefully, the accounts will be paid. Still, the case illustrates a core problem.

All systems must have rules to function. This is especially important for automated systems. However, people have jobs to do, deadlines to meet. When the system impedes your work, you find ways to do your job regardless. This keeps work going, but it also has real dangers, for the need to find work-arounds creates systemic risks.

I am quite anal about these things, as are many of my colleagues. We document and document. Yet when you go to many of the systemic problems revealed in corruption inquiries, you find that the need to find work-arounds reveal paths that can be used by those subject to temptation.

To cap it all off, I dropped my mobile Friday. The back came off. I picked it up, checked that it hadn’t been damaged, put it back together again, and rushed on. It was only later that I realised that the SIM card must have become detached, resulting in a non-working mobile. This is actually important, for my personal mobile number is the fall-back contact point for the various workshops that I am trying to organise.

Unlike some of my friends and colleagues, I am quite patient with technology. They expect things to work and get impatient when they don’t. The reality is that all systems are imperfect and subject to failure. That is the price we pay for greater efficiency, for the ability to do new things. It is also the reason that you have to have fall-backs, ways of operating in spite of technology failures.

Convenience is a trap. I work independently, I have work-arounds in place for most things. Each time a problem emerges, I have to remind myself that it is my responsibility to ensure that I have back-ups in place. Reminder Jim: back up your hard drive!

This week-end I am going to focus on fixing my systems, on ensuring that I can survive regardless of system failures. I need to do so. So do you!


Evan said...

I now have a box that automatically backs up my hard drive; and you can guess why.

Toffler spoke of the danger of an 'adhocracy'; wise words I think.

John Stitch said...

Hi Jim - I sympathise with your plight. I am a professional gambler by trade, although I prefer to see myself as a statistical analyser who finds favourable $ opportunities in statistical outcomes. A big part of what I do is use spreadsheets and found myself trying to work out how to transfer a small amount of data from a software program I use to a spreadsheet. I tried all sorts of ways to get the program to download to the spreadsheet but couldn't get them to talk to each other. Then it hit me. It was so obvious I couldn't believe it. Pen and paper. I wrote down a couple of columns of data onto a pad and simply typed it into the spreadsheet.
Sometimes we get so caught up with technology that we lose sight of the obvious! All the best JT

Jim Belshaw said...

I was surprised that Toffler spoke of the dangers of adhocracy, Evan. I haven't read the third wave, but my impression was that Toffler was in favour - " Adhocracy is characterized by an adaptive, creative and flexible integrative behavior based on non-permanence and spontaneity. It is believed that these characteristics allow adhocracy to respond faster than traditional bureaucratic organizations while being more open to new ideas".

Toffler certainly has the capacity to create catch words or phrases!

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi JS. I had to laugh. That captures things very nicely!