Sunday, August 17, 2014

Sunday Essay - simplification in an IT/Internet World

A conversation at work got me wondering. The conversation focused on the way that modern communications have become a burden for many, especially in a work environment. A little later, I was listening to a radio program on the proliferation of the app. The argument was that apps originally designed for convenience had proliferated under commercial pressure to the point that they, too, had become a burden.

I am old enough to have worked in high pressure jobs in a mobile lifepre mobile, email or internet world. I actually struggle to understand just how senior staff today get any work done at all! This is a photo from Moruya; it’s breakfast time; three staff members checking their mobiles for emails. 

It’s less than thirty years since mobile, email and internet came to dominate working life. In those now distant days, I could leave work at six knowing that I had left work. Yes, ministers or departmental heavies had access to my home phone number and could ring me if something was urgent, but this rarely happened. I was free once I left work. .

During my working day, I could focus on work: yes, there were many meetings; yes, there were multiple telephone calls; yes, everybody wanted a slice of my time. But no one could simply dash of an impulse email and expect me to respond. No one could actually expect me to impose instantly to the latest “it seemed like a good idea at the time” request.

The things that we do now to senior staff, the things that they do to themselves, are actually obscene. Worse, they are grossly inefficient.

By nature, I am a recording and documentation person. I used to track my work, the things that I had to do, all the time. I did so for my staff as well. I didn’t have externally imposed quarterly targets, nor did my staff. My focus was on the maximization of output in a world of change where short term priorities were subject to constant shift. To manage this, I constantly squeezed so that we could manage short term issues while maintaining longer term work, including blue sky work that fell outside current needs but was, to my mind, possibly important.

This work did not need short term paybacks, although that happened. This work did not have to be justified by results specified in advance. How could it? Often, I wasn’t sure whether it would have specific paybacks. How could I be? It was simply something that I thought might be important. Do this, and let’s see what it tells us.

I had reasonable expectations of my staff. They were human beings with different abilities and needs. It became in my mind a bit of a game. How to get the best results from people while recognizing their needs and making work fun?

There were rules of course, although they were simpler and less complex than those applying today. My job was not to manage the rules, but to manage while taking the rules into account. This included what we would now call rule bending, finding a way of ignoring or working around specific rules that wrongly affected individuals or the work. I did so carefully and with discretion. I could let someone have time off, but could not breach financial delegations, for example.

It has, of course, become harder to do what I did, although the principle is still followed in practice by many who just have to get the job done. With computer based systems where everything is recorded, where rules compliance can and is audited, the room for managerial discretion is greatly reduced.

I don’t have an answer to the best way of responding to the rise of systemic complexity. However, I do notice the way in which life simplification as become a popular response. It is also a response that focuses on the

The word simplification has a long history, dating to the French simplifier or Mediaeval Latin simplific─üre, to make simple. The idea of a simple life has to a long history too. But the idea of life simplification, of opting out, is much more recent.

Today, the idea of getting rid of or at least controlling the impact new technology has become central.

In business, rules are being introduced to control the use of emails. This includes the introduction of email free days or, even, rules that say emails must only be used for urgent purposes. At personal level, people are reluctant to accept business provided mobiles. If I accept this, they say, I will be expected to be on 24 hour call.

The rebellion is still in its early stags, but it is coming. The thing that interests me most is just where the rebellion will stop. My feeling is that it will be more radical than we expect. This doesn’t mean that we will stop using the new technology. Rather, we are going to use it more selectively.


Nicholas Gruen said...

Thanks Jim,

I think there are two themes in your piece - one very sotto voce. Managerialism lurks!

As you say "This work did not need short term paybacks, although that happened. This work did not have to be justified by results specified in advance. How could it? Often, I wasn’t sure whether it would have specific paybacks. How could I be?"

Our instinct is always to make a policy, not to build the resources of the life world. It's not going well :)

Anonymous said...

If I accept this, they say, I will be expected to be on 24 hour call.

These are devices without an on/off switch obviously. But of course the teaser must be from the employer's side that you can use such tech for private purposes, without charge? Otherwise, why would anyone agree to a 24x7 ankle bracelet dedicated to their place of work?

I expect there's the peer pressure within a competitive workplace: Employee A is "always available" but "you never respond". I just think people are selling themselves short if they bow to that sort of inducement - or is it an ego thing; i.e. makes them feel important?

Glad I'm out of it, soaked and miserably cold this arvo, as I am :)


Jim Belshaw said...

My apologies for my slow response. Will respond during the day.

Evan said...

I hope the revolution goes a very long way indeed.

Anonymous said...

Excellent speech just now by Peter Costello, on the inevitable march of competition.

I liked his use of the film "You've Got Mail" to 'colour' his history of the small retailer being overpowered by the chain; he suggested the sequal might be "You've been FaceBooked" - to tell the story of that successful chain, being then threatened by a global company - "let's call it".

Thoughtful, if obvious stuff - but then everything is obvious once it's hit you in the face. Dunno wot it's got to do with your topic, but catch a transcript if you can - and I'm no particular fan of his.


Jim Belshaw said...

I find it all very confusing, Nicholas. If you look at the work you have done on web 2.0, this focuses (correctly to my mind) on the way that access to Government information can inform discussion, analysis and new ways of working.

If you look at what actually happens, the technology becomes a way of measuring and controlling. Some of the benefits are still there, but so are severe disadvantages and costs. Managerialism does lurk, but to my mind its a separate issue.

And then you ask, why do we as individuals whether in our work or personal space put up with this?

You are dead right, too, about our desire to always have a policy. November last year the ICAC magazine pointed to the dead hand of policy and those who always wanted a policy as a cause of corruption because of the way it forced people to work around to keep things going. In turn, this encouraged people to work around for less altruistic motives.

No, it's not going well!

Jim Belshaw said...

People actually don't have a choice, kvd, although I know of people who have tried to avoid the work blackberry or, if forced to have one, do turn it off. The twenty four hour pressure cascades from on high. Why wasn't your blackberry on? It was an emergency.

Then people get acculturated, and this applies personally as well as professionally. We cannot bear to be out of touch. We do indeed need a revolution that, as Evan says, goes a very long way indeed.

Saw the reports on the Costello speech, kvd.

Anonymous said...

Jim, it is a puzzle when you say "people don't actually have a choice". Where did that mindset come from?

This talk of revolutions, and Evan saying bring it on, is quite bemusing. When one thinks of all the societies which have sought to more equalise the benefits between their component humans it is impossible to find any one instance where this hasn't simply evolved into a more luxurious sty for a few of the more enterprising pigs. The old saying about the definition of insanity comes to mind.

How can you not "have a choice"? Who removed your personal will; or imposed restrictions on where you live, or how you earn a crust?

Anyway, 'workers of the world unite!' - you've all apparently been Facebooked :)


Anonymous said...

Maybe we all need a life coach; perhaps one of these:

But it's a bit of a worry that each of the examples given are of people who (think they) basically failed (at first) in their own lives, and turned to wellness coaching to make a crust. Bit like putting Warnie and Clinton in charge of marital fidelity.


Anonymous said...

Jim, just another ramble, perhaps brought on by my irritation reading about Sydney being "drenched by 55 ml of rain", having yesterday morning tipped out 133ml, and being without power for roughly 13 hours (I read a book).

Your mention in reply to Nicholas Gruen of "Web 2.0" sent me away in a couple of directions.

(1) I clicked on Nicholas' name tag to read his profile. This lead me to his "My Blogs" list; the first one links to a standard web server default page - i.e. inactive or removed - while the second one links to "The Peach Tree" - a blog with one post, in April 2007, with the invitation to "drop in every week". Not.

(2) So I Googled him to get something more up to date, and found "Lateral Economics" ("Our name ‘Lateral Economics’ says it all." Well, not really), with a profile page "Who we are" outlining the (impressive) quals for Nicholas (including an obvious repeat of the last two paras); and the second fellow's profile including two instances of A-umlaut; and the third fellow's seriously challenged by the correct depiction of '.

Of course, I accept that these various web pages are probably examples of "Web 1.0" - old hat; passe - but it fits with my earlier 'Warnie' comment about why one would have any particular confidence in discussion or application of 2.0 when 1.0 contains such simple, easily correctible, errors - or has been inactive for such a long time?

This is not an attack on Nicholas, whose writings I find both sensible and readable, but more just a general annoyance, or maybe grievance, against the general trend of moving to the 'next big thing' before the 'current thing' has actually been completed, perfected, debugged, call it what you will.

There is a lot of bunk written about Web 2.0 and many impenetrable definitions of what it actually is. (Perhaps by design?) In casting around for something to grasp, I came upon the following:

Web 1.0 was about connecting computers and making technology more efficient for computers.
Web 2.0 is about connecting people and making technology more efficient for people.

- perhaps arguable among the 'experts' for its simplicity, but sufficiently concise for it to have some sort of meaning for the layman, I think.

Anyway, it was concocted in 2005, so now is probably well out of date; so roll on 3.0 - which I sense you feel will be people rebelling against technology :)


Evan said...

The quickest definition of web2.0 is probably the comment box.

Of web3.0 the app.

Not terribly tight but good enough I think.

The 'get something shoddy out there' ethos; I blame microsoft.

Anonymous said...

"The 'get something shoddy out there' ethos; I blame microsoft".

Microsoft has been successful to date not because it works best, but because it works better. Or as you so clearly put it: "not terribly tight, but good enough".

Think about that Evan. And maybe modify your contempt.


Jim Belshaw said...

I'm breaking my comments up. kvd, in the case I'm thinking of, its not a choice, a freebie with some work expectations. It really is a job pre-condition. Now what you really need to do to say no is to lay down some work preconditions. Like, for example, that when you finish work at six you finish work. If there is something that must absolutely be done, then the other person must ring and explain.

Who removed will? Both sides.

Jim Belshaw said...

Oh dear, kvd. But think of the fees SW or BC could charge. On NG, I hate to think what you could do with a search on JB. So many outdated sites!

More seriously, I'm glad that you like some of NG's stuff.

kvd, Evan, the web etc designation is actually part of the problem. Its a typology that accepts the rule of the barbarians, whereas we need to crush them!

Evan said...

The reason microsoft made money was that IBM paid them licensing fees.

Now that that income stream has dried up their profits are going away.

They invented little after the initial work in basic. Just buying other people's stuff (financed by the license fees) and outsourcing stuff to China.

Apart from astronomical money making from fees there is nothing after the early days that make microsoft admirable or even interesing.

They put out a product so bad that people were paying money to go back to a previous version. I really don't see why a company this bad should still be in business. I don't see anything admirable or worthy about them.

Anonymous said...

Jim, you make it sound as if I maliciously dug down to some remote corner of the internet; nothing of the sort. I clicked on Nicholas' name and looked at his "My blogs" list. Then I clicked on the first Google search response. How else is one to satisfy a slight interest in a widely referenced 'authority'?

Evan your latest comment reminds me of Winston Churchill's critique of democracy. But do keep complaining; and workers unite! and all that :)


Evan said...

But there are alternatives to microsoft. Considered against them microsoft is by no means the least worst.

Jim Belshaw said...

No, No, kvd. You misunderstand me. Mind you, Nicholas should probably have tidied his links up, but then so should I!

Evan, Microsoft has its problems. It's in a degree of longer term trouble now because it did become a monopoly. And then it got a tad arrogant.

kvd, I am not sure that I accept, in fact I know that I don't, you analogy with WC. Microsoft was never into democracy.