The contrast is startling. Average of 5mb/sec internet connections in the US – average of 60mb/sec in Japan [source] for about $25/month. South Korea, Finland, France, the Netherlands, Portugal… basically most countries that might deserve the term “wired” have faster, better internet.The US, birthplace of the personal computer and the internet, now ranks 28th in internet connections speeds. In terms of internet infrastructure, the US is to Japan and South Korea what North Korea is to the US. Likewise, the most wired country in the world, South Korea, which should have 1Gig/sec speeds by 2012, has 60-70% of private homes with broadband. They were there already when the US was at 34% – now 57%. How does it feel to know that the “Rome” that is the greatest intersection of the information superhighway isn’t the home of Coke and Pepsi, but is on the other side of the known world – in fact, the home of sushi and Pokemon? Of course, if you add text messages and argue that we have superior skills in using the internet, the US looks like number one. But of course, that just begs the question – if we’re so good at using the internet, why don’t we have more of it, and a better internet infrastructure – instead of this dragging piece of junk. It underscores a couple of things – we can be frivolous and self-obsessed, and we think we’re wonderful, but we settle for technology that is to the rest of the world what the Yugo is to the Toyota. In fact, one is cautious to even discuss the quality of Chevrolets and Fords anymore, even if they are assembled in Canada with parts made in Japan, Korea, and China. In fact, the report claiming we’re “number one” – something we never tire of hearing – base part of the argument on the notion that we make better business use of technology.
Statistics schmatistics – supposedly, we’re first in class in technology in the workplace. But it doesn’t feel like it, does it? Not if you’re the least bit technically savvy. I’m not counting the people whose first experience with decent technology was in their company. I’m talking about if you’ve ever had say moderately good tech at home and compare that with the technology at use in the average US workplace. If you’ve experienced the slow PC purchased at 300% of it’s street value, with some other corporation’s badge on it, plugged into a single monitor (how do these people do anything – once you’ve worked with two or three monitors, and have realized 300% increase in productivity, going to the average corporate office in the US is like a slap in the face – again, if the best tech you’ve known is at that office, I’m not counting you – you just don’t know) – and then to have productivity-draining software installed (from cripplingly-slow antivirus to ridiculously lame e-mail software – like Lotus Notes), and to have that pc plugged into a slow network, and then locked down with draconian security controls – blocking online productivity apps, tools and utilities, and even reasonably good e-mail – if you’ve experienced these things, you know that this – this sluggish, luddite, scared, ineffective and inefficient corporate version of being wired does not make anything number one. You go home, turn on the three monitors, boot a PC with enough RAM and other characteristics to fly into full throttle, and you know that the corporate US has got something terribly wrong. You work from home whenever you can, because frankly, you have better technology. If not, why not? You can build a box for $300 that beats the one on your desk in a corporate office. Of course, then you get on our speed-throttled US broadband environment, where ISPs charge you outrageous fees to lesson tinker toy limits on an unlimited-speed medium (fiber optic), and you’re dealing with the dichotomy: the corporate office is to your home computer what your internet connection is to what a 12-year-old has in his bedroom on the technologically civilized side of the world.
These two disparities, though, may not be unconnected. In fact, contrary to what a Canadian professor claims puts the US on top, I venture to suggest that the barbarically mundane, prehistorically inefficient, and backwater-slow level of technology we associate with our workplace and therefore with our work, in the US, is precisely why we remain in the virtual dark ages of broadband speed and penetration. Two things are the driving force in our consciousness when it comes to technology – work and play – and frankly, it is work that usually pays the bills for us and for technology.
At the office, you’ve got a sluggish computer running aging software, and the email system routinely badgers you to delete messages after you blow through the storage limits set by your IT department. Searching your company’s internal Web site feels like being teleported back to the pre-Google era of irrelevant search results.
At home, though, you zip into the 21st century. You’ve got a slick, late-model computer and an email account with seemingly inexhaustible storage space. And while Web search engines don’t always figure out exactly what you’re looking for, they’re practically clairvoyant compared with your company intranet. — [Wall Street Journal, November 15]
The Wall Street Journal ran the above article on November 15th asking the question “Why can’t we pick the technology we use in the office?” The article points out that instead of locking down the capability of installing software or using cloud-based software, virtual machines (which have been around since the mid 1960s, and incidentally are not only inexpensive but have often been provided by Microsoft for free), allow users to install whatever they want in a way that is hard-pressed to affect company security. You want to use a macbook or use your own graphics editor or paint program, you can. Virtual machines are like bringing your own hard drive, except it’s insulated from the rest of the environment. Better yet, if you hire people you can trust, let them bring their own hard drives. Most companies that don’t allow this, while officially banning USB thumb drives, would be hard pressed to find a manager’s desk or pocket that didn’t contain at least one. The WSJ journal cites ignorance and cost concerns during this economy as the barrier – but cost concerns should be driving the demand for more creative solutions to enhancing productivity, not less. In fact, I find it more likely that the barrier is psychological – the need for control, the parental attitude of the corporation itself – “we can’t “let” people do whatever they want or there will be chaos”. “Chaos” is the word corporations use to mean “too much freedom” – which makes the argument circular – ‘we can’t let people do whatever they want or there will be too much freedom’. The article laments the time lost waiting on bad search techology – like using windows to search a shared drive, or using Outlook – miniscule storage (I would say because one corporation that is not technically specialized thinks it’s safer to store it’s own data than partner with a company that is technically specialized to store it for less in unlimited space – after all, your corporation’s network has never gone down, has it?). Time to clean out your darned e-mail folders again. Add to this bad technology purchase decisions – not just in hardware but perhaps especially in software. Corporations are routinely buying fairly useless, anti-productivity (top-down design), and obsolete software – requiring not only retraining but further productivity loss to learn how to use the new productivity loss.
All good points. The cloud, of course, we’ve talked about before. You continually hear bird flu warnings about how a company lost it’s data in the cloud, and yes it’s possible. I wish someone would track all the companies that are losing data every day because they (mis)manage their own technology. The cloud isn’t just up and coming technology, it’s up and soaring. At the very least, all the naysayers should admit they’ve been using cloud technology for a long, long time – whether it’s aol, yahoo, or gmail for their mail. They just aren’t used to thinking about it for storing documents – and they should be, because the documents are far less likely to get lost into a searchless oblivion, get version-hosed or overwritten or wrongly moved or renamed, or be inaccessible just when you need them than cloud docs. The last corp I worked for sentenced us to Lotus Notes and the smart people hooked up a gmail account and simply set it to send mail from the web. Yeah, gmail is SSL, so it’s secure enough for prime time. Given all the hacking and viruses they’ve experienced on their internal mail network, it’s likely far more secure. Gmail not only automatically scans all attachments for viruses before they are opened, it does an unparalleled job of weeding out spam containing those attachments in the first place. Besides which, it has google as the search back-end, a state of the art filing system that makes folders obsolete, and virtually unlimited storage (because it keeps getting larger over time – by the time you use that much, you’ll have more room).
Regardless of the technological prescription one prefers, or even the political or economic one, what has to change is the prevalent attitude in the US about work itself. Those comfortable with the level of technology prevailing in offices are the equivalent of those comfortable with the level of productivity in the US automotive industry in the early 1980s (the K-car era). Increasing the level of technology at work won’t work. What will, the WSJ article correctly assessed, is providing a platform where people can contribute their own technology understanding and choices. The era of the all-knowing parental corporation must face up to the fact that it can’t blog to save it’s arse, can’t effectively handle e-mail, security, or searches (unless you’ve bought a Google server or are using Google Enterprise) better than AOL did a decade ago, and has grown accustomed to reinventing the wheel and then using it for purely ornamental purposes. It must let go – not entirely, but not a little – it must let go a whole lot. And it must favor technologies which favor letting go over management attitudes that don’t. It must, in fact, re-envision management models, team structures, and definitions of collaboration that enchance technological choice for the sake of productivity and for the very security and cost savings it has always referenced to justify it’s stranglehold on the electronic desktop. Corporations must redefine, as well, the workplace cubicle not int terms of the file cabinet, the telephone, and the pencil sharpener, but in terms of the wired and wireless desktop. It must, ultimately, like Jet Blue, go farther and tear down the cubicle walls, in favor of home workers, open environments that don’t suggest the hoarding and protection of office supplies – a gesture mimicking the secretaries of decades past – but rather the interaction of technologies, eradicate the emphasis on personal space in the form of portable felt walls – mimicking the corner office mentality of executives from the Mad Men era, and create an environment where productivity is combined with connectivity to achieve ubiquity – not the “face to face” of the every Wednesday team meeting, but the “any time we choose” of useful chat systems with video conference call capability (like Google Talk and Skype) and the truly collaborative document environment (e.g. of Google Docs). Stop flying contractors around, putting them in hotels, and taxi-ing them to the office to spend most of their time in a closed room using a laptop, and let them work from a technological cockpit whenever possible, saving money and increasing effectiveness. That “little something” you get from being able to stick your head in and talk to them is just your pre-Skype nostalgia talking – it’s a myth, already put to rest by effective distance learning in the academic field.
People seem to think that technology is unconnected to the other aspects of corporate life like the cubicle and the collared shirt. But this denies that the workplace has meaning, just as work itself does. I worked at a corporation that filled the building with so many file cabinets that it couldn’t find places for people to sit, and ended up shrinking the cubicles and jamming people in like egg crates. Most of those file cabinets stand empty, or contain boxes of analog office supplies like white out. What are we in the seventies? But can they keep the network up? Oftentimes, no. Can they equip people to work at home when it goes down? They’re starting to ask the question, but come on – does it have to be one or the other? Technology is connected to how we think about what makes a team a team. Is it people who order bad pizza together once a week, or is it people that collaborate with maximum efficiency and keep the company they want? If it’s the former, then you have to jam a lot of computers onto an overloaded network and force everyone to use the same tech just like you force them to get lunch from the same vendor for that warm, fuzzy once a week get together. Technology is connected to how we think about management? Is it the micromanager who hires someone to book his appointments (a relic of eighties), or is it the team traffic control operator who facilitates effective application of resources? If it’s the former, you’ll have to be where he or she is, instantly accessible in person, and you’ll spend most of your time commuting to and from work, eating at work, and staying late into the evening and coming in on weekends. Who *goes* to the office on weekends? Isn’t that a commentary on the shackles that lock our technology to our desk, us to this albeit obsolete technology, and convince us that this is the world of work, because we’re all in it together?
Being effective in technology requires, as a matter of principle, creating a work environment in which workers can be trusted with nearly any responsibility that is within their realm of competence, in which superficialities take a back seat to productivity (I’m reminded of the coworker people complained was “weird” who, upon researching his stats, it was revealed he was 500% more productive than any of them) – since when did a collar, a clean shave, and a complete absence of personality make you a better contributor to the team. And in which the shroud of control, of domination, of mistrust, and of outright implied condescension (“we can’t let them have that much freedom, because then we’d have to give it to everyone”) is left behind in favor of expressions and measures of results that make technology the ally instead of the enemy. It’s almost as if some companies are suspicious that too much use of technology makes you a dangerous nerd who’s going to seize control of the system – and from themselves. Let go. And, if you want to be successful, the president driving us to faster and more ubiquitous broadband, by itself, won’t be enough. You’ll need to let go more quickly, let go of more things, and change yourself – change the very definition of what it is you do for the company, what your work is, and what it is for others to work for you.