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So I am now officially a blogger.  Indeed, I am an expert blogger.  At this point, I’d like to forget that ex- means ‘has been’ and ‘spurt’ is a ‘drip under pressure’.  But back to the point, once again my capacity for inaccurate prediction has struck gold. 

In my mind, blogging was always for other people – people with nothing better to do than fill the ether with their ramblings.  Not for people like me with valuable contributions to make to the digital world.  And yet here I am blogging away (on a late train home from work, in fact).

It reminds me of my days before System Concepts, before Butler Cox at the Human Sciences and Advanced Technology Research Group at Loughborough University in the nineteen eighties.  We had a PDP 12 computer (no not a PDP 8 which everyone had, a PDP 12).  At lunchtime, people played spacewars – a very early computer game where a few dots on the screen could be moved by pressing keys and made to fire dots at a few more dots and everyone thought it was great fun.  Everyone except me that was.  I thought it was a rather trivial use of computer power and that there was no future in it – oops.  I also thought there was no future in sending messages along the corridor to each other using something called ARPANET which is what they were doing at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) in Teddington in 1970.  I wonder what become of that technological cul de sac?

Mind you, I did get some things right.  I thought that hatchback cars were a good idea and I had a 4x4 (a landrover actually) before they became de-rigeur for climbing steep kerbs in Chelsea.  I also thought that portable computing had a future.  I was lucky enough to borrow a portable teletype terminal from the late Chris Evans at NPL and although it was the size of small suitcase – no, let me rephrase that – a large suitcase – it did show that computing power could come with you. 

At the time, I was using it to analyse repertory grids (a technique for mapping the way we construct the world in our minds) but over the years, I have used lots of portable computers to do all my own word and data processing.  As their capacity has increased, from kilobytes to gigabytes, so has my ability to work wherever I happen to be. 

In the 1980s, I used to talk confidently about office automation and how it was changing the face of knowledge work.  In Butler Cox, we used to have slides comparing the investment in technology for agriculture (huge) and in manufacturing (even huger) with the investment in technology for office work (not much more than an electric typewriter).  What we concluded was that there were massive gains in productivity to be achieved and that office automation would revolutionise the office.

Now, I am not so sure.  Certainly there have been major changes in technology but I wonder just how different office work really is.  People still create lots of paper documents.  People still file paper documents.  There are still too many meetings and people still do not think enough about what they are doing.  There used to be lots of people involved in O and M – organisation and methods – where they would scrutinise what was done and why.  That seems to have gone out of fashion and I suspect there are many organisations now where a great deal of effort is expended with little useful outcome.

One of the benefits of being a consultant is that I can afford to ask the silly question – ‘why do you do that?’  It is amazing how many times the answer stimulates debate within the client because different people have different views.  Without the outside stimulus, no-one wants to risk looking foolish by asking why.  And I think technology makes this more rather than less likely.  We are all afraid of looking foolish.

So if I have an objective for this blog, it is to encourage you to ask that silly question – 'why?'   Computer technology is fantastic, it enables us to do all kinds of things – many of them useful.  But it can easily be misapplied. 

It is up to us to be critical in our use of this extraordinary power and make sure we use it effectively and efficiently.  Asking why is seldom a silly question.  As we used to say in the nineteen eighties, automating a mess gives you an automated mess.

Tom Stewart

Published 8 August, 2006 by Tom Stewart

Tom Stewart is Executive Chairman at System Concepts, and a guest blogger at Econsultancy. System Concepts can be followed on Twitter here, and Tom is also on Google+.

35 more posts from this author

Comments (1)


Susan Sammon

Asking why is never a silly question because assurance eases your mind and the organisations that you pay your money to in exchange for hood/services should feel obligated to make the decision of giving them you money an easy one.

almost 4 years ago

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