Monday, May 25, 2009

Does Not Compute

The main impact of the computer has been the creation of unlimited jobs for clerks. ~ Peter Drucker

I've used that quote before, but I think it's actually a paraphrase of the following Drucker wisdom about the effect of the mainframe computer on business:

Few companies that installed computers to reduce the employment of clerks have realized their expectations... They now need more, and more expensive clerks even though they call them "operators" or "programmers".

Personally, I've always preferred the first version, because it inspired me to update the thought for the client/server era:

The main impact of the PC has been to turn managers into clerks.

What brings all this to mind are a couple of comments I heard this past week. First, my boss was mentioning he'd be stopping by work this weekend. Being the respectful employee that I am, I allowed as how this was an indication of either dedication or mental illness. He replied that he simply didn't have a life, which was a third alternative we had considered. At any rate, he said he'd be stopping by because it was time to do payroll, and he preferred to do it on the weekend to make sure he got it in by the deadline.

The second comment came from my partner-in-crime and co-sysadmin, Bud, who had been checking out something mainframe-related (he backslides occasionally). Basically, the total storage capacity of the mainframe, which once held all our working information, was less than one of our average servers. And that storage capacity had never approached being fully used.

Now consider that we have almost 100 servers, several of which are over 75% full of accumulated data (some of which, of course, has nothing to do with business, but most of it does). I don't know about you, but as we considered it, we just shook our heads in wonder as we put that datum together with the boss' weekend payroll duties.

What we wondered is how organizations could so thoroughly screw up a good idea like the computer.

If you've been around for even half as long as I have, you'll remember when payroll was done by clerical people, who seldom had to come in on weekends to keep the system up to date. About the only time they had to work over was at the end of the fiscal year and to get tax forms out. Now the payroll clerks are gone, and managers are doing the clerk's job, despite the payroll system being supposed computerized. Supposedly, a time clock system is directly tied to the payroll system. Employees can input time-off requests directly into the time clock system, which the manager can approve or disapprove using the the same system.

And yet, the managers (and my boss isn't the only one by a long shot) have to work on weekends (either on site or remotely) to get the payroll done in a timely manner. Or, they can take the alternative of just being late, incurring the wrath of superiors and (perhaps worse) the Finance department.

Never tick off the people who control the money.

Having been associated with computers in one capacity or another since the Univac 1107, I am continually amazed how much labor the supposed labor-saving mainframe, and later PC's and servers, have created. We were supposed to be working 30-hour weeks by now thanks to all the time saved. Instead, the ongoing complaint is about how much unpaid overtime exempt employees put in.

The problem is that we've never really figured out how to use the marvelous machines. All anyone knew is that we could now generate bags and bags of data, and all that information must be worth something. Managers who once spent their time running their organizations now spent hours creating spreadsheets and typing their own memos. When e-mail came along, people got obsessed to the point of forgetting how to simply pick up the phone and call someone instead of exchanging a hundred e-mails to clarify a simple point.

Of course, with the advent of internet access, those incredibly busy employees now spent all manner of time "researching" important topics, like how their NCAA basketaball tournament bracket was going. They would interrupt that activity once in a while to send e-mails to anyone and everyone with links to fascinating sites about cat pictures captioned with brilliantly humorous lines like "I can haz cheezburger."

For this, all those vacuum tubes gave their lives.

Of course, we techno-geeks haven't helped things any by insisting on constantly upgrading hardware to be able to run the last version of Windows as fast as we ran the previous version. Meanwhile Microsoft is busy pushing out a new version of Windows that will end up devouring all the new resources, forcing another upgrade cycle.

Not to mention having to retrain all the users to use the new OS or latest "productivity" application. And I'm not even counting all the specialized applications that organizations spend gobs of money for, which get upgraded all the time, requiring mass installations and more retraining.

We're doing this wrong.

I don't know when companies forgot that running the business was more important than generating lavish multi-media presentations, with multitudes of bullet points and glossy charts that look really great projected on a big screen. By the way, has anyone ever noticed that presenters end up skipping quickly thorugh half their slides because the slides are redundant, self-eveident, or just useless?

It's the fault, of course, of the MBA's. Somewhere during the late sixties and early seventies, the MBA became the ticket to the corner office. Prior to that, the people who ran companies actually had worked in the industry and knew how products were made. They had a knowledge of the complexities of manufacturing or providing services, depending on what the organizaiton did. For reasons that have never been clear to me, MBA's who never saw a factory floor or served a constituency (if we're talking about government) became the people who made the decisions. And they made those decisions using the reams and reams of data that the computers could churn out.

The trouble is that, not knowing what was really important to the business, they couldn't discriminate between useful data and white noise. So the theory developed that, if you only had more computing power and complexity, maybe something would come out that would solve the company's problems. Using that philosophy, these guys got the economy into the state we find it today.

Maybe they figure that the way to get to that short work week we were all expecting by the 21st century was to unemploy everyone. If that was the goal, they're succeeding admirably.

Another Drucker saying I've used is: The computer is a moron.

I think he may have missed his target there.

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