A comment by Drag at The upgrade that wasn't got me thinking about how computers have changed our
lives and how they have not.
Back in the fifties and sixties, an oft heard worry was that computers would
displace people, that there would be massive layoffs as automation
replaced humans. That doesn't seem to have happened. Computer
adoption has caused shifts in wages but even when some blame is
placed on computer adoption, studies seem quick to point out that
other factors (like global outsourcing) are more significant.
There's another interesting effect: computer automation has allowed
companies to improve products and that is seen as more important than
producing more product at less employee cost. Adding features or
improving reliability by computer assistance may be more important
to some businesses than reducing employee count.
It's hard to say what computer adoption has done
to economies overall, but the fear of wholesale layoffs seems to
have disappeared from our consciousness.
But back to our title subject: it's my assertion that Microsoft
Windows actually increases the number of humans required in
a typical business by introducing gross inefficiencies. I don't
necessarily mean that more people are required than if no computers were
used at all (though sometimes that comes close to being true), but
that the use of Microsoft products specifically is less efficient
than ideal. Far less efficient.
Spreadsheets and Word Processors
The two biggest offenders are spreadsheets and word processors.
I think "point and click" bears some responsibility here - see
the post referenced in the first paragraph for more on that -
but that could be overcome by good design (and sometimes is). But
spreadsheets and word processing are surely the largest causes of
I'll take word processing first because it's easier. The
"secretarial pool" used to be a common department in business. These
were the people (usually women) who typed up correspondence, kept
calendars, made appointments - and oh yes, fetched coffee for their
middle and upper management bosses. For the most part, that
pool has disappeared. Managers have Microsoft Office on their
computers and do almost all of that work themselves. How is that
less efficient? Because they often spend inordinate amounts of time
selecting fonts, fussing over paragraph spacing and the like: tasks
that they really shouldn't be involved in at all.
Even if there is an assistant or if a secretarial pool still exists,
they all use Microsoft Word and will also waste time formatting
documents. None of that should be done by people: people should be typing plain text with markup (HTML markup would
be quite suitable) and submitting that to a program that would
apply company approved style sheets, analyze the text so that it can
be properly indexed for later searching, store it in an appropriate
location, pick an appropriate output method (which might be email,
of course) and take it from there. That may be done in some companies,
but it certainly isn't common, and notice that Microsoft Word or anything
like it is completely unnecessary: an HTML input form would
work quite well. The web has learned that content is separate from
presentation, but word processing seems to lag (style sheets selected
within word processing are NOT the same idea at all).
The ubiquitous spreadsheet is probably even worse at wasting time.
Not only do people waste time in the same ways they do in word
processing (futzing with fonts and other presentation concerns) but
often the spreadsheet is misapplied to a business need that would
be better met with a dedicated program (and again, an HTML form
for input is a simple way to gather data). Not only would the dedicated
program standardize the presentation details and give more control
to storage, but it could eliminate the errors that are commonly found
in spreadsheets due to their complexity and more easily allow the
use of the data by other programs.
The misuse of spreadsheets is very common. For example, I have
a number of customers who all happen to sell similar products and
buy a lot of those products from the same large distributor. When
prices change, that distributor publishes those changes in a spreadsheet
accessible from the web. Amazing as it may seem, some customers
work from that spreadsheet and retype changes into their inventory
applications. Others are a bit more automated: they manually
download the spreadsheet, open it in Excel, save it out as CSV and
bring it into their software programmatically. However, in
all cases a human is involved and so is Excel (or some open
Obviously this could be made much more efficient. The distributor
could instead provide a CSV file - that wouldn't affect those that
do this completely manually as a CSV can be loaded into any spreadsheet
for those who want to download it or could be presented in HTML for those
who will just read (or hopefully at least cut and paste). For those
who have automated the process, the CSV eliminates at least one step.
The distributor should also offer XML formats and should investigate
delivering these changes completely electronically. This sort
of foolishness is found across thousands of businesses and persists
because Excel is so commonly used: because the managers responsible
are unaware of the inefficiencies it introduces and don't know
any better, they perpetuate the problem.
I've seen this very directly: I'll be asked if I can take some
other programs data and convert it to a spreadsheet. Of course I can,
but I've learned to ask why because often the answer is that the
person asking intends to use the spreadsheet either as a conduit to
some other program or simply to apply some computation that usually
could be done more quickly and accurately some other way. The
"when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like
a nail" really applies here.
IT needs to take a more aggressive role to both educate and to
stand firm when technology is misapplied. Complacency causes a lot
of this: IT needs to look behind what managers ask for and question
why they are asking. A moments discussion could often point to
far better ways to utilize the available computing infrastructure.
Got something to add? Send me email.
Increase ad revenue 50-250% with Ezoic
More Articles by Anthony Lawrence
Find me on Google+
© 2010-09-18 Anthony Lawrence