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.
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 business inefficiency.
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 source equivalent).
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.
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More Articles by Anthony Lawrence © 2010-09-18 Anthony Lawrence
In C++ it's harder to shoot yourself in the foot, but when you do, you blow off your whole leg. (Bjarne Stroustrup)