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Business & IT

'Busyness' and the Emergence of Technology


Computing is about recursion. So is successful business. So why the gap between the two?




With the arrival of the Industrial Revolution steam power began the wholesale replacement of the horse and other beasts of burden - man included. People moved steadily in droves from the hardships of the land into the newly developing towns and cities in search of a higher standard of living. No longer did they work in accord with the natural cycles and processes that dominate the interactions of air, water, earth and Sun. Instead, they geared their working life (and most of their waking hours) to the machine-driven cycles of production. While life on the land was hard and at times of harvest very busy, life in the factory, or down the mine, was always hard and always busy. 


Commerce and business flourished. But work became more boring for most people. Repetition encouraged the development of new technologies that increased production rates and marginalised the contribution of the individual worker. Ideas for improvement were the prerogative of the owners and their managers. The perceived message to the workers in most firms was ‘leave your brain at the entrance and just do as you are told'. In the days of Frederick Taylor and his experiments at Bethlehem Steel with the willing, but totally uneducated, worker Schmidt a three to four-fold improvement in productivity was possible by the power of direct instruction. With the subsequent spread of education amongst workers management realised in the later part of the 20th century that the connected brains of their workforce held the key to continuing improvement in workplace practices. The finest example of this realisation was – and still is – the Toyota Production System (TPS). 


The advent of the computer at the same time as this general realisation that the workers’ know-how was very valuable distracted many managers with the promise of substantial improvements in productivity. The advent of enterprise-wide planning and financial management tools resulted in some early, but hard won, gains – not least because the very fact of their introduction required fresh thinking about the way work was carried out and time was used. Sadly, very little involvement in these (very costly) implementations was offered to the people who actually did the work. They may now have been invited to bring their brains to work for the purposes of contributing to cosmetic suggestions schemes or attending ‘quality circle’ meetings but the application of the new computing technology was to be carried out in isolation of the ‘gemba’ or place of work where the vital know-how resided. New corporate wide computer systems were more likely to change the way work was done to suit the processes of computing rather than facilitate improving proven methods and stimulating innovation. And then came outsourcing of the corporate nervous system. Slowly but steadily ‘business’ and ‘computing’ were taking their separate, and very costly, paths.