On the slow train to the future

I am on a train, going to a meeting about using the next generation of technology in the workplace to improve the effectiveness with which we do business. Next generation in this case means the generation after Windows XP and Internet Explorer 6, so I am containing my excitement, but there is no doubt that there are opportunities to do things better and to do better things.

I am on a train, typing on a device which does a perfectly reasonable job of looking like a laptop while doing the absolute minimum possible to behave like one.

Back home, I have massively more useful technology which is set up to do the things I want to do in the way I want to do them. I could have brought my own laptop with me, but my bag is heavy enough already, and the office laptop is the only way of getting to office (and indeed Office) email. So this post from Bruce Schneier speaks to me powerfully:

If you’re a typical wired American, you’ve got a bunch of tech tools you like and a bunch more you covet. You have a cell phone that can easily text. You’ve got a laptop configured just the way you want it. Maybe you have a Kindle for reading, or an iPad. And when the next new thing comes along, some of you will line up on the first day it’s available.

So why can’t work keep up? Why are you forced to use an unfamiliar, and sometimes outdated, operating system? Why do you need a second laptop, maybe an older and clunkier one? Why do you need a second cell phone with a new interface, or a BlackBerry, when your phone already does e-mail? Or a second BlackBerry tied to corporate e-mail? Why can’t you use the cool stuff you already have?

More and more companies are letting you. They’re giving you an allowance and allowing you to buy whatever laptop you want, and to connect into the corporate network with whatever device you choose. They’re allowing you to use whatever cell phone you have, whatever portable e-mail device you have, whatever you personally need to get your job done. And the security office is freaking.

Mine is an organisation with more than the ordinary tendency to – and justification for – freaking. But the security model, and the wider organisational model from which it derives, are looking increasingly brittle. We can no longer afford to pay large sums for greater disfunctionality. Something will have to give.

That’s as far as I got on the way this morning. Now I am on the way back. Not much has changed, except that it’s late enough for it to be not worth the hassle of battling the woeful combination of appalling mobile service along this line and a laptop setup which means starting from scratch every time the connection coughs. Unread emails will stay unread for a while longer.

The real question, of course, is not whether I should be allowed to create my working environment and link it with the department’s systems. I am pretty clear that I should – but equally sure that that puts me in a pretty small minority (but in five years?  ten?). Big organisations tend not to be good at catering to small niche requirements, so that wait will continue. But that does not mean that the subversive impact of what ostensibly started as a routine and unavoidable technology update will not be powerful and ineluctable. The introduction of new tools always gives more power to those best able to use them – and they are rarely those who were the masters of the previous toolkit. That much is standard innovators’ dilemma territory. There is any number of wider effects though, of which three are particularly in my mind at the moment:

Trust and self-control When I wrote about the socially mediated workspace a couple of years ago, it was to make the point that it was no longer just the case that home technology is often more modern and more powerful than office technology, but that the disparity is increasingly about the social use of technology, rather than the technology itself. But the power of social tools to amplify knowledge and connections is only available if organisations and managers are much less controlling, and individuals accept that that makes responsibility squarely rest with each of them – though see that earlier post for some thoughts on why that may be harder to do in some organisations than others. Trust must first be given and then earned. It doesn’t work the other way round.

Knowledge is not power For bureaucracies in particular, knowledge has often been power. Being a gateway in a traditional organisation is not at all the same as being a connector. That will never entirely change: not everybody can know everything, and some forms of knowledge and of the skills to make effective use of it will always be personal and valuable. But knowledge about knowledge is a different matter. What gatekeepers do in practice is often to control knowledge about where the knowledge is, as much as they control the knowledge itself. If everybody has effective tools for finding what they need, the consequences are enormous.

The web is the natural unit of organisation I don’t mean by that that the browser should be the gateway to everything, but that many to many connections are ever more important. That is very different from the hegemony of the organisation chart. Distributed knowledge will reassemble and reconnect itself in unpredictable and powerful ways.

None of those three is a necessary consequence of updating technology. We can probably cling on to the twentieth century for a while longer if we really put our minds to it. Nor are they the only or the most important consequences – I don’t pretend to be able to predict what those might turn out to be. But they are to me a sufficient consequence: sufficient to make it more than worthwhile to invest effort not in making them happen (I am not sure that that can be done), but in tackling things which get in the way of their happening.

This could all get quite exciting. All we need now is the shiny new kit – and only another year to wait.


  1. Predictably perceptive and very timely…am just about to start some work with the Australian Dept of Human Services (Centrelink, Medicare, Child Support Agency etc) on issues not a million miles away from the question of how we align public sector workspace and workstyle with the turbo-charged world of technology enabled working and creativity. It is something of a ‘must fix’ issue for the public sector if it is to have any chance of sustaining real reform and engaging the policy dilemmas we expect them/you to solve.

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