by Mark Wilson
Technology is a very broad term. It’s widely believed that when Neolithic people moved rocks from Pembrokeshire to Salisbury Plain to build Stonehenge, they used a sled system with wooden rollers. That was Stone Age technology and we still use a development of these rollers today – think of the rollers used to move products around warehouses, airport baggage handling areas and automated production lines.
In reality, we don’t have to go back many generations to see significant advances in technology. In the early 1900s, cars were uncommon, many roads were unsealed, steam trains transported people and goods for longer distances with horses for shorter journeys. By the end of the century, society was making extensive use of satellites in space for communications, the Internet had become a prevalent source of news and commerce, flying to another country was commonplace, and motorised transport had become so popular that even four-lane motorways were congested. The period between the early 1900s and 2000s represented a massive technological change and this brought huge social change too – or perhaps it was society’s acceptance of the need for the change that allowed it to stick.
In 1975, my family had its first telephone installed. Today, that would seem odd: a home phone; wired to the wall, and that was the first one in the family? Back then it was normal – indeed sometimes the neighbours would use it, because not every home had a phone – and I remember a little money box next to the phone for contributions towards the cost of calls.
Today, my family of four has five smartphones in everyday use and a plethora of computing devices. Calls are generally “free” and the ability to make calls is just one of many apps for communication (we even have a Family WhatsApp group). The world has changed a lot in the last 40 years.
The first time I remember using a personal computer was at school, in the early-1980s, when a collection of Sinclair ZX81 and Spectrum computers was established as a computing laboratory. We also had access to a BBC Micro and a Commodore PET amongst various early personal computers in the school library. Soon after that, I was given a ZX Spectrum+, a portable TV (for output) and a tape cassette deck (for storage) and I was soon writing my first computer programmes, in BASIC. In the early 1990s, I studied computing at A-level and at Polytechnic, including a lot more programming. By then, I’d started to produce documentation electronically too. Work experience included time in the IT department at the local hospital – changing tapes on ICL mainframes and using green-screen terminals (you got an amber screen if you were really lucky). Later, as an intern for a large computing company, I produced the weekly management reports for a support organisation using Harvard Graphics (a presentation graphics tool similar to Microsoft PowerPoint).
By the mid 1990s, we were firmly in the PC age. Even mainframe access switched to using a terminal emulator on a PC. Access to portable computers took a while with offline, often analogue solutions used to record information which was later transferred to documents or systems using a desktop PC in the office. Early digital transformation came by the late 1990s for many office workers when the main work tool became a Windows PC with Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook and a web browser.
And then the development stopped.
Today, I carry out most of my work on a Windows PC with Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook and a web browser. On the face of it, not a lot has changed.
The PC form factor may have changed a little – for example 2-in-1 devices that include tablet capabilities (like the Microsoft Surface Pro) – but many workers just use them as a laptop. Apple introduced the iPad in 2010 but it’s still seen as a secondary device for most knowledge workers. Electronic pens can be used to draw when appropriate but they’re still not something we see in everyday use.
Our productivity applications have morphed to include mobile and web-based versions, so we can collaborate and edit on a mobile device or in browser (indeed, that’s how I’m writing this chapter of the book) but we’re still doing fundamentally the same thing – creating a document that’s designed for printing, using a PC.
And the bulk of our communication is done via email. The tool that did away with the “memorandum” and gave us a near-instant ability to send a message to one or multiple people, anywhere in the world. It was so liberating – and yet it’s far from perfect.
Fundamentally, many of us use PCs today in exactly the same way we did in the 1990s. Yes, there are some new tools; yes, our use of the Internet means that access to information is better than ever; yes, we can do fantastic things with data that were previously constrained by compute, storage or network capabilities. Despite all of that, I’d argue that, whilst the vast majority of workers today use a computer in some shape or form to do their work, for knowledge-workers at least, there is very little difference today from 20 years ago.
In 1992, the tools of choice were WordPerfect 5.1 and MS-DOS. Today they might be Office 2019 and Windows 10 but we’re still here, writing a document formatted for A4 paper in portrait orientation, with bold, underline and italics, and maybe some colour too.
It may surprise you to read that many of the technologies we use today are over 50 years old – it was 1968 when Dr Douglas C Englebart from the Stanford Research Institute gave what has become known as “The Mother of All Demos” including use of a mouse, a graphical user interface, cut/copy/pasting text, hypertext, video conferencing, collaborative document editing and keyword searches.
But am I really being fair on technology? After all, just because some things haven’t changed, that doesn’t mean there’s no development at all, surely?
The rise of remote and mobile working
Technology has undoubtedly changed many things in the world, but my brief was to write about how technology is changing the way we work. One very noticeable way that work has changed is our ability to embrace remote and mobile working.
Until the 1980s, work was a place that people visited. Every day, thousands of people would get in their cars, catch a bus or a train and travel to a place, typically in the same town or city, where they “went to work”. Many office workers would start at a particular time (typically 9am) and finish at another (5pm). If they needed to work in a branch office, they would travel to that place to be physically present. Meetings were face to face, possibly supplemented with telephone calls.
Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the use of “laptop” computers grew. Together with access to the Internet, initially over dial-up connections before broadband became commonplace, we gained the ability to communicate with colleagues in the office even when not physically present. Virtual Private Networks (VPN) provided IT departments with a secure means for staff to connect to the mothership. Technology companies started to talk about “the Martini effect” – work anytime, anyplace, anywhere.
Social changes have also influenced the move to working remotely and over time, as houses have become more expensive relative to wages, people have begun to live further from work. Whereas in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, an office worker may have come home for lunch, many of today’s office workers are an hour or two from home and lunch is a sandwich from Marks and Spencer, hastily eaten at the desk.
For many, working from home has transitioned from something we used to ask to do for focus time – to work on a report without being disturbed, or to study for an exam – to become an everyday occurrence. As employers have reduced their office space, many have moved to a 60% shared desk approach (6 desks for 10 staff). Some people are contractually based from home, travelling to customers’ or employer’s offices when needed but usually working from a home office (or a kitchen table!). And yet the tools we use are still the same: a Windows PC with Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook and a web browser.
Another big change is the shift from being measured on inputs to outputs. For many, work is no longer about how many hours we attend a place for but about achieving particular deliverables, regardless of the time taken.
That means that the working day is no longer from 9 to 5, or even 8 to 6 – it’s whenever we want within reason for however long the work takes – it’s up to individuals to manage their time effectively. We don’t just use PCs – we use smartphones too. We can be contacted whenever we want to be and can contact colleagues too.
This can be both a blessing and a curse, so some ground rules are needed to respect other people’s time. For example, avoiding arranging meetings before 9:30, between 12 and 2 or after 4:30 and not calling outside traditional working hours (unless already communicating via another means).
We have other communications options too – tools like Microsoft Teams provide instant messaging, presence, telephony and the ability to share screens/applications as we hold online meetings. We may not travel as frequently as we did twenty years ago but when we do, it takes longer as commute times have increased alongside growing congestion on roads and railways.
Email is still ubiquitous. In 2011, Thierry Breton, the Chief Executive at the IT outsourcing company, Atos Origin sent a ripple through the industry when he sensationally “banned” internal emails. In a 2012 interview with the BBC, he explained that the intention was to improve wellbeing for staff as well as to react to the needs of a new generation of workers who use social media. The Harvard Business Review reported that the Atos Origin approach was a contributing factor in improving operating margins. The same article also cites research from The University of California, Irvine (UCI) and the United States Army, whose reduction in email usage removed distractions and reduced
workplace stress. Yet, for many of the organisations I work with, email is still the primary communication tool, used and abused by all.
At this point, I should credit a former manager who taught me that “email is an asynchronous communications mechanism over an unreliable transport”. In effect, he was saying, “don’t expect an instant response and I might not even receive the message”. Today, I add that “my inbox is not a to-do list of items from other people”. I don’t even read many of the emails that are sent to me (I filter out items on which I’m copied and read items in that folder less frequently) and I encourage colleagues to call me if their message is urgent.
Meetings have become another source of frustration: there’s a parody of a conference call in real life that I defy anyone to tell me they don’t recognise from their own experiences.
And then there are social channels like WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn which help us to communicate more informally (though arguably not at work). They bring news and other information; they help to network and form new relationships; but they also bring many distractions.
So yes, we have new means of communicating that enable us to embrace remote and mobile working so that “work is a thing that we do, not a place where we go”, if you’ll excuse the cliché.
But I still maintain that not a lot has changed. Most of us still use a Windows PC with Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook and a web browser. It’s just gained some extra applications and become untethered from the corporate network as IT departments wake up to the fact that a VPN is no longer needed, as we connect to cloud technologies over the Internet.
Not every workplace is an “enterprise”
Of course, not everyone’s working patterns are like the ones described above. There are still people who work in retail, deliver goods, or provide services that rely on human contact in a particular place. For some of those people, technology has changed the way they work.
For some years now, retail has made use of electronic point of sale systems with just-in-time stock replenishment. Local warehouse spaces in stores have been converted to shop floor space – if it’s not on the shelf, it’s only 24 or 48 hours away in a warehouse with home delivery or click and collect as an option.
Then, when a parcel is delivered, the courier’s route is mapped for them. Amazon can tell us that our delivery is 8 stops away; DPD can tell us their driver “Pete” will be with us in a one-hour time window. We no longer have to wait in – and there are options for delivery to local collection points too. All of this is fuelled with technology.
One particular example of technology being used to change work is in the delivery of council services. Take, for example, household waste. It’s still collected in bags, boxes or wheelie bins so, on the face of it, hasn’t changed much. But now but the refuse workers have in-cab computers on their vehicles. If a collection is missed, they can be redirected to pick it up as soon as it’s logged in the Council’s case management system. That not only avoids a return trip another day (i.e. efficiency savings) but it improves a customer’s perception of the service provided.
All of these are examples of technology making changes to the way that people work, but they are heavily process-driven. When the processes are redeveloped, the technology becomes an enabler
for new ways of working – but, for office workers, many processes are just the same as they have always been. Widespread PC adoption led to adoption of email and the self-creation of documents, so we no longer have a typing pool but the tools that we use for knowledge work have remained relatively unchanged since then. Perhaps this is because the underlying processes have not iterated either?
What’s holding us back?
Technology is no longer just for the techies – it’s increasingly accessible in a world of mobile devices, the worldwide web, software as a service and “free” software. We even have the illusion of “free” hardware (for example a smartphone tied to contract). So, what’s holding back the adoption of new technology?
For small businesses, technology may often be adopted more quickly, and the impacts can be seen right away. Whereas a large enterprise may require a transformation programme and a huge investment to deploy a new set of business processes and associated software, a smaller, more agile organisation can try something out and then make a decision based on its success or otherwise. If a process needs to change, it probably only affects a small group of people. Learn. Fail fast. Iterate.
Technology adoption is not just the preserve of the IT department either. This leads to challenges when budget-holders outside of a formal IT organisation decide on a solution that doesn’t integrate well, or that lacks the necessary rigour for effective support. The task for those of us who have professional IT-focused roles is to be more business-focused and to work with colleagues in other disciplines to help them understand the impact of their decisions and to collaborate for success.
Larger organisations are still slow. On the face of it, although it’s possible to create an environment that’s completely flexible and yet still allows the use of modern technologies, this is often hampered by the need to maintain compliance. Whilst this requirement impacts all businesses, it’s the larger enterprises that often err on side of caution and lock things down. How many times do we hear seemingly nonsensical restrictions cited as being due to regulation (the latest scapegoat being GDPR) or perhaps commercial risk? Sometimes it’s just easier to stick with the status quo.
Technology cannot change in isolation
So, is technology really changing the way we work?
Technology has the potential to change so much – but it cannot drive change in a vacuum. Often, the underlying processes need to be developed or other means used to create a desire for the adoption of technology. Despite living in an era of unprecedented technological advancements from machine learning through to personalised medicine, it’s only when the fundamental processes behind our day-to-day working lives change that we can expect to see any significant change in the way we work.
“Thank you Mark. Nothing like the mention of a ZX-81 to make the WB-40 audience go all misty-eyed. You can find out more about Mark on his blog at http://www.markwilson.co.uk/. You can also hear on our recent episode about Systems Integrators.”
“So there we go. Did you imagine, Chris, when we did the first shows back in 2016 that we’d get to triple figures?”
“I wasn’t sure that we’d get to double figures if I’m honest.”
“There have been moments. But onwards we go. There will be two episodes this week because alongside this special edition we’re entering into our second century with Episode 101. Keep your ears peeled for that one.”
“And once again a massive thanks to Mark, Ben, Nancy and Tom for helping us celebrate our 100th episode with this slightly strange but ultimately beautiful special. Do you think we ever get to do a book?”
“Let’s set it as the objective for episode 200. That should just about give us time. And with that, it’s time to say goodbye.”
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