Is IT growth slowing? Yes, and about time too!

Subject: Is IT growth slowing? Yes, and about time too!
From: "Hart, Geoff" <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Mon, 30 Apr 2001 15:42:53 -0400

Elna Tymes wondered: <<There has been a recent spate of articles in business
magazines about the failure of IT to live up to its promise of reducing
workload while improving worker productivity. This may be nothing more than
sour grapes, but it's worth paying attention to.>>

It's much more serious than sour grapes; it's a fundamental misperception
about human nature. The only inevitable consequence of increasing worker
productivity is that we get asked to produce more work. After all, it's not
like purchasing software that could potentially cut our work week in half
would actually do so; employers would just find more work for us to do in
those extra 20 hours. The other thing these authors inevitably forget is
that quantity rarely equals productivity; there's always got to be a quality
component to any productivity equation, and it's generally neglected.

For those of us who produce quality information, the ability to automate
things that we used to do tediously and poorly by hand (does anyone remember
creating layouts with typewriter output and rubber cement?) lets us spend
time improving the quality of the work. (That's the theory, anyway.)
Computers also let us do all kinds of things we never could do before;
PowerPoint presentations are arguably a waste of brainpower <g>, but anyone
who does "what if?" analysis with Excel will tell you about the potential
for improved quality. But there's no question that the type of bean counters
who equate productivity with producing more pages of documentation per
minute don't understand this, and thus have no idea how to invest in
appropriate technology.

<<Many companies have experienced the constant need for more and better
hardware and software, and the way that each new upgrade to a system results
in more things that need attending to - kinda like a baby and the way it

There's certainly a pernicious myth that upgrades necessarily mean improved
productivity or easier work; in fact, at some point a piece of software gets
good enough that adding features simply makes it harder and less reliable to
use, particularly when those features drive the development schedule at the
cost of quality. The management burden certainly increases. I think it's the
Gartner Group that periodically issues its estimates of "total cost of
ownership", and claims that a modern corporate PC costs ca. $10K/year to
operate (including purchase, upgrade, and support costs, and probably
down-time too). I used to doubt these figures until I got a job with the
government and saw just how much overhead computers added. Yet without these
cranky beasts, could we crank out anywhere near the amount of work we do
now, at anywhere near the same quality level? I doubt it.

Modern word processors offer a good example: left to our own devices, we
could use them happily for all our writing needs, if not (perhaps) for
layout. Anyone who grew up on WordStar, AtariWriter, and the like--let alone
manual typewriters and liquid paper or correcto tape!--knows just how far
we've come in 10 years. Yet when you hit a certain point in the evolution of
a product, the software does everything you need to do, and it makes no
sense to upgrade. Yet every time I read PC Magazine or its ilk, I find my
hands in my pocket reaching for my credit card--because the computer and
software that seemed so productive 15 minutes ago now seem hopelessly
obsolete. I resist that pressure, but it's a conscious decision. I suspect
many MIS managers are also learning to resist the pressure.

<<There are rumblings that part of the current economic problems in the
computer industry in general have to do with large numbers of client
companies deciding to make do with yesterday's technology - with the
rationale that 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it.'>>

That's certainly the case; I'm not a computer newbie, but I think long and
hard before being willing to install new software over the top of software
that's working just fine. Quality control has become such a low priority for
some companies that there's a powerful disincentive to upgrade. Check out
the discussions of bugs in Office XP in recent issues of the Woody's Office
Watch newsletter (subscribe for free at

<<Following the lead of Microsoft, most software and hardware manufacturers
have adopted the policy of continual upgrades to existing products as a
means of assuring revenue growth.>>

Yes and no. MS has recognized the symptom, but not the underlying disease;
much of their ".Net" strategy is predicated on the notion that if they lease
us our software, they'll guarantee a certain minimum level of annual income,
whereas selling it to us only ensures that we have a strong incentive to
stick with our current system. My take: if they gave us the same old
features in the next three releases of Word or Windows, but made them work
right the first time and work faster with each new release, with fewer and
less serious crashes, I'd buy an upgrade every year. They don't, so I don't.

I'd like to think that the declining purchases of upgrades is an early
warning sign of the revolt of the consumer, and that MS et al. will
eventually get a clue and start solving the real problems. I'm not

--Geoff Hart, FERIC, Pointe-Claire, Quebec
geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca
"User's advocate" online monthly at

"The most likely way for the world to be destroyed, most experts agree, is
by accident. That's where we come in; we're computer professionals. We cause
accidents."-- Nathaniel Borenstein


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