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Captured by Technology

Captured by Technology

One man's personal quest for a "freedom from information" act.

At the traffic lights in St Leonards it greeted me. It was 1989 and I was a sales representative for Sigma Data. Right in front of me was a billboard. As I waited at the red light I read the message. "Don't just sit there. Ring someone else's client." My heart sank. Until now, my car was the one place I could find solitude away from work and family pressures and cogitate on the world. Yet here was a billboard telling me that even in the car there was no time for slacking. I must increase my productivity. Today I own a mobile phone. The last thing I want do at any traffic light is to cold call someone else's client.

Research shows that you have about 30 seconds to impress the client; the line would probably drop out before my 30 seconds were up. Technology enslaves us and we seem incapable of switching off. The billboard illustrates the challenging nature of technology in day-to-day use. With mobile phones and computers at home, we can work during what was previously free time. I believe this is detrimental to the work we produce and affects family and social responsibilities.

Technology has produced perpetual urgency. Because it's easier to generate data, the expectation is that you need the data faster. I see around me people who are constantly busy responding to requests. The trouble is that very few people pause to ask: "Do I need to respond?" No one is qualifying their "time" investment. Technology seems to generate a "Pavlov's dog" response among executive users. Interestingly, the business climate of the 1990s has done much to exacerbate this situation. Data from the Reserve Bank of Australia reveals there have been around half a million job retrenchments a year throughout the 1990s, and that Australian redundancies are higher than for any other country in the OECD. Anxieties about job security have made many executives feel that they must work harder to show management how invaluable they are to the organisation. However, is such an attitude realistic? My logic is underpinned by one of life's maxims. Parkinson's Law was first propounded in an essay in the Economist magazine in 1955 by Cyril Northcote Parkinson. It was based on his experiences as a British army staff officer during World War Two and contends that the more you work the more work you have to do. It would seem that executives who spend their leisure time on mobile phones or computers are in fact making the length of their "to do" list longer.

What is worse is the quality of work they do will deteriorate, I believe. As the Welsh poet W H Davies wrote at the turn of the century "What is life if full of care we have no time to stop or stare". He wanted us to smell the flowers. However, he could equally have been advising us to ponder what we are doing.

I dispute the notion that being online, all the time, is actually being on the ball. Enjoying our leisure time recharges our batteries, which I believe helps us come up with more creative solutions to challenges at work. Newton did not discover the law of gravity hunched over his desk. And, Archimedes was having a bath when he shouted: "Eureka!" Different Drummers Tom Hopkins in his classic sales reference book How to Master the Art of Selling offers two key pieces of advice in the chapter titled "Creating the Selling Environment". First, he stresses that sales people must promote only what the customer wants. Second, sales people must appeal to the customer's emotions. In other words he says that in dealing with customers you need to remember that all people are individuals so you must respond to them individually. Computer use can make this extremely difficult. This is because computers enable a "boilerplate" response. Whether they have asked for it or not customers often get the "stock standard" response and product information.

The computer can also encourage too much focus on the packaging rather than the contents. Computers have made it easier to design, so people tend to experiment with layouts. The problem is that too much energy can be spent in making some presentation creative. In the end, though, it is the message that is important.

Customers are not going to be impressed if the fancy audiovisuals fail to address their main requirements.

And, because we have so much information at our disposal, there is the emergence of a "more is better" attitude. People gauge their effectiveness by the size of the report or proposal they generate.

John Cleese lampooned this response in his book So You Think You Can Sell. In it he has the sales person envisage the scene when his client receives his massive proposal. The customer is drooling and telling his secretary: "It's so big. So thorough. So comprehensive. I'll read it straight away. Cancel everything . . . no telephone calls or interruptions of any kind. And cancel the lunch with the MD. Ooh, I do like a good read." Cleese says that the reality is completely different. People usually find anything voluminous off-putting. He says that no one reads things that look like hard work, and which are of no direct concern to them. What, then, are some of my suggested responses to the dangers of being enslaved by technology? First, if technology frees us to work from home past the traditional 9-5 work day, perhaps we can incorporate domestic duties into normal working hours. For my part I always take my children to school and I sometimes pick them up from school. Others might choose to go to a gym class at a quiet time during working hours or make themselves available to coach their child's sports team.

We need to be more vigorous also about promoting telecommuting. Research from the University of California shows that telecommuting boosts productivity and reduces costs. Moreover, it helps break down office politics and focuses individuals and management on the fact that they will not be rewarded for effort. Instead, they will be judged by results. Telecommuting enables people to focus their energies more clearly on what they need to achieve. I pass a monument regularly on my way to and from Melbourne airport. This statue was erected in 1903 and celebrates the establishment of the eight-hour day. At the top are three eights that represent eight hours work, eight hours leisure and eight hours sleep. Our forefathers saw this as an important achievement because it allowed workers to balance family, community and employment aspirations.

Perhaps we need a new campaign to recapture the eight-hour day. Technology may allow us to work in different patterns but surely we should still aspire to keep our lives in balance.

Peter Hind is the manager of User Programs, which includes InTEP, at IDC Australia. His column "At the Coalface" appears monthly in CIO

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