Stage 1: Save time of existing staff (1960 to 1985)
This was the original ploy which allowed computers to infiltrate the administration systems of organisations. Often called ?clerical savings?, it stated that a computer could do all the work of some human beings, so the latter could be sacked.
It was all right to say ?sacked? in 1960, although it was often phrased slightly more diplomatically. One favourite was: ?The introduction of a computer will necessitate some re-organisation, and one of the positions involved is your own.?
By 1985 this idea was exposed as nonsense. Computers had replaced armies of factory workers because Henry Ford had already prepared the way by re-casting them as automatons. But office workers were a different matter. They did lots of other things besides routine rule-following, such as chatting over coffee, persuading other people that what they were doing was not really their job, choosing between the filing cabinet and the wastepaper bin, losing and finding important documents, and discovering someone who knew what to do. Computers were incapable of processing this ?discretionary? part of office life.
Stage 2: Enable DIY (1985 to date)
This was a brilliant idea, that actually saved thousands of office people worldwide, and is still going on today. It was based on a discovery ? that a lot of people actually like playing with computers, and those who don?t can be coerced into it. By compressing the power of mainframes into user-friendly PCs that sat on people?s desks, managers found they could do their own typing, workers and suppliers could schedule themselves and clerks and secretaries became personal assistants.
Stage 3: Enable remote DIY (1990 to 2000 and beyond)
This is even more impressive. If stage 2 saved thousands of office workers, this will save millions. Before 1990, white-collar workers were immune to recession because, however lean and mean a business became, losing and finding documents was vital to its survival. But the recession of the 1990s was different, and things will never be the same again.
Because someone spotted that phones were actually computers, every computer was connected to a phone and so to every other computer, which meant that people could find and send documents to anyone, anywhere.
This put paid to any recovery in office numbers, because businesses started to remove the office itself. Outsourcing and home/car/site working became possible. Unsavoury factors such as hot-desking and automatic drinks dispensers made it desirable.
What about control, you ask? Enter groupware, to administer the coup de grace. Every process was analysed into sequenced tasks, and an automated supervisor sat inside all computers and checked what you had done.
The sum of the stages
Stage 3 is ushering in the so-called New Organisation. It is defined as more local autonomy, a more dispersed workforce, more process rather than functional control, more outsourcing, and more consumer-driven policies. In a recent Price Waterhouse survey of 150 IT Directors, 78 per cent confirmed that their business was moving, or had plans to move, in that direction.
All 78 per cent said that new IT systems were the vital enablers for this move. But ? even better news for unappreciated IT executives ? a number said that the shift meant less local autonomy and a less dispersed workforce.
Perhaps there will prove to be two stages in the Evolution of the New Organisation. By stage 2, having outsourced everything, local autonomy will be inappropriate because there will be no workforce left to disperse.
Kit Grindley is Price Waterhouse professor of systems automation at the London School of Economics.
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