Impressing the Victorians and how the modern desktop doesn’t work

Is our computer desktop fit for purpose?

A simple question, but one in an agile working world which is increasingly important. My short answer to the question though is ‘no’, it actively hinders things, reinforcing the workplace behaviours and cultures we have comprehensively shown are ineffective.

When I started work there was no e-mail in the workplace and paper files arrived in an in tray. I worked on them and moved them to an out tray. People moved the files around the building and then on to other buildings. E mail essentially does the same thing, only faster.

From a process point of view we are still working in the same way as we have always done, writing around to other colleagues seeking permission to take decisions, seeking opinions from people we think may be interested in our work, or letting people know what we are doing in the hope they may take an interest. If we were explaining this to a Victorian it could be summed up as “we are working in the same way you did only we have worked out how to turn paper into electric stuff, and by the way we are still using the QWERTY keyboard” – which to be honest is a bit embarrassing, shouldn’t we have done a bit better?

In large corporate organisations this ‘write around’ process is embedded in the DNA of the place, reinforcing hierarchies and obscuring inefficiencies. Large amounts of time is spent trying to track and chase ‘decisions’. In organisations that trade in knowledge these decisions and this movement is how they create value. If a manufacturer tracked stock in the same way we track decisions they would be out of business in a heart beat.

How would things be different if we stopped talking about a “desktop” with all it’s connotations of a desk in an office and started talking about a “workspace”.

So what would our computer workspace consist of? We would need a workflow engine through which every decision was put. No more long, languid e-mails, just clear questions with automatic checklists to make sure that, say, the resource implications of each decision were considered as a matter of course. Perhaps even with links to the current budget / people /skills of the person wanting to commit resources. Alongside the workflow engine would be a networking tool that enabled people at all levels to see what others were doing and jump in to conversations on topics of interest. Of course there is probably a need to have bilateral communications tools such as instant messaging embedded in all of this. We probably also need E mail (with the ‘reply all’ button removed) but only as a tool of last resort, because as anyone with teenagers knows you only get e-mail from grown-ups. All of this needs to run in a way that optimizes processor capacity within all devices and really minimises the bandwidth required to make this work so that it runs as well on a hillside, in a coffee shop or in a moving vehicle as it does in the office

So how would my day be different? I would be able to see clearly what my teams were working on, jumping in where I could add value and perspective. I would be able to see all of the decisions I needed to be part of. I (and more importantly everyone else) would be able to see how I was performing in terms of getting stuff done. If I was sitting on things then that would be clear. It would also be clear to everyone who was adding value to what.

So Microsoft, Google et al, please don’t upgrade Office and co by adding shiny buttons, rebuild it from the ground up as a minimum viable product that quickly networks and enables a 21st century workplace that works well anywhere – enabling an approach to work that would actually impress the Victorians.

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About iansthoughts

Chief Operating Officer at DEFRA, and former council Chief Executive. All views expressed are my own and not formal policy of my employers current or past.
This entry was posted in digital, employees, Government, internet, Leadership, Lean, Software, transparency, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Impressing the Victorians and how the modern desktop doesn’t work

  1. Mark Foden says:

    Ian, absolutely agree. The desktop tools we have are built on technologies/mental models that that have had their day. I think these guys are going in the direction you describe – https://asana.com/team.

  2. Delordson says:

    Interesting article. Looks like Microsoft have been listening. Check out their “Office Graph” and Project Oslo efforts – http://blogs.office.com/2014/03/03/work-like-a-network-enterprise-social-and-the-future-of-work/

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