Friday, August 8, 2008 Weekly Column: Technology in the Workplace

I recently had the opportunity to collaborate with a technical advisor in order to give input into an Information Management/Information Technology (IM/IT) environmental scan that is being done by my departmental IT services group. This was a difficult undertaking because we had to concretely qualify driving forces and challenges to IM/IT without over-generalizing the need for ‘web 2.0’ because, for some reason, web 2.0 has become slang for ‘put up a wiki and problem solved’. However the IM/IT challenges faced by Government are significantly larger than any wiki can solve.

Gen Y has grown alongside information technology. We remember when the web was entirely text based, what it was like to wait more than a few seconds to download a single still image, and a when ‘Google’ wasn’t a verb. We have seen the exponentially increasing rate at which information can be found, managed, packaged and shared. We have also seen the similar growth in the breadth and depth of the tools and services with which we manipulate this information. Ubiquitous access to information is now the norm.

Herein lies the problem: the IM/IT infrastructure of the workplace simply cannot satiate our technological desires customs. Outside of the workplace, we continue to live our entire lives being able to appropriate new technologies as they emerge. We organize our lives in such a way that technology blends seamlessly into it. Yet, at work we are asked forced to do things the way we used to do them 5 to 10 years ago.

We are stuck using outdated operating systems (OS); we are relegated to using antiquated tailor-made applications with unintuitive interfaces written by companies that no longer exist; we can’t install our own software applications; we lack the physical capacity to view streaming media; and we are routinely frustrated by filters that limit our access to legitimate information. In short, our use of technology at work is completely counter-intuitive to our use of it everywhere else. I can’t help but wonder how much of the problem stems from an inability to provide the capacity and how much of it stems from an inability to trust the end user to act responsibly with their IT resources. Capacity is a matter of resource allocation, responsible use of IT resources should be standard practice. Does your boss really need to tell you what not to look at at work, or that you shouldn’t be on youtube or facebook all day?

Speaking from personal experience, I left a private sector job where I had uninhibited access to information, remote access, an internal instant messenger service, a client relations management software, an inventory system, and the latest OS – all of which interfaced seamlessly with one another – to take a job in government only to find myself working (at the time) in an information environment riddled with filter issues, on a bulky and antiquated OS, and hosting a bunch of different applications that didn’t speak to one another. It was like stepping into a time warp that immediately reinforced all of the negative stereotypes I had heard about the pace at which the bureaucracy moves.

I don’t know what the solutions are to the government’s IM/IT woes, but maybe there comes a time when we need to concede that we can’t catch up, and that we should stop duplicating our efforts. Perhaps we should wipe the slate clean, align ourselves with some of the big IM/IT players, sign the requisite non-disclosure agreements and pay them to administer it.

Though, in many cases, I suspect solutions don’t even have to be that grandiose. Work in a busy office and need to keep tabs on people for approvals etc but not sure where everyone is? Why not just set up twitter accounts (and hook them into Firefox and your mobile devices):

  • Nick is on lunch 12pm-1pm
  • Mike is in a meeting 10am-2pm @ TBS
  • Etienne is in his office, drop in if needed
  • David is busy with a firm 3pm deadline for PCO
  • Liz is working on end of fiscal, please have everything in by 2pm today
Or take the ongoing issues with the speed and physical capacity of government email servers. A widespread reluctance to delete email has lead departments to institute automatic email archiving policies and/or practices. Archiving has become increasingly frequent because email servers just can’t keep up, yet employees refuse to self-regulate while complaining about how slow the email servers are. How many of your daily email exchanges are purely perfunctory?

  • Thanks for sending me the document.
  • Got it.
  • See you then.
  • No problem.
  • Okay thanks.
  • Oops, I forgot to send the attachment.
  • What’s the number?
  • Drop in to discuss.

Over half of my daily email could be replaced with simple Instant Messenger (IM). So why not deploy an existing IM with file transfer capabilities (eg. MSN Messenger) to take the weight off of our email servers? Just think about all of the email space you could free up with an IM service, not to mention avoiding the duplication involved in managing documents via email:

  • The message in your email folder (when you received it),
  • The attachment in your temporary files folder (for when you need to download it)
  • The attachment in your download folder (when you downloaded it)
  • The file on your desktop (when you worked on it and saved it)
  • The file on your shared drive (if you aren’t around and someone needs it)
  • The file back in your temporary files folder (for the email attachment)
  • The new message in your sent box (when you send your revisions back)

Unfortunately for some reason, IM programs are widely seen as a bane of productivity, right up there with social networking and streaming video sites, when in all honesty smoke and coffee breaks probably take up way more time. I understand that an increasingly mobile and knowledge based workforce makes it challenging to provide secure, reliable and remote access. I know that access to corporate networks and to information management tools that meet the expanding needs of an organization is difficult.

The kicker is that everyone else knows it too, talking about the need to move and moving are two very different things. Too much of the former drives new Gen Y hires away from Public Service, following through on the latter is what will keep them engaged in it.

1 comment:

  1. Well done. Great analysis with a few good solutions. The true problem is the paradigm that creates such an infrastructure disaster in the first place. As long as it continues, the PS will continue to be the equivalent of a second world country to the rest of reality outside our workplaces.