Everybody Out of the Pool!

Note: I started this post in late February 2020, before the pandemic lockdown, to remind and describe how companies have “pivoted” (hate that term) in the past due to societal mandates. Now I finally went back, post-surgery, to finish it…

See the “Mad Men”-esque image above. Where’s your organization’s secretarial pool?

Not long ago (my Dad’s era), offices were full of Men. Young ladies would perform the menial task of typing business letters for their superiors. The resulting paper would be mailed to another company, whereby if a response was called for the process would continue in reverse. And so on and so on.

The business term for this is FRICTION. Something that slows down the flow of (in this case) information.

Thus was the predecessor of email in the 1960s, and lasted well nigh into the late 80s in many companies. One of my former employers, the University of Tulsa, mandated cost-cutting at the end of this period, and the elimination of clerical staff: everyone had to write their own letters, do their own filing, etc. etc. My friend Frank Christel who ran FM-89.5 KWGS radio chose this opportunity to purchase Macintosh computers for all surviving staff. Other departments followed suit, and before long computers became a status symbol on desktops around the university. A technological arms race had begun — manifesting itself in better word processors (Microsoft Word over MacWrite), the rise of the GUI over the Green Screen (which was the death knell of Wordperfect and Lotus 1-2-3, and hastened the rise of Microsoft Excel), and later brought about an array of databases (dBase, FoxBase, FileMaker, Microsoft Access, and various SQL dialects), as those file cabinets went away, and the files themselves became digital.

Now think for a moment about the various software tools you use daily — even if it’s just Outlook and Word. You don’t have to send your scribbles down to the typing pool, do you?

You don’t have to send your carefully worded request for a report to the “Computer Room, ” do you? Where the high priests would accept your supplication and submit your prayer to the silicon god, who is ineffable except for his initials: IBM?

What a long way we’ve come. Or have we?

I’ve recently come across a number of articles that point to the fact that the IT silo we’ve created is a bit of friction in itself. The act of isolating tech in its own department has created Venn diagram realities of Us vs. Them, Internal SLAs (Service Level Agreements), and the persistent myth of the Artificial Profit Center.

Think of it:

  • tech has moved from the domain of the expert to the democratized pockets of everyone…
  • hosting in the cloud has, for most businesses, meant that expensive data centers are someone else’s distributed cost, of which we all pay a minuscule bit…
  • if your business is to offer your product/service/movement to a mass market, you no longer have to engage an IT professional. You can build your own website (even a database-backed one) using off-the-shelf tools and components. You can even deploy email marketing and social media advertising, for a very low cost of entry
  • the only places where IT will rise above being a caretaker are in firms where technology itself (DevOps) is the product…

Once technology becomes commonplace in business applications, it ceases to be revolutionary. It becomes this decade’s version of the quill pen or the printing press — disruptive once, but now just a commodity cost of doing business.

Via the democratization of tech, tech’s place in the business ecosystem is being overtaken by outsourcers who charge by the hour or project, Commodity IT services are provided by copier companies. Public accounting firms purchase managed IT service firms, leveraging their trust in the C-suite. In all these cases, snipping all this low-hanging fruit forces the business to own the tech that is their intellectual property, their differentiator, their secret sauce. Not the racks of servers, or the salaries of people who care for them.

Data visualization tools (Tableau, Power BI, SalesForce’s Einstein) are becoming easier to use for the people who truly own the data, rather than those who are merely caretakers of that data.

Which brings us back to the beginning: as jarring and distasteful as it may be for some departments, tech chops aren’t exclusively limited to the geeks in the basement. They are skills necessary for every salesman, every marketer, every social media person. If your business involves reaching out to people beyond your building, your front-line workers need to know how to measure not only their outcomes, but be able to scope out new markets and niches for your products.

For years, CIOs have encouraged our techs to learn the lines of business. Or sought to “embed” analysts within departments. All good ways to seek to reduce friction between departments and work faster, and make IT more indispensable to the organization. But with the care and feeding of technology resources becoming a more incremental operating expense rather than a capital expense, the better use of resources would be to flip this model the other way.

After all, they learned how to use Word and Excel, didn’t they?

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