View From The Front

Posted by Peter Cochrane on May 1, 2005

Peter Cochrane ConceptLabs CA, Co-Founder

IT staff will go the way of the typing pool, driven out of the workplace by falling computer prices, the rise in outsourcing and an increasing familiarity with technology. Peter Cochrane steps onto the soapbox.

Before you established your own technology consultancy, you worked your way up at BT to become chief technologist and head of research. What's your take on how technology is used today?

I was also the UK's first Professor for the Public Understanding of Science and TechnoIogy, so it's not just a case of innovating, it's also about keeping people up to date on the latest technological developments, so that the technology can be used to maximum effect.

I also think that it's very important always to use the appropriate technology. I'm happy to work with a pen and paper if I think that it is the right tool for the job. Unfortunately, a lot of what we see today is technology being used for technology's sake. People have a tendency to get seduced by gizmos and forget to ask what the benefits of using them will be.

For me it's a case of: no mobile phone, no business; no laptop, no business. It's just common sense, and I've called my new book Uncommon Sense, because there's not a lot of it about.

What do you believe the future holds for the use of technology in the workplace?

I'm convinced that IT and IT security will go the same way as the typing pool. I think that the notion of the company providing computers and other hardware for its employees is redundant.

Today you have kids coming into work with their own laptops and mobiles, and then we buy them another one - what the hell are we doing this for? We don't buy our employees shoes and socks, so why should we kit them out with a computer and mobile phone? My company provides absolutely nothing in terms of IT. I have 100 employees in Hyderabad, India, two located in Silicon Valley, California and a secretary in the UK - and they all support themselves.

The first factor to consider is that prices for technology have fallen to the level of white and brown goods - items like washing machines, television sets and hi-fis. At the same time, more and more people are finding it easier to use technology, which is apparent in the way that the mobile phone made the transition from technology to toy in less than five years. This force is now dragging the PC, along with its multimedia interface, along the road to achieving the same distinction.

Not only are people buying technologically advanced devices without a second thought, but many are also finding that using them does not require a great deal of effort. It would be untrue to say that it is easy to use either a desktop or laptop, but I think that most people would agree that increasing numbers of individuals are trying and succeeding both at home and in the office.

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. There are those who steadfastly refuse to try, or can't adapt to newer technologies. However, the good news is that they are now in the minority and are becoming increasingly insignificant. Managers and workers who won't or can't use a computer are being sidelined, retiring early, or simply giving up. Not being able to master a PC is now on a par with not being able to read, write, or count. It's disabling!

What is likely to follow on from this transition?

Well, results from a recent survey show that about 80 percent of office workers across the EU [European Union] spend at least one day out of the office, with around 30 percent having no office at all. These are the mobile, home-based workers, who most likely don't have a full-time contract with any company. These 'tech-nomads' are on the rise and are complimented by the growing amount of outsourcing that is now taking place across many business sectors. Most importantly, these people are largely self-sufficient in terms of technical support.

As a result, a new line of company thinking has developed that goes something like this: "We don't supply offices, pens, paper, mobile phones, PCs, laptops, cars and technical support for everyone, so why should we supply these things for anyone?"

This becomes particularly pertinent as the level of part-time, temporary and outsourced jobs rises to above 30 percent of a company's total number of employees. If we are going to have a 21st century workforce of transient people with a growing list of capabilities who rapidly migrate from one job to another, it seems highly unlikely that corporations will continue to own pools of computers and employ IT specialists.

Moreover, if we are also going to move from business organisation to business organism, with widespread virtualisation and the globalisation that naturally follows, then it's likely that this change in IT provision will have to be a given to achieve a reasonable level of efficiency.

Most of my friends and colleagues consider the laptop or PC they use for their work a personal possession. It is theirs, the information that it contains is theirs and they make every effort not to lose that information through mistake, accident or the deliberate action of other people. In addition, these devices increasingly contain many of the key personal elements of their lives - music, photographs, games and other memorabilia - which are now being kept on computers because of the benefits of using the technology to store such items.

Where does this situation leave IT departments?

It looks as though the clock could be ticking for corporate IT and security departments in the same way typing pools bit the dust over 20 years ago. The tyranny of the typing pool ended with the computer terminal and the PC. The tyranny of IT departments may be coming to an end through a combination of smarter users, better software and outsourcing.

No longer will your company's IT staff dictate which laptop and PDA you can purchase, which applications you can use, and which networks you can access. You, the end user, are likely to get to call the shots, to choose the tools that best allow you to do your job most efficiently.

So, if in the future, we're all going to be responsible for our own computers, how can we decide what are the most appropriate innovations to use? What makes good technology?

Seldom does the best technology win the battle for the marketplace. Just because you've got the best product doesn't mean it will be successful, particularly in a market where there's already an incumbent company. Any technology is good if it helps you to do your job better, so make sure that the gadget or gizmo you're thinking of buying does what you need and that you're not simply using it for the sake of it.

"We don't buy employees shoes and socks, so why buy them a computer?"