The Productivity of Technology is in Jeopardy

  • I try to enter my address to sign up for a service online. The database field has a limited number of character spaces, and the name of my town is too long by a significant margin. The server repeatedly refuses my attempts to get around this limitation. I end up having to call and speak to a human being who then struggles in her turn with the database.

    In the end, she overrides it and puts in a much-shortened version of the name of my town. This took about 30 minutes of my time (45 minutes with the phone wait), and about 15 minutes of the help attendant’s time. Total combined loss of work time for two smart people: 1 hour.

  • I move province and change car insurer. As part of the process, the new insurer sends an advisory to the lease financing company (Ford Leasing). One month later, I get a letter from the leasing company advising me that the insurance information needs to be updated. I call them up and tell them that the insurance broker sent the information one month earlier. They tell me they have no record of that in their database. I re-fax them the insurance information, and so does my insurance agent.

    About a month and a half later, the same thing happens again. We go through the process again. I’m going to cut this story short, because we had to resubmit the insurance information four times in total, most recently about a month ago. I spoke with my insurance agent about this and she tells me this is a common occurrence, not just with Ford Leasing, but also with a number of other companies.

    I estimate the total work time lost over a six-month period by at least three smart people at about three hours.

  • I could go on with this litany, but it’s tedious and quite discouraging (and I’m sure we’ve all been through it more than once). We now live in societies that are awash in data and information, where we can find out about any topic we wish, whether through Google, by buying an obscure or out-of-print book on Amazon, or by looking it up on Wikipedia, yet the organizations handling our personal information seem unable to do so productively, efficiently and effectively.

    I’m not even getting into the fact the most of the software running our networks is hopelessly complex and labyrinthine. It is no wonder we aren’t able to attract enough people into the IT field and also that we simultaneously misemploy them.

    In Need of a Fix

    What are some of the solutions to this productivity challenge? I don’t pretend to have the technical know-how to resolve the problems, but I can propose some ideas for how we might improve the situation, and thus free up smart people to be real knowledge workers, i.e., using computers to do something interesting, rather than computer and network servants.

    I think the first possibility somehow revolves around the organization of the information and data. There is no lack of information. It just seems hard to access and to ensure it is reliably warehoused for future reference. The two examples I gave above are actually instances of this problem. The solution may reside in the counter-examples I provided. Google and Amazon provide access to enormous amounts of relevant information, one through the Web, and the other through its proprietary databases. What’s more, they seem to do it effortlessly.

    Indeed, according to a recent article in Business Week, Google, Amazon, and Yahoo have started to make their “computing clouds”—armies of remote servers—available to outsiders, in some cases commercially. IBM has agreed to team up with Google to create clouds for a number of top-notch academic institutions that will help to crunch mountains of data for research purposes. The obvious implication is that automation of research functions traditionally carried out by the researchers themselves, or simply not done because of the apparent intractability of problems, will now be carried out automatically, thus freeing the researchers to focus on higher value-added tasks.