27 July 2007:

Simon Head on Information Technology, in The New York Review of Books. 

Good news, for once!

In the current issue of The New York Review of Books, Simon Head writes, in the course of reviewing three very different books, about the pitfalls of what is now called the "service economy" ("They're Micromanaging Your Every Move"). The thrust of his essay is that the tight, dehumanizing control over production that was so salient a feature of the industrial age has persisted in the information age, thanks to Information technology.

Wal-Mart has demonstrated the effectiveness of applying industrial principles to the retail economy. It does so by combining an intensive use of information technology, a rapid growth of employee productivity, and a harsh, often punitive work regime that keeps even the most productive workers off balance and their wages at poverty levels.

The most corrosive deployment of "enterprise" systems, as this particular kind of IT is known, has been in the health-care sector, where managed care organizations have recast the care of patients in Taylorian terms. So many patient visits per day, so much time for such and such a procedure - and so forth. It may make a few people rich, but it's a disaster for almost everybody else, and so long as all human transactions are forced into compliance with "free market" values, there seems to be no end in sight. Happily, some savvy IT types, aware that "enterprise" is actually bad for enterprise, have pushed the use of computers further; perhaps it would be better to say that they've thrown it into reverse. Instead of letting machines dictate procedures, a team at Xerox PARC created a system in which technicians dictate to the machine, creating an ever-richer database. The case study is provided by  The Social Life of Information, by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid. To streamline the repair process, Xerox had produced a comprehensive rule book, but - how familiar is this? - "the problem was that the machines kept going wrong in ways that the automated system hadn't anticipated, and often the machines developed several problems at once." The technicians had no choice but to throw the rule book aside in order to deal with the problems that they encountered, and their methods paralleled those of the medical diagnostician.

Brown and his team at PARC persuaded Xerox management that these ad hoc practices should be incorporated into a new system called Eureka. Any technician who had solved a difficult case would simply write up his findings and a committee of technicians would decide whether the material merited inclusion in the Eureka database. Since Xerox adopted it, Eureka has achieved spectacular results. In its first three years, it logged 30,000 case histories from employees, and is estimated to have saved Xerox $100 million.

In even better news, Mr Head reports that a foundation in Indianapolis has been working with the Indiana University School of Medicine to amass a similar database. According to a RAND report last year, the small cluster of clinics, hospitals, and three thousand medical specialists engaged in the Regenstrief Institute program "accounts for nearly half of the gain in quality of health care in the United States that can be attributed to the use of information technology."

Mr Head's essay reminds us that information technology is in its childhood, if not its infancy. There is still a lamentable gulf between computer people and other professionals - it's implicit in the fact that the term "computer people" makes sense. If information technology is blunt and crude, that's because it has been designed by one group of specialists in response to the needs of another. When human resources workers begin composing their own systems, companies like Oracle and SAP will be in trouble, but human recourses departments will contribute to their firms' competitive advantage instead of chugging along in the background. When managers become sufficiently familiar with the nuts and bolts of IT to permit them to oversee the construction of information systems instead of struggling to accommodate the diktat of consultants, cubicles may get to be interesting workspaces. Right now, the owners use computers as guards, to restrain their workers. Eventually, that arrangement will be shown to be as underproductive as any other kind of serfdom. Workers, on their way to becoming identical to the means of production, will use computers to make themselves better off. The owners' leeway will be vastly reduced.

The passing of every year increases the proportion of men and women for whom the mere existence of computers does not signify change. Eventually, they'll be running the show, and I expect amazing things.

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