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Changing the people or changing the people (first appeared in InfoWorld)

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I get bored easily.

Since my professions (writing and consulting) depend on my ability to persuade, this character defect has personal significance.

As a senior consultant of my acquaintance reminds me frequently, people rarely adopt new ideas before about seven repetitions. Seven? I’m bored by the third repetition!

Example: Last year I wrote a column or two in which I pointed out the cause of the productivity paradox: that productivity – items produced per unit of time – doesn’t apply to knowledge workers, who don’t produce the same thing over and over.

Computers can’t make knowledge workers more “productive” because the job doesn’t involve productivity in the first place. Computers make knowledge workers more effective, which is an entirely different matter. Effectiveness, of course, is hard to quantify, and even harder to turn into tangible financial benefits.

A few weeks ago I wrote a column on the “True Cost of Ownership” for personal computers, and of course I assumed everyone reading it understood the uselessness of searching for increased productivity. Nope. So think of this as repetition #2. More will be on the way.

Here’s an illustration of the difference between productivity and effectiveness: Executives used to either dictate memos and letters or scrawl them on a legal pad. Either way, their secretaries typed them and handed them back for revision. After several iterations of red pencil marks, their memos entered the mail.

From a productivity perspective, this was a wonderful process – the executive probably spent no more than five minutes on the whole process.

Now, those same executives compose electronic mail, twang the magic twanger, and launch their immortal prose into cyberspace. With any luck at all, the lucky recipients read their words within the hour.

The executive has lost productivity. Even without amortizing the time spent learning to type, the memo almost certainly has required much more executive time. Effectiveness, on the other hand, has increased by a huge factor – more than you may think, actually, because secretaries, no longer called on to interpret and type executive scrawls, now handle far more important tasks.

Think about everything that’s had to happen over the past fifteen years to create this result. The technology, by itself, had only a trivial impact. Coupled with the cultural change that accompanied it, the impact has been transformational.

The branch of anthropology called ethnoscience defines culture as the behavior people exhibit in response to their environment. In business, the environment is the behavior of other people. So, to change a culture, you either change the behavior people exhibit in response to their environment, or the behavior people exhibit that constitutes other people’s environments. You change the people, or the people.

Got that?

Take our executive. (Please.) Typing was beneath him. Female executives refused to type anything because they didn’t want their male counterparts to think of them as secretaries. Personal computers were useless on executive desks because execs looked at the keyboard and freaked out entirely.

When I first got involved in rolling out PCs in an organization, I suggested creating a typing class for managers. My boss told me this was an awful idea – nobody would take it. We could, though, create a class in “keyboarding skills” which would be useful to these guys.

Think about the changes between then and now. Then: an executive using a PC is wasting time doing a clerical job and not delegating effectively. Now: an executive not using a PC is too inept or lazy to learn the basic tools of the trade. And these attitudes are reflected in real behavior – who gets hired and promoted, how work gets done, and what we all expect of each other.

In the meantime, accountants manage to tally the “True Cost of Computing” at somewhere around eleven grand a year, but can’t seem to find any tangible benefit.