Tech & Work

Blinkered business created this mess: Don't expect tech to dig us out

It's easy to be blinded by technology and markets, but business mustn't lose sight of our real purpose and the responsibilities companies have to society.

Business is facing up to the fundamental realisation that moving data between databases doesn't constitute real wealth creation. Photo: Shutterstock

Written on BA2775 flying from Jersey in the Channel Islands to London Gatwick and dispatched to TechRepublic via 3G from my car.

When I first entered industry there was a stable organisation with defined roles, clear objectives, and an understanding that our purpose was to serve the society in which we operated. At that time I had never heard the words 'reorganisation', 'mission' or 'vision' used as they are now.

After about 15 years, I experienced my first reorganisation. It was no big deal. A few people were shuffled, some job tiles changed and that was it. But then the whole thing happened again within five years, and after that the reorganisations started to come thick and fast, and so did the need for a vision, mission and detailed business plan.

Within the ranks, the reorganisations were something of a joke at first. But in the management chain they became increasingly serious, especially when downsizing and rightsizing came on the scene.

Little by little, everyone was enveloped in a cloak of anticipatory tension. Who was in a job, who was out, what were the changes, and how challenging were they to be?

Accelerating technology and fast-changing markets were responsible. Insourcing, outsourcing, globalisation, and competition from new sectors that seemed to appear overnight all added to the frenzy. It was as if every string that could be pulled was being pulled at the same time. But then we entered a new phase of relative stability. This phase was actually fluid working - change had become a continuum.

There were also deeper changes within the corporate soul. A gradual disconnection from society and a fading loyalty to any one country. The focus became the stock market, shareholders, the bonus and short-termism, all driven by quarterly results.

The benefits were dubious, but the damage to R&D, product and market development was palpable. And as industry became more efficient and focused, it also became increasingly brittle and prone to sudden failure. This fact was clearly demonstrated by the financial and banking industry as a key element of the recent financial collapse.

The disassociation of work, product and value creation, was followed by the fundamental realisation that moving data between databases doesn't constitute real wealth creation.

How did this state of affairs come about? Did our technology afford some form of mesmeric insulation between management, workers, markets and reality? Could people not see what was happening? Had processing, belief, and the drone-like adherence to rule-sets finally overtaken rational thinking?

Yes, to all of the above - and more, I reckon.

So, country by country, Western politicians are now chanting the same mantra: "It's back to basics, back to manufacturing, back to conventional trading and value creation, and back to growth."

I do hope they are thinking about the next industrial revolution and not the one that got us here. And I do hope they understand the need to move on from the simple-minded economics of money. If they do not, we can expect to be back here again within a decade - with or without the help of technology.

About

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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