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Entries in Culture of Technology (9)

Wednesday
Aug172011

The Human Factor of Technology in the Workplace

Introduction

Thirty years ago, IBM changed the world of information technology. In a posh ballroom at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York, the computer giant unleashed the 5150 personal computer upon the world. “It changed the way we work, the way we communicate, the way we entertain ourselves”[i]. Prior to the introduction of the personal computer in the workplace, computing technology was limited to mainframes and teletypes. It made sense in 1981 for companies to arm themselves with legions of subject matter experts organized into a department dubbed Information Technology (IT). The rooms these mammoth machines occupied required men in white coats to program them and keep them running. IBM’s introduction of the personal computer meant bringing complex technology directly to the masses—thus a need for more men in white coats. As technology progressed, computers became easier to use and information technology expanded to include other communication platforms. The role of IT shifted from that of programmer to enforcer. Technology became more and more entrenched in everyday life and everyone but corporate IT seems to have gotten the message that the days of the men in white lab coats are over.

You do not need to be a man in a white lab coat to program a computer. That was the message of Aaron Delwiche, associate professor of Communication at Trinity University, at his 2010 TEDx San Antonio talk entitled We Are All Programmers Now. Delwiche was echoing the message of Ted Nelson’s book Computer Lib published in 1974. In Nelson’s words, any nitwit can understand computers; and many do[ii]. When it comes to placing new technology in the hands of employees today, organizations tend to treat everyone as a nitwit. They are sluggish to respond and overly protective. Workers today have an arsenal of communication tools at their disposal, yet most companies still require work to be done as if many of those tools don’t exist. Frequently when new technology tools are used, they are locked down or only used in a limited fashion, with functionality that solved problems years ago but is only modestly helpful today.

Cover of Ted Nelson's "Computer Lib"

The reluctance to adopt the latest and greatest technology is one aspect of something I call the culture of technology. Generational differences and outdated views on work are clashing with a renewed understanding of what motivates people and the availability of new collaboration tools. At the heart of this culture clash is the Internet. Devices that aren’t connected are quickly becoming obsolete. Unfortunately, connectivity brings with it new threats. Fear of these threats, rational or not, is driving policies within organizations that are having unintended consequences. In addition to blocking viruses, hackers, and espionage attempts, IT departments now also stand in the way of productivity, innovation, and employee satisfaction.

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[i] Greene, J. (2011, August 11). How IBM's 5150 PC shaped the computer industry. http://news.cnet.com/8301-1001_3-20090728-92/how-ibms-5150-pc-shaped-the-computer-industry/

[ii] Delwiche, A. (2010, December 27). TEDxSanAntonio-Aaron Delwiche-We Are All Programmers Now. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_M3p0cbnVhU