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Office machine mania: The paradox that limits productivity

William Heitman | May 31, 2016
So-called knowledge work hasn’t exactly led to a modern-day Industrial Revolution when it comes to how basic, everyday business gets done.

In the Roaring Twenties, standardization and mass production were the disruptive business models. Automation transformed the production of cars, sewing machines and bicycles. It was implemented with a revolutionary approach — industrialization — that seems ridiculously obvious today: First simplify, then standardize and only then automate the work. Industrialization succeeded wildly in manufacturing and distribution, delivering the greatest surge in productivity and economic wealth the world has ever known. 

Today the majority of workers have moved into the office, but the Industrial Revolution of the Roaring Twenties hasn’t followed them there. Office — or knowledge — work is certainly awash in technology, but that’s not what made factories so productive. It was simplification and standardization. But knowledge work remains resistant; productivity growth is stagnant. The historic surge in economic wealth from industrialization has bypassed the largest segment of employees.

Office machine mania

This happened because businesses have a mania for office machines that promise to reconcile an impossible paradox. Executives want the productivity benefits of office automation. But, unlike their peers in the plant, they reject the disruptive simplification and standardization required for effective use of automation. Technology vendors simply indulge them. Their sales pitches amount to claims that using their office machinery will “subtly force” knowledge workers to standardize their work methods.

The appeal of this route is undeniable. Simply write a check and let the technology simplify and standardize work activity. Trouble is, it doesn’t work. Think of installing a moving assembly line in a factory and expecting it to “subtly force” workers into mass production.

Generations before computers arrived, office automation technology was routinely failing to “subtly force” standardization. It began with the mechanical duplicating, sorting and accounting machines of the 1920s. The machines arrived, but workers were not “subtly forced” to simplify and standardize. The same situation occurs today in digital workflow office technology. The paper files are gone, but the zigzag, ineffective workflows remain. The workflow technology merely accelerates and conceals error-prone, nonstandard work processes.

Despite a century of office machine mania, productivity growth remains stalled in today’s knowledge work organizations. It’s time to move forward by adopting the disruptive industrialization methods of the early 1900s.

Hindsight hides disruptive industrialization

To continue the revolution in the office will require us to look at knowledge work in an entirely different way. This will disrupt all that we believe. But it was no different in 1920, when no part of the revolution was obvious.

Today, with the benefit of hindsight, photos of Model T automobiles rolling off the Ford Motor Company’s first moving assembly line in 1913 imply an inevitably organic automation evolution. But the reality was chaotic and the outcome uncertain. Production “engineers” were adventurous machine shop managers stealing ideas to increase productivity. They appropriated the notion of a moving assembly line after visiting Gustavus Swift’s innovative Chicago slaughterhouse. Adapting it for cars was fraught with setbacks. Ford management nearly halted these early efforts when an engine fell off and smashed a worker’s leg.


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