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Posted by gustav at 03:01AM, Saturday, November 02nd, 2002

Tales from the Cubicle Farm

Wherein we learn what the makers of software like Turbine and Cocoon have to learn from Volvo

I've been thinking a lot about workers and jobs and process lately, because, most of the time, I have nothing else to do at work, and issues of process become more and more apparent as deadlines slip. Where I work, I have nothing to do. It's a huge organization. They spend millions a year on development on this digital document management system -- a system that's profoundly ill-conceived. Someone in the echelons of middle management, long ago, decided to buy this solution, because it was what everyone else bought. Everything about how it works, from the operating systems it's designed for, to the workflow, is completely wrong for our organization. I could build a system that works as they need it to, from the ground up, faster and cheaper than 10 employees and 12 consultants can pound this square peg into its ill-fitting curvaceous hole. In the end, my system would work, while this one shows no signs of ever doing so. Instead, on the tiny corner of the system I work on, I spend 98 per cent of my time waiting for other people to do things, and, of course, have very little motivation even when something's ready for me to work on, since it's such an enormous and slow process that I'll never get any personal satisfaction out of it.

And it strikes me that people these days have very peculiar notions about the nature of workers in IT. Most computer scientists, and the untrained programmers in the corporate world who mistakenly claim the title, have been taught to approach all problems from the wrong end -- from mathematics, from the so-called nature of computation, rather than from the human end. So we have complex, interdependent systems that no single person can really understand, that haven't been designed for use but for their complex interdependent nature, as though that's the goal. This comes, I suppose, from a misplaced engineering philosophy, where computer programs are widgets that, like tiny gears, can be chained together to form huge, complex systems. Of course, good engineers will point out that the more complex a system is, the more places it can break. The absurd thing is that this perversion is so deep-set that IT managers feel compelled to apply it not only to the technology but to personal interactions in the workplace. White papers tout how their software lets you easily divvy up a (moderately simple) task amongst three completely separate teams of three people each. Does anyone remember those discrete math problems where you had to figure out how many handshakes would have to happen between each pair of people in a group of five? And then how many more came after you added one more person? Good process always requires communication -- no technology can change that. Communication between nine people is going to be much slower, by much more than just an order of magnitude, than between two people. At each of those communication interactions there's a potential for, shall we say, an error. What does that say about quality of the software that comes out, not to mention time to delivery?

Volvo, it seems, figured out something about this a while ago. That proud fascist Henry Ford, nearly a century ago, set out his workers in assembly lines, treating each like a tiny, dumb machine, with a single task -- fit widget N to assembly Q. By paying them as little as possible, breaking strikes and unions where he could, he made millions, while churning out a product that has failed to become synonymous with quality, safety, human factors, environmental responsibility, and good engineering. He was a man who got rich making socially rude products while behaving rudely. A few decades later, someone at Volvo (remember, the Swedes seem to have cornered the market on social responsibility) started noticing that job satisfaction and the level of engagement their workers felt had an inverse relationship to the complexity of what they were putting together. Fitting lots of N widgets to assembly Qs didn't provide a whole lot of motivation to get out of bed in the morning. Moreover, workers like Sven and Olaf had to bend over in pretty uncomfortable positions to fit those pesky Ns properly, and doing this all day in their cold Scandinavian factories could cause some repetitive stress injuries. Dissatisfied workers in poor conditions get fatigued easily, and also tend to sue their employers when their backs give out as soon as they hit 45. The smart Swedes running things had the idea that they could change this all. Rather than centering the construction process around the machines -- the assembly lines and widgets -- why not change it so everything revolved around the people doing the assemblage -- literally? They made some special ergonomic stations where workers sat, in temperature-controlled comfort, putting together larger, more complex, discrete parts of cars -- say, one worker would put together a dashboard, another an entire seat. Meanwhile, a machine would hold the whole dashboard in front of a worker, rotating it so the worker could fit widget N without bending, then rotating it again to fit widgets P through T. No more contortions for the people to serve the machines as they whizzed by. Workers no longer worked in total abstraction, just fitting a tiny piece to the innards of a machine. Instead, they built relatively complex systems from their basic components, seeing a pile of parts become an amazing machine. Thus the phrase job ownership was born. Worker satisfaction went up. So did quality.

It's a short-sighted and worker-hostile organization that forces its employees to contort themselves to the way machines work, while also forcing absurd communications requirements on them that guarantee nothing will get done in a reasonable amount of time. Why do we have a culture that persists in forcing people to jump through hoops to build, maintain, and use user-hostile computer systems in organizations with worker-hostile practices and process, all for very little betterment of society as a whole, while cooped up in 6x8 foot cubicles like cattle?

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