Have you been in a paperless office recently?
We live in transitional times.
It was 50 years ago that Thomas Kuhn published “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” which introduced the world to the idea of the “Paradigm Shift” – a term since misappropriated and misused in many walks of life including business. Kuhn was referring to those moments in scientific understanding when the whole frame of reference shifts and the world is reinterpreted in a completely different way. The usual examples are the shifts in understanding brought about by Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Einstein and others.
At least in theory we can extend the paradigm-shift metaphor to our current world which is moving from an understanding of business relationships and interactions based on the processing of paper to a world of ubiquitous interconnectivity. As theory goes that is one that I have regularly argued myself and the conclusions to be drawn from it are fascinating. But as we all know, although there is, in theory, no difference between theory and practice, in practice there is.
In practice the real world is at least one and often several steps behind. While we don’t encounter computer-illiteracy or phobia as often now as a decade ago, we do still encounter them. Likewise we frequently bump up against legacy technologies which continue to be used because they work to the satisfaction of the user. This is not simply a question of someone running an old version of Windows or continuing to use ancient monitors. I have frequently heard it asked, rhetorically, “who uses fax these days”? the expected answer being “nobody and they’re all luddites”. In reality fax remains in daily use in many places and businesses for valid reasons.
I remember learning an early lesson about this when enthusing about IT enabled change without understanding that the customer’s main priority was finding the on switch.
Legacy technologies are all around us and things which we are invited to assume are outdated or of historical interest only are pervasive and have a habit of reappearing if, indeed, they ever went away: have you been in a paper free office recently? Show me an alpha-worker who relies entirely on IT and I’ll show you a statistical outlier.
Moreover there can be a significant time lag between the introduction of a new technology and it coming into its own, often by decades. Several early studies tried to measure the impact of IT on white-collar productivity and found it very difficult indeed to point up much empirical evidence of any general improvement or benefit at all. I haven’t done any recent research but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that the evidence is still patchy in at least some areas.
Working in the industry it is easy to get caught up in assumptions and enthusiasms or to project our own idealised view onto the world, our view of what the world ought to be. There is an obvious problem if there is a disconnection between our world view and that of our customers.
In particular they won’t respond in any great numbers if they are working to a different paradigm and perceive our visions to be hallucinations.
Ian Burdon can be found on twitter @IanBurdon