Flossie Makes a Room-Full Redundant

Why not read our latest blog post, Industrial Strategy Boosting Technical Skills?

Disruptive TechnologyA news report noting that Flossie, one of the World’s oldest computers, has been brought back to life, prompted some reflection on the way organisations introduce and use computers.  The scientists re-booting the ICT 1301 mainframe, Rod Thomas and Roger Holmes, noted that Flossie would in its day have made a room full of clerks redundant.  So have things changed?  Have we got any better at managing the shock of technology implementation?  Or do we develop the organisation’s people and technology in harmony nowadays?

Disruptive Technology

It’s worth looking first at why firms do introduce disruptive technology (technology that replaces all other –fundamentally changing the jobs done).  One common theme is management’s belief that advancement can come from adoption of technology alone.  By making the technology purchase, the organisation can assimilate the competencies embedded in that technology.   A good example is where a telecommunications regulator is not keeping up with modern telecommunications licensing methods [1].  By buying an advanced regulatory affairs management system, the regulator would effectively ‘pull itself up by its bootstraps’.  It would force new and modern methods on the organisation through knowledge transfer coming from system use and training.  In effect the system supplier becomes the technology source.  The supplier’s product managers assimilate the modern market need, translate this into knowledge and distribute it as technology through its sales.

So have things changed?  Do organisations develop all elements in harmony?

Technology Without Organisation

Recent experiences in supply projects in the telecommunications regulation domain suggest that organisations do introduce such technology without a parallel organisational development project.  In catching up with the technology of the new system, two things happen:

  • groups of staff working towards the strategy end of the business flourish because their jobs have always been limited by computing power and their ability to produce data and model scenarios.  Now their jobs are enriched thereby increasing staff motivation, and
  • groups towards the operations end diminish in size as the efficiencies in the technology are exploited.  Even if the organisation doesn’t make operations staff redundant, jobs will become boring and attrition will rise.

The simple answer is however, “no”: organisational development and technology acquisition are not in harmony.  In some countries that’s not a problem: no-one is going to make high-skill staff redundant in developing countries.  But in the UK and many other Western economies, embedding knowledge in a machine and exploiting it though software processes is just what’s needed to drive down cost.

Flossie Makes a Room-Full Redundant

But is it right to put the cart before the horse and introduce the technology without regard for manpower and skills consequences?  Of course not.  Even if redundancies are planned, management must make sure that they retain the right skills and not create poor motivation conditions such that unplanned attrition across the organisation then damages the very capability that the purchase was to enhance.  At the end of the day, someone must drive the new system and skills are a valuable asset!


[1] Regulators award licences to firms like Vodafone for use of the radio spectrum and to run a telecoms service.  The analyses their economists and engineers do is computationally intense.  They are heavy users of computers.  Much of the work done is repetitive to analyse trends and generate statistics.  Methods in these fields are constantly changing as research reveals new thinking and new knowledge.

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