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Cutting electronic systems down to size

OUR SOCIETIES have never been good at transiting from one big tech-induced change to another. We just seem to let it all roll out without a thought or any preparation. The industrial revolution is a prime example. It wreaked havoc on a huge scale with the rapid and uncontrolled growth of cities; the demise of old agrarian economies; the creation of production lines and more. At the time it was all seen to dehumanise people, but looking back it raised populations to new levels of health, wealth and longevity.

Today, people still worry that ITC will drive us toward some singularity where people are no longer required in any capacity. We are talking “people replaced by machines, old ways and conventions abandoned, history and tradition rendered worthless”. But it has always been that way, and it has never been wholly cataclysmic; in fact it has always been wholly beneficial.

Will this technology race ever stop? Not a chance. Can we learn to adapt faster and minimise the social disruption? I doubt it. Our lumbering institutions, political and social systems are almost impossible to change and sooner or later we will have to restart from a clean sheet and create fit-for-purpose entities, which might even be a new and entirely self-governing autonomy.

Today it can seem as if management and permanent jobs are going out of fashion. The dwell time of managers is now about 2.5 years while people hang onto a job for only five or so. Recently published figures by the US Bureau of Labour Statistics show between 0.9% and 2.5% of the workforce just spontaneously decide to quit. In a time of prolonged financial stress these figures are surprisingly high.

Many quitters cite oppressive and excessively demanding management regimes. Certainly the evidence is that the ratio of managers to active contributors and material expenditure has grown excessively over the last 30 years, which is quite the reverse of past predictions.

But this is only a fraction of the story, with many countries having up to 55% of the working population employed by government. This poses two key questions: how big can the management population get before a company collapses; and how big can government become before a country collapses under the non-contributory bureaucracy? My guess is that it will turn out that a management-to-productive people ration of about 50% will do the trick. How come? Certain EU countries have been plunged into a huge debt situation by this mechanism, and some companies have also collapsed at about this level.

We might have expected ITC to reduce the number of managers, but the numbers just seem to keep growing. The exceptions are start-ups and modern companies, along with all biological organisms, all of which appear to get by with single-figure overheads. However, our technology and software is very often far worse in the “overhead department”, and therein lies a big opportunity.

I have yet to find more than a few examples of this being a mantra, but when I do, the company and the product have always turned out to be exceptional. As a general principle, to be more creative, efficient and competitive, we need less management in companies, government and indeed our electronic systems, not more. So here are two mantras for managers and software:

“On every reorganisation of the business, we will reduce the number of managers and non-GDP-generating people.”

And: “On every subsequent software upgrade, we will use fewer lines of code.”

In my own company we just did both; we purged support and admin as well as all our software, and the only question it raised was: why didn’t we do this earlier?

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