Back to the Future...

The fascinating history of the automobile is remarkably similar to how personal computing appears to be evolving. Less than 100 years ago there were no standards with experimental contraptions controlled by levers, pedals, handlebars, wheels and a variety of power sources.
Written by Oliver Marks, Contributor

The fascinating history of the automobile is remarkably similar to how personal computing appears to be evolving. Less than 100 years ago there were no standards with experimental contraptions controlled by levers, pedals, handlebars, wheels and a variety of power sources. Henry Ford succeeded in rolling up the best ideas of the day and developed early mass production techniques to standardize around the Model T. There was no value associated with aesthestic design or usability in early Ford products and a close lineage to horse carriage design.

'Micro' soft popularized the concept of personal computers powered by green screen DOS instead of macro mainframe behemoths in a similar fashion - just as Ford standardized the wheel, pedals and dashboard early micro computing users standardized around typewriter functionality.

As vehicle design evolved in the 1930's some of the custom bodywork stylings of limousines - the Learjets of their era - began to be reflected in the mass produced pressed steel compound curve designs of Ford and Chevrolet production cars, but it wasn't until after World War Two that an explosion of consumer aesthetics began. Vice President of Design Harley Earl's department defined General Motors wide range of automobiles for different social classes, culminating in the space age fins of the mid to late 1950's.

Apple have arguably been the post war General Motors to Microsoft's Ford over the last twenty years; the GM Motorama new product unveilings, as seen in the video at the top of this post, were every bit as anticipated as an Apple product launch today. Microsoft, like Ford, tend to produce terrific technology which is a step behind Apple's GM like user experience and design excellence.

It took decades for car users to standardize around the car controls we expect to be in place when we pick up our rental vehicle or test drive new cars, and he same is true of the roads we drive on. The operating system refinements and industrial design of modern computing is rapidly blurring the lines between 'personal computing', smart telephony and internet usage. We barely have time to keep up with developments before the mould is broken again and a new pivot point that defines the apex and the future is launched.

Against this breathless new product frenzy the reality is that just as most cars on the roads on the '50's weren't this year's model - state of the art, futuristically finned dream machines - most employee's company issued computers are over five years old and upgrade path rationale very slow.

While consumers are seduced by personal devices which allow them to consume and interact with internet delivered content and services, most company computers are glorified typewriters. This lag is partly explained by security constraints - most businesses keep a very tight rein on information access, whether in a filing cabinet, via a usb port or over the internet. The result is the perpetuation of the Model T Ford era Document/Postal/Filing Cabinet/Telephone work paradigms I've written about here before.

While the modern individual can purchase sophisticated devices and interact with sophisticated services with instant credit card transactions, most businesses are stuck in a dour, bureaucratic digital grey filing cabinet world that lacks transparency or vitality when it comes to equipping employees. The result has been the employee expectation that work environments are gray, foggy cubicle worlds to the multicolor outside world.

Today Ford and General Motors are completely different global companies compared to fifty years ago, extracting astonishing performance from vehicles which most consumers never lift the hoods of, such is the efficiency of their usability and product design. In comparison today's average business computer user is likely to be accessing layers of elderly enterprise applications via a five year old pc equipped with a previous generation internet browser. Collaboration is principally by email, frequently with attached Microsoft Office documents.

Given the economic situation, competitive advantage is a paramount for enterprises seeking to thrive in a global economy. Chronically inefficient ways of working and collaborating have historically been the end of large companies against nimbler competition, and as a result web based collaboration point solutions are frequently deployed at an enterprise departmental level to overcome the inertia of large company stasis.

In medical terms stasis is a stoppage of flow of a body fluid: many companies, in a human body analogy, are chronically unfit with email and document overload choking their arteries like cholesterol. The life blood of a company is information flow, and achieving this at scale requires overcoming the lowest common denominator paradigm of 'going with what you know', which is the overloaded circuits of finding documents, email, meetings and conference calls.

Providing a credible, more desirable alternative to collaboration silos at enterprise scale is desirable to everyone, from the 2.0 empowered prospect and employee to the HR department that wants to attract and retain top talent. Strategically and tactically everyone wants their company to be more efficient, connected, aware and agile from top to bottom, but orchestrating and realizing the business value of a truly collaborative enterprise requires real focus on specific intents and goals against current weaknesses.

Against this often dangerous lack of focus is the reality that shadow IT and smart phone use pattern fragmentation across the enterprise, on top of the complexities of running global IT, means that the problem is rapidly getting worse if not attended to.

The motor industry standardized around use models and conventions after a few decades of fragmentation, resulting for example in the ability of London Transport to standardize around a single bus body style and matching chassis and drivetrain and drive after WWII. This meant they were able to freely mix and match mechanicals with bodies as required to move vast numbers of people around each day, while vehicle exceptions for special needs were also catered for.

A similar kind of overarching collaboration planning pays huge dividends in driving business efficiency and performance at enterprise scale, while not paying attention results in chronic inefficiency, fragmentation migraines and ever more complex IT gordian knots to support.

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