Four Pillars: Thinking about sand and broccoli

I’ve always been intrigued by what people actually do in services firms; I’ve worked in them all my life, and I have yet to figure it out completely. Why? Because every time I look, the daily “outputs” of individuals mystify me, yet everyone appears really busy. Weird.

I used to understand how things worked, but lost my way after we discovered “productivity tools” and “end-user computing”. Ever since people started using spreadsheets and presentation tools, all the service industry rules changed for me. And I understood less and less.

Maybe I’m a dinosaur.

You see, I understood how individuals could use the spreadsheets and presentation tools, and I thought it was great. Then, when I saw some semblance of group work in these contexts, I thought I understood, and I hoped it would be great.

But the reality was different.

People spent incredible amounts of time producing the spreadsheets and presentations. People spent even more incredible amounts of time changing these things, arguing about what was in them, comparing the “content” with other sources of the same “content”. People spent time trying to acquire preview copies of spreadsheets and presentations; trying to influence what they contained; trying to differentiate what their particular thing said in comparison to what someone else’s thing said.

These productivity tools became the playthings of politicians. Particularly in large organisations. You know what I mean. It’s a bit like finding out that a GANTT chart was suddenly more important than the code deliverables it represented. [I know, I know, I’ve met those project managers as well….charlatans.]

The playgrounds that were called Meeting Minutes started looking deserted, as the serious players went on to bigger and better things. The power of presentation and graphics. And, particularly in Europe, the power of the spreadsheet. [Many years ago, I remember reading an unusual paper called Britain’s Right and Left Handed Companies, written by a professor from Warwick. His first name was probably Peter, his surname was short, perhaps only four letters, I can’t remember any more. But he looked deeply into this “figures” mentality and its European roots, and how it affected companies, particularly those in the UK]

Yes, I know I’m painting the lily. [Painting, not gilding. Gilding is what one does to refined gold]. But I digress.

Why am I so worked up about this, so much so that, explicitly, I didn’t allow for spreadsheets and slideware in Four Pillars?

Simple. Because these things are often lies. Without substance. They don’t need to be based on anything. Which makes the process of comparison and challenge and validation and verification truly painful. Yet everyone swears by them. Emperors and New Clothes. Everyone swears by them and everyone wastes incredible time using them. Unproductivity tools.

I think of spreadsheets and slideware in the same way I think of DRM. They pollute the path. Why do you think auditors the world over pore over and challenge ‘end user computing”, “desktop computing”, “spreadsheet computing” and their likes?

Which sane person would actually implement business processes that crystallised swivel-chairs all over the place? Let’s face it, that’s what we did. We didn’t learn from all the attempts at “Business Intelligence” and “Data Mining”. We didn’t learn from the prior pain of having implemented stand-alone non-referential systems. We went and enshrined all this in the way we work. No wonder ERP systems never delivered on their savings promises.

This is why I see no space for spreadsheets and presentation tools in Four Pillars.

There’s no point just ranting on about something, no point unless I suggest alternatives, new ways of working.

Plants 7 Bg 082104

So I want to talk about broccoli.

Not really, except for the fractal bit. I think there’s something Small-Pieces-Loosely-Joined about the way we work today, something High-Cohesion-And-Loose-Coupling, that means that everyone deals with fairly well-formed items of work. Not piecemeal Assembly-Line, the way the productivity experts tried to make service industries work for the last fifty years. Somehow, we’ve gone and used concepts of workflow to break up tasks that cannot and should not be broken up, so that we felt happy in our assembly line cocoons and security blankets. Somehow we haven’t cared about the impact on our productivity, because we’ve had spreadsheets and presentations to hide behind. Standalone spreadsheets and presentations.

Now, with Web 2.0 tools and Web 2.0 ways of working, these things are changing. Tasks are becoming more fractal, and the information inputs and outputs are similarly fractal. Who knows, maybe we’re actually discovering what Object should have meant. I think that’s why I found what Sigurd Rinde was doing at Thingamy so fascinating. There was something about the way he looked at enterprise financial information that really jelled with me. He definitely saw through the clothes that weren’t there.

Which brings me to sand. Granularity. Granularity in the context of Four Pillars.

When I looked at the way Search, Publishing, Fulfilment and Conversation work, I realised more and more that there’s something different about the way we interact with information now. There are small pieces, for sure, but the pieces are beautifully formed and whole. Not sliced and diced to nothingness. Not summarised up the wazoo.

Now, when we see a summary of something, we can dig into what it represents. Dig and dig and dig until we go to the source. [In fact many years ago, not long after I started using spreadsheets, I met someone who had a startup in this space. I think it was called Forest and Trees. It may have become part of Symantec, I lost track. But they were on to something.]

Now, there’s no real loss of information as a result of synthesis and summary. No risk of error in multiple transformations. No need to reconcile stuff because you’re looking at the source anyway. No need to employ armies of reconcilers either. No need to spend years arguing about the figures on spreadsheets, or making the authorship of presentations something politically desirable.

Spreadsheets and presentations are like nuclear energy or e-mail. There are good uses and bad uses. The trouble is that for the last few decades, we’ve been in the Bad Use phase, and we need to break away from there. We need to make sure the small pieces stay loosely joined.

[My thanks to for the wonderful royalty-free broccoli image. They do accept donations, though, which is good.]

3 thoughts on “Four Pillars: Thinking about sand and broccoli”

  1. Thanks JP — here are some related notes on dinosaur-ware that I posted a while ago. Why is the number of characters per slide about the same as that on a punch card, when we can deal with information in much larger doses?

  2. JP, so good to see you hanging up the spreadsheets and slideware for all to see!

    Put two people together and listen in on the discussion and you soon find that the logic and the facts are not separate. Manipulated data is presented as facts, and worse, is believed to be facts by the presenter. And we know what that leads to; waste of time in best case.

    You’re so right in that the use of spreadsheets and slideware makes that reality even worse. Step-by-step manipulation of the facts – very crafty and very hard to discover exactly where you’ve been had!

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