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Thu 18 Mar 2004
The Understanding Business
Category : Commentary/TUB.txt
Today's Straits Times Money page has an article about how Singapore hopes to be the front-office for jobs going to back-office outsourcing operations in India and China. That's the role our IT industry hopes to play - if only we have the project managers who are skilled in understanding business requirements, who could design and organise the solutions, and who could then communicate these specifications to lower-cost programmers in India and China.
First, I think there's a problem with this picture. It pre-supposes that this is not a role that India and China would themselves want to play. If you get the customers into the front office, you could then try to sell them a whole host of other complementary solutions. So that's a choke point that both India and China would want to get hold of, as soon as rising wealth, improving infrastructure, and a more worldly-wise population allow them to do so. So whatever advantage Singapore gets hold of here - if it could get it at all - would only be temporary.
Second, and this is an observation, even with such low-cost alternatives available in so much abundance, the critical skill - that of being able to understand, design, and communicate information - is still so hard to find.
It brings me back to the statement (which I always thought I read in Lewis Mumford, but is usually attributed to Marshall McLuhan) that "We shape our tools, and in turn, our tools shape us".
In the case of our IT industry, since our practitioners chose to wield the computing tools at the level of the technician, then it should be no surprise that we end up with IT guys who only know how to "work the steps", if somebody else could first define the problem for them. And, as the article admits, this is the situation we find ourselves, and at great cost, in terms of lost opportunities.
Is there a better way? I think so, yes, and it's what we've been fighting for for more than ten years. It's to get IT people to dis-entangle themselves from first an IBM-centric, and then a Microsoft-centric - (and that should also include Apple-centric, if such a case ever could arise) - worldview and see beyond the technology and understand that we're really working with information rather than with technology.
As Richard Saul Wurman said many years ago, we're really in The Understanding Business. It's from the perspective of helping people understand, organise, and disseminate information that we should align all our other concerns - about computer processors, networks, and databases. These form the tail, and the tail shouldn't wag the dog.
But which PC guy would have heard of Richard Saul Wurman? Or Neville Brody, April Greiman, Allan Haley (typefaces), or Nigel Holmes (pictorial maps) for that matter? You wouldn't have come across them, and their ideas about information design, if you had not been interested in fonts, desktop publishing, and communications.
That's the struggle, to take control of the discourse, so that we get people to talk first about the information we want to provide, and how soon, and why these matter to the organisation, before we talk about conforming to Oracle or Visual Basic, Access, or .Net. Maybe I have a poor constitution, but the sight of dogs, of all shapes and sizes, being wagged vigorously by their tails in countless IT meetings have left me wanting to throw up.
It's been hard to get people away from their fiddling with dip switches, and opening up the computer chassis, and swapping network cards - when these look like so much justifiable work.
It's been hard to argue that we need to get people quickly away from these low level stuff (because we could always buy computer systems that will just work ;-), and get them instead to focus on the level where they're working with the information design. That's much harder work. You have nothing to show that you're working. At least, not until you actually deliver on the idea that works. And you need a lot more awarenes about the outside world, about businesses and what they need to be profitable, about setting priorities, about workflows, and most of all, about people.
But how do you get people to understand these abstract things? It doesn't look like much to do with dollars and cents. But, if we ask the wrong questions, we solve the wrong problems. If we've been building up our ability to work first with the information design, and then to integrate the hardware and software to meet the requirements of that design, being careful to choose the combination that works better for the user than for one's own career, then we would be uniquely placed to play that role of the information architect - by now.
Better still, we may be able to work out how to overcome the labour-cost disadvantages, since countries with those advantages still lack the single critical skill to put the whole thing together.
But our little dog has come back to bite us. And will continue to do so, for a long time more.