The Downside of Efficiency

The moment I sat down to write this column, I stumbled upon a breaking news story about Air France Flight 447. It seemed a strange coincidence, having just watched a program about the jetliner’s crash.

The high-tech aircraft along with crew and passengers went down over the Atlantic nearly two years ago. With the discovery of the crash site this past month, investigators hope to solve the mystery of why the plane suddenly fell from the sky. For some aviation experts, there is no mystery, just a predictable outcome based on three known conditions: First, over-reliance on a fully-automated flight control system. Second, an unexpected shutdown of that entire system. Third, inadequate time for the crew to understand and correct a system failure of catastrophic proportions. One analyst who studied emergencies in identical aircraft believes the crew had the means to avert disaster if only their attention was focused on flying the plane instead of reviving the computer.

I relate this tragedy only because it is not easily ignored. It is an extreme example, a worst-case scenario of what happens when humans are no longer masters of their machines but dutiful servants to the whims or deficiencies of their creators.

Thankfully, the altercations most of us have with technology will never end with a loss of life, merely a loss of productivity, profitability, patience and perhaps employment. I’m not a naysayer calling for a return to stone implements, but when it comes to career and business, I would like to know where we are heading and why. To my mind, we have moved way beyond the justification of computerization as a means to greater efficiency. We have entered a realm of manic obsession to reduce one profession after another into strings of ones and zeros that can be neatly packaged and sold in student, home and commercial versions. Innate talent, professional experience and finely honed skills are synthesized into a palette of presets. Anyone who can point and click can be an “expert” while exercising the least amount of gray matter. Who wins, who loses?

Efficiency is the product of understanding a task and achieving the highest level of proficiency in the use of tools needed to perform that task. Based on what I’ve experienced, I would find it hard to believe that efficiency is very high on the list of any major software developer. Engineered obsolescence and program incompatibility drives the design and sale of hardware and software. It’s good business for those in the industry, but a costly ordeal for companies forced to cast aside fully functional systems and endure days or weeks of lost productivity to resolve upgrade issues and relearn reshuffled applications. One of my employees likens the nightmare to a pianist who practices a piece to perfection only to find that upon arriving at the concert hall, the strings of the piano have been tuned to different notes.

With each passing year, one might expect electronic systems to be less problematic. Yet as technology grows more complex, we the users become increasingly ignorant about the nature of the tools with which we are intertwined. We are expected to think and work in ways that satisfy a programmer’s sense of logic but not our own. A day rarely goes by in my business that someone doesn’t experience a work slowdown or stoppage due to new installs, troubleshooting, inexplicable freeze-ups and the like. This isn’t simply an irritant. It’s a colossal waste of time that in no way adds to individual core competencies or the satisfaction of one’s chosen vocation. It’s being taken for a ride without ever flying the plane.

Here’s to a glitch-free day,

Jeff Irish

Jeff Irish

Jeff Irish

Founder and former publisher of Connect Business Magazine.

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