Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

Archive for the tag “Peter Drucker”


Once upon a time (preemptive pun), there was a genius named Frederick Winslow Taylor. Equipped with a clipboard and stopwatch, he revolutionized office and manufacturing procedures in the early part of the last century. (The Principles of Scientific Management, 1911.)

I learned this as a young teen by reading Cheaper By The Dozen. The book was about applying time-study methods to life with the twelve children of the husband and wife efficiency team of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth. (The 1950 movie starred Clifton Webb; the remake in 2003 starred Steve Martin.)

Fifteen years later, I learned of another goal, effectiveness, from the top management guru, Peter Drucker. Taylor preached efficiency, but effectiveness was more important. Yet, many organizations prefer efficiency over effectiveness.

In Taylor’s day, efficiency was symbolized by the stopwatch. Today’s efficiency is a quantity that can be measured more accurately by computers. Effectiveness is a quality determined by humans making value judgments.

Efficiency is easy to measure; it’s what is happening now. It’s harder to measure tomorrow’s consequences of today’s actions. Effectiveness is about judging consequences. It requires humans to make those judgments. Efficiency can be reduced to numbers churned out by computers.

Computer numbers are easy to acquire, super-fast to calculate, and can be analyzed a million different ways. The human judgments necessary for effectiveness are hard to acquire, slow to evaluate, and difficult to analyze.

In discussing the woes of modern workers, two companies are manipulative in the extreme: Walmart and Amazon. Their success is built on the diminution of human margins.

Is it any wonder that companies like these are using the computer as a modern stopwatch? In the name of efficiency, they’re pushing their workers to act like machines. To what end?

Using Taylor’s Scientific Management, companies are reshaping human jobs to better fit the robot workers of tomorrow. You could say the jobs are being tailored to suit the robots. (Begin with a pun; end with a pun.)

Business Is Bad

If you’ve owned a computer over the past ten years, you’re aware of the erosion of your control. Most of this is unwanted, much of it is unwarranted, and some is of questionable legality.

In the years B.C. (Before Cable), we complained about too much advertising on television. We accepted it then because the programs were free. We have far more programs now (for which we pay) and yet there’s more advertising. There’s even advertising at the movies we also pay for, and any place else it can be insinuated.

But there’s a difference. We choose to watch TV or go to the movies. We choose to do so and it’s our choice to deal with the advertising. Using your computer is different. We buy the computer, and its software, to do our bidding. It’s a personal possession used for personal ends.

However, every company represented on that computer assumes the right to exploit that connection. They claim it’s necessary because of competition—which has multiplied due to these very same connections. Each company seems oblivious to the obvious: customers are drowning in the clamor for their focus. They continue to do so despite inevitable diminishing returns—and increased customer resistance.

In our digital world, this invasive foot-in-every-door approach goes beyond personal computers. You’ve seen the ads: cars with computer-based infotainment for the driver. Once, a car’s gauges and dials were there to help, but more and more electronics are nattering for the driver’s attention.

This pervasive adversarial relationship is in direct opposition to Peter Drucker’s maxim that a company’s first job is to get and keep customers. When asked in his last years why he no longer consulted for industry, the great management guru said, “They stopped listening.” With this kind of bad business, it’s little wonder our economy keeps stumbling.

Too Much Forest, Too Few Trees

The old proverb about not being able to see the forest for the trees, has been turned upside down. Now, we can’t see the trees for the forest. That is, we can’t find the specific tree(s) we seek in the Internet’s overwhelming forest of information.

That proverb tells us that a person immersed in details cannot see the big picture. It’s a warning, an admonition to lift your head occasionally (from watching your steps) to see where you’re going. As if it’s a choice anymore.

Beaten and bruised from trying to find the right information, we’ve lost all thoughts of a big picture. Drowning in the whirlpool of incoming nonsense and social networking, we can only focus on the immediate. These missives (or missiles) of information rush at our brains faster than we can think. There’s no stepping back, no way to take a long view, no chance to gain any perspective.

The metaphor can be expanded. Like any overgrown forest, many of the trees are immature and most of the ground is covered with insignificant underbrush (not to mention dead wood). Forests, in the non-digital world, need maintenance. They need to be renewed, usually through controlled fires. Without renewal, forests choke to death. Overgrown forests are why people get lost.

I’m not suggesting deforestation (or even defenestration). And if you think I’m just complaining about search engines, the same problem occurred last week when I was searching for apps.

To find the trees, clearly we need help: guides, maps, or some clues. Providing help (in any form) isn’t easy, but it is doable. Yet it isn’t being done. Instead of receiving help, we are looked upon as mere numbers to be maximized—instead of humans with needs.

Business should adhere to Peter Drucker’s definition of a customer: one who values your products and services and has a relationship with your business. The only relationship I see these days is adversarial.

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