Why the cloud won't empty your office just yet

Office

Steve Cassidy somehow resists the temptation to heckle the "empty building" brigade at the WorkTech conference

I'm not being mawkish when I pass on these sentiments from my father as he held forth to us, his family, on the occasion of his 90th birthday last December. This was his big chance to spill the beans on all of us, hopefully to the amusement of his grandchildren and bemusement of his great-grandchildren.

When my turn came, the secret he revealed wasn’t so much of a surprise as I’d expected. Apparently, Mr and Mrs Cassidy were once called into my junior school by the headmistress, who left them with this singular conundrum: “I think he’s wonderful,” she gushed. “Brightest chap we’ve seen here in years. The thing is, his teachers hate him” (this will come as no surprise to the PC Pro team, I’m sure). My puzzled parents pressed for an explanation. What was he doing? Chronic lateness? Bad at maths? “Oh no,” said the head. “He won’t let anyone else answer any of the teacher’s questions!”

Nobody suddenly stops dead in the water when they need to copy an email to a friend, so what is it that happens to these home users once they walk through the doors of the workplace?

This is a tendency that returned to tempt me when I was attending the recent WorkTech conference at the British Library. I’ve blogged already about the frankly mind-boggling advice given by this worthy panel, who seemed to honestly believe that the days of wires inside buildings are over, but that isn’t the point I’m thinking of here. The point where Cassidy Senior’s anecdote about Cassidy Junior’s childhood popped into my mind came when Dave Coplin of Microsoft started talking.

His topic was “the self-service computing model”. WorkTech was a very highfalutin day that started off with Edward De Bono casually throwing around concepts such as the EBNE business (“Excellent, but not enough” – a rather chilling concept), moving on to a chap called Charles Leadbeater, who wanted to talk about the way that buildings impose restrictions on the types of work that can be done inside them. I managed to keep my lifelong heckler’s twitch under control throughout all this commentary, since I was well aware that the last thing any of these worthy types had ever had to do was to actually take responsibility for their concepts in the unlikely event they made any difference to a company.

Then Coplin took to the stage. Straight down to earth and no messing, his point was a modern version of that old joke about all the blokes you knew at school who failed Maths CSE but now can’t be dragged out of the betting shop. Coplin’s update is that nobody sits at home complaining they need training whenever Tesco changes the design of its website. Similarly, nobody suddenly stops dead in the water when they need to copy an email to a friend, so what is it that happens to these home users once they walk through the doors of the workplace? Suddenly, according to Coplin, they’re treated like children.

Never before have I managed to hold my tongue in a lecture theatre, with such a large audience, against such a strong compulsion to heckle. Coplin’s observations (and they were real, unlike the largely philosophical predictions of the other speakers) were difficult to ignore. His pithiest example of self-service computing was the group of users who became so annoyed with their IT department that they bought their own wireless access point on the company credit card and set it up themselves. Coplin argued that it’s crazy to ignore the skill levels that are already deeply embedded in the workforce, not from their formal training but by their “digital lives” at home.

The issue that set me thinking was just about the least technical matter I’m likely to be able to cover in this column and still remain within the brief. What if Papa Cassidy’s little story about my need to get to the answer in front of all the other kids in the class was in fact a reflection of the darker nature of user support? Most of the techies I know show very distinct similarities in the way they approach problems, the most obvious being frustration with the way other people (especially their users) respond to the process of diagnosis or information transfer. And I don’t mean copying a file from a server here; I mean understanding what techies are talking about.

Adapt and survive

What Coplin was saying was that the days of well-behaved, deferential and functionally ignorant users are long gone. They’re going to steer a way around you by buying their own laptops, choosing their own email services, assembling ad hoc, project-orientated teams (with co-workers who aren’t even inside your company) via IM. It’s one of those adapt-and-survive changeovers, and this isn’t from the laboratories, the R&D teams or the academics, it’s a grass-roots development.

It’s taken me some time to think through the implications of this one, not helped by dear old Dad’s uncharacteristically timely (but characteristically apt) story from my youth. If you’re the type of person I am, then it’s natural for the self-service model to come as a bit of a challenge.