Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Technology, Efficiency, and Effectiveness

Modern technology is awesome!  With it we can be ineffective and inefficient way faster than we ever could before.

My Facebook friends were treated to the above quote on my feed this morning.  I won't claim original sourcing, because surely someone else has run into the same concept before.  It just twanged me pretty hard today.

There I was, heading to our branch campus to preside there for a while.  No, I'm not the President (who, thanks to etymology, we'd expect to preside); he's away at a business meeting, as is the manager of the branch campus.  The main campus, where I'm installed as Dean, has plenty of chiefs for someone to be "in charge" at any given time, but today the branch campus needs one.  I'm available via cell, via email, and so on, but somebody still needs to have feet on the ground.  Because, you know, sometimes technology doesn't solve our problems. 

On the drive over here I started thinking about this business meeting the college leadership is away at, and specifically about one of the conversations they're likely to be having: scheduling "improvements."  Now, when I started doing academic scheduling it was decidedly old-school: post-it flags, markers, and a large white foam core board with columns for days and rows for classrooms.  I tried migrating the system to Excel, but that didn't make the  process better in any measurable way. 

I mean, scheduling is scheduling.  The trick is to get every class that students need (within reason) into a classroom in a time slot with a teacher without requiring either teachers or students to be in two places at once or having two classes in the same classroom.  Simple, right?

Apparently not.  My next college implemented a piece of modern technology that was designed to schedule for us.  Ah, let's hear it for efficiency!  Can I get a great big ole' woo hoo whoop-whoop from you?  "It'll schedule 85%; you just assign the exceptions manually" was the byline. 

Yeah, right. 

I'm not sure how they were measuring the 85%, but the majority of what the to-remain-unnamed software turned out was a pile of steaming, unadulterated crap.  The whole thing was one big funky-smelling exception, and using the software made my job harder, not easier.  "More efficiently" somehow required twice as much time. 

Luckily I fled quickly enough from there and landed in the safety and relative sanity of a different college group.  There, the approach to scheduling was "um, yeah--just make more classes."  It was a hot mess when I got there, but I was able to jimmy up a spreadsheet to look like my old reliable foam core and I soon had 'em scheduled like a pro. 

New college group now.  They've been scheduling efficiently, near as I can tell, for years and years, all by hand at a single, half-hour-long, quarterly meeting.  Coolest part about it, for me, is that my only participation is in scheduling the meeting--I could get hit by a bus tomorrow (God forbid, of course) and the campus would still be able to figure out what classes to offer next term.  Yay! 

And now somebody in the home office wants to introduce the same "modern technology" that provided me with such aromatically scheduled piles of feces before. 

Yeah, right.  I gave my boss what should be sufficient rhetorical ammunition to battle the beast of technology, to skewer the siren of software.  Hopefully he'll come back with a trophy.

It's not just scheduling, though.  Not even close.  Remember back in the 90's, when people grandly predicted how paperless we'd be by now?  How efficiently offices of the 21st Century would run?  Yeah, right.  Crap is what it is.  I see more filing cabinets in the offices now than I saw way back when, as a kid running around in my dad's place.  I'm not gonna say that his office ran efficiently, because I honestly have no idea, but I will say that if what we have is more efficient than what he worked with, then I feel really, really sorry for him and his coworkers. 

Thing is, back then we knew that filing was a resource.  A company had to maintain certain records, and generally had to do it within a certain number of cubic feet.  People went to school to learn how to efficiently run an office--how to run that cool mimeograph machine, how to use comb bindings, and yes, even how to set up a filing system.  In fact, the latter bit was one of the more important parts.  People even used to put "filing" on their resumes, remember? 

Now, it takes me all day to find a form sometimes, because I have to search in the various places on the Sharepoint site, looking through folders that are all over the site but all named "forms," and when I don't find it there I go look through the S: drive, and if I strike out there, there's always the T: drive and the U: drive to search, and by that point I've chewed through yet another mouse cord in frustration and then asked my assistant about it, only to learn that it's actually in the first place I looked but called something different by file name.  Called something I'd've never guessed in a million years. 

Something like "Evaluation Form," when the top of the document clearly says it's an "Instructor Observation Form," which is precisely what I wanted to use it for.   It's under the Es, not the Is, in the great big flooded sea of MS Word-based computer files. 

True story, that.

Gotta love modern efficiency, right?  But you know what?  The qualities that make an office run effectively and efficiently haven't changed.  They haven't changed since my dad's time.  They haven't changed since before then, either.  It's still the same basic thing: accessing information and using it to make decisions and effect change.  That's it.  Sometimes technology helps, but more often it just makes us faster at being ineffective and inefficient. 

Writing is like that (yes, once again--you knew I was eventually going there, right?).

Back in high school, I was Editor in Chief of the little paper there, called the "Tyro Times."  It was a job I was grossly underprepared for, having only written occasional articles for the community section of the San Bernardino local paper, but I'd applied, and so had the guy who'd been with the paper for the entirety of his high school years, and I showed up for the interview and he didn't.  Thanks to my presence, I was granted (for one semester only--I ceded the position to him at Christmas) the unique privilege of being go-between for all my "reporters," who couldn't type, and the typesetter, who required stuff to get to her in a typed format.  Thus, I learned to type at really fast rates of speed, mostly so that I could still get some sleep the nights before an edition release. 

Back then, publishing took a while, which was pretty much okay.  We typed our stories and submitted them to the typesetter, who would block everything out and get it set to print.  It would then be printed and delivered.  Total time was a few days.  The pros, who had typesetters and printing presses on site, were able to turn it around overnight, and that was pretty cool. 

Today, if doesn't have a blurb about an explosion over in the Middle East within a few minutes of it happening, we as a society start going nuts. 

Question: are we that much more informed as a result?  Not really.  I mean, people still apparently think India is mostly populated by Arabs. 

I read an interesting anecdote once, placed at the end of one of his Incarnations of Immortality books, of how the great Piers Anthony transformed his writing techniques from the ancient typewriter he'd always used to a modern computer.  It was fascinating, reading about the machinations he went through, including mapping a Dvorak keyboard over the IBM one and then re-mapping keys to do specific stuff.  Fascinating, fascinating, fascinating. 

And here's the deal.  When asked in an interview what the impact was on his writing, he didn't gush about how much better it made him.  It was a simple mechanical productivity improvement, because he only had to type it once instead of twice.  That's it.   

Now that we have technology, nearly everybody is a writer.  All it takes is a word processing software package, a matter of however many hours it takes to put your story onto paper, and Internet access, and blam!  You're a published author.  Sort of.  But now, there are hundreds of thousands of books available in a space where twenty years ago we wouldn't have had a tenth the number of choices.

And you know what?  The overall quality hasn't improved. 

Now, I'm not saying anything bad about Indies.  I love my fellow Indies.  Some of what they've turned out rivals the quality (in a good way) of what the traditional publishers have done.  Some of what the traditional publishers have done, just like some of what the Indies do, is a great big smelly pile of crap, too. 

Because you know what?  The basic qualities of a good story haven't changed.  They haven't changed since the days of Piers Anthony's typewriter banging.  They haven't changed since the days of Mark Twain.  They're the same basic stuff: conflict, character, plot arc.  That's it. Sometimes technology helps, but more often it just makes us faster at producing crap.

Y'all have fun today!


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