Monday, August 9, 2010

Why Your Boss Doesn't Understand the Information Age

I was born during the Truman administration, was a teen in the sixties, and earned my first college degree in the seventies. If I'd followed a conventional 'success' career track, I'd probably be in an upper-level management or an executive position by now.

Even from an old-school career-track mindset, considering what happened to the Big Three automakers: that's probably just as well. (December 12, 2008)

Important Executives and a Changing World

Here's a story of two people. It's fiction: the people aren't real; but the situation they were in is, I think, not all that uncommon.

Mr. Jones Wasn't Stupid

First, M. J. Jones. He was born around 1910, was a marginally adequate student in elementary school and dropped out in his mid-teens, to help with the family business. After the Great Depression, Mr. Jones applied for - and got - a sales position with a major corporation. He was very good at it, and his supervisor decided to see how Mr. Jones would do, coordinating a few other salesmen.

Mr. Jones, it turned out, was a brilliant manager. He kept his team motivated, increased sales - and got promoted.

Mr. Jones got a reputation for being a very loyal boss. He supported members of his team, occasionally taking key people with him during promotions. He brought the secretary he'd worked with in his first management post along with him, all the way to the corner office with "Vice President for Sales and Marketing" on the door.

In his autobiography, co-authored with his secretary and published after his retirement, a little secret came out.

Mr. Jones could barely read.

He recognized words like "rest room," "exit," and "stop," and could with great effort work his way through something written at about a 5th grade reading level: but that was it.

He wasn't stupid. At all. He had remembered details of every report that crossed his desk and kept track of a staff the size of a small town. But he'd never learned to read.

From the start, he insisted that reports be read aloud to him: saying that if you couldn't say something in five minutes or less, you didn't have anything worth reading. He also claimed, with some reason, that a sales staff who couldn't speak clearly and coherently should have other jobs.

He'd confided in his secretary on the first day of that first managerial job. She'd worked for management types with bad handwriting: and appreciated a boss who didn't give her illegible memos.

Not Everybody Can Read

Unrealistic? Hardly.

When I was growing up, folks in America were beginning to realize that some of us simply aren't wired for reading. Dyslexia is one of the better-known situations of that sort.

And some folks, like Mr. Jones, lived in a time and under circumstances which didn't encourage expending the sort of time and effort it takes to develop reading skills.

These days, in America at least, it's less likely that someone will go through school without a reading deficit going undetected.

On the other hand, you may know someone like this fellow:

N. O. Jones isn't Lazy

N. O. Jones, M. J. Jones' nephew, can read pretty well, although he doesn't have much time for 'unproductive' reading. Before he graduated from high school, N. O. decided that he wanted to work in a corner office and have a company car, like his uncle.

N. O. studied hard, worked his way through college, and graduated with an MBA. After that, his career track was fairly similar to his uncle's. Today, N. O. Jones reads reports in a corner office overlooking Lake Michigan.

There's a computer on his desk, but N. O. only uses it when he absolutely has to.

While he was in high school, assignments that absolutely had to be typed were done by N.O.'s younger brother, from N.O's handwritten copy.

In college, N. O.'s girlfriend typed his reports.

On the job, N. O.'s hunt-and-peck typing method kept him going until his position warranted access to a clerical pool - and later a secretary.

Unlike his uncle, N. O. Jones' lack of keyboard competence was fairly well-known. And, if anything, increased his status: as someone who was too important to have 'merely clerical' skills.

N. O. Jones had heard about computers while growing up: but didn't pay much attention to science fiction stuff like that. His nerdy younger brother - but that's another story.

Back in the 90s, N. O. read something about a "World Wide Web" in a report from one of his area's regional offices. He made a note to tell his younger brother about it, and went back to the serious business of managing his department.

Around the turn of the millennium, N. O. had his secretary circulate a memo that all reports and memos must be printed on paper and filed in accordance with department policy. He'd heard that his staff had been communicating with each other with something called "electronic mail."

He prided himself on being broad-minded about office chatter: but company business had to be done in a business-like fashion. No nerdy toys for his department!

Eight years ago, after several key staff members quit over the issue, N. O. Jones carefully studied various proposals, and finally allowed his department to use "electronic mail."

N. O. Jones isn't Stupid

The younger Jones, like his uncle, isn't stupid.

He's specialized.

N. O. Jones decided, in his teens, that he wanted to pursue the conventional management-executive career track with a major American corporation. And he succeeded.

That sort of career takes many qualities, including a sort of discipline which often doesn't leave room for learning "useless" skills.

Like being able to type.

Typewriters, Technology, Skills, and Me

After a less-than-adequate experience with a high school typing class, I enrolled in a summer program at a business college and learned touch-typing. After I passed, my speed was around 50 to 60 words per minute: which was adequate for the clerical jobs I've had from time to time.

Time passed. I learned a good-enough way to deliver plants across town, how to be a radio disk jockey, and what was called "desktop publishing" at that time. I was working for a small publishing company when the Web emerged: and was one of two people on the staff who was even marginally comfortable when working with a computer.

I wound up being "the computer guy," among other things.

I'm not a 'techy.' My son knows more about what's now and wow in information technology than I do. But I do try to keep up with the times.

Back in my youth, someone who didn't think a business needed a telephone might have been right. Some outfits with a strictly local, walk-in clientele still don't need the added expense of a telephone. But they're few and far between.

Today, I think some of the clueless online behavior we see - particularly for the larger, well-established companies - may be credited to important executives: who have been too busy and too important as the decades passed to notice that the world has changed.

3 comments:

Brigid said...

Coma doesn't belong here: "what's now and wow in information technology, than I do"

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Brian, aka Aluwir, aka Norski said...

Brigid,

I see that. Thanks.

Brian, aka Aluwir, aka Norski said...

Everybody else,

Here's an example of what not to do, when leaving a comment. I generally delete spam, but this sort of ties in with the post.

I changed nothing in the two comments which I copied and pasted below - apart from removing the links.

At the risk of stating the obvious: If you're trying to induce others to spend money on your service, don't foul up your spam this way:

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