Tag Archives: word processing

Folk Wisdom Reversal: Necessity Isn’t the Mother of Invention

This will be hard for anybody under 50 to believe, but there was a time when word processing and spreadsheets were a real productivity advantage.

Are you old enough to remember Visicalc, or maybe SuperCalc? In the very early 1980s, most business people still did budgets with paper and calculator. The spreadsheet power user was way faster than anybody else. It was a great secret weapon for early adopters. It was a huge productivity boost.

Now, of course, we take it for granted. People throw multi-worksheet budgets around like nerf balls. If you’re not done in an hour, well, what’s wrong with you?

It was the same back then with word processing. Are you old enough to remember WordStar? That was power when the competition was working with typewriters. Now, you write fast … so what? So does everybody. Go write your big email and come back in 10 minutes.

Then came desktop publishing in 1985. Can you remember Aldus Pagemaker and the first Apple Laserwriter. It was amazing. Any one person could compete with the graphics department.

And slides? There was Aldus Persuasion, replaced later by Microsoft PowerPoint. When I was with McKinsey Management Consulting back in the early 1980s our office had more graphic artists than consultants, because they had to produce the slides that amazed the clients. How long has it been since anybody was amazed by a slide deck?

Do you see what I mean? At first it’s slick and powerful, doing something way faster than the old way of doing it. And that’s productivity at its best. But soon the advances are taken for granted. The bar of expectations goes up, and you spend the same amount of time.

Which is why the saying is reversed. In these cases, it’s not like it’s supposed to be, necessity as the mother of invention. Invention becomes the mother of necessity.

Does All Of This Improve Productivity?

That’s an interesting question. Ten years ago I would have been tempted to say no, that it hasn’t improved productivity.  More recently I’ve changed my mind.  Running a company makes me sure that we benefit from the power of more detailed budgeting, and running through the daily process of management makes me pretty sure that business documents are generally better communicators with desktop publishing than without.

And the new world of social media, infinite communications possibilities, authenticity and content quality threatening to become more powerful than huge advertising budgets?

What do you think?

(Image: JuditK/Flickr cc)

Goldilocks, Three Bears, and Productivity Software

You may remember that fairy tale in which Goldilocks got herself locked into a repetitive rut about choosing her optimal rocking chair, porridge, and bed softness settings. Every time, for every choice, first it was too little, too much, and then just right.

There’s a lot to say about Goldilocks (and all of her consumer friends) related to business offerings and product development; particularly, software product development. Think about business productivity software.

In productivity software, what most of us want is simple. Easy to use and understand. Hooray. Except that we don’t buy simple. We don’t even buy just right. We buy too complicated. Too hot.

Sure, there are exceptions. Most of them are old-timer exceptions, like the original QuickBooks (vastly simplified checkbook data entry) and VisiCalc (vastly simplified business financial analysis). Maybe there are some this-millennium exceptions too, like possibly Basecamp, Skype, and what else? There aren’t a lot of them. Not when we stick to simple.

I get choosing the big and complex stuff for database management, accounting, even for graphic design. But in productivity software, no. Simple is probably better.

Here’s a problem: we don’t buy simple, at least not easily, not for productivity software. Worse still, we don’t even buy just right. We buy too big, too tall, too hard. We don’t want software companies talking down to us. We don’t want a simple word processor, we want that big word processor that can scrape names off the web and read data and do mailing lists and footnotes and color coding and tracking changes and versions and write from right to left too. We want it to absorb graphics and resize and reshape, and, if we click the right place, add and subtract and tell us our horoscope too.

And then we don’t like it. Everybody wants simple, but nobody buys simple in productivity software.

Am I wrong about this? Is there successful productivity software out there that’s taken the simple and effective strategy, instead of adding everything including the kitchen sink? Tell me, please.

(Image credit: Rob Byron/Shutterstock)

Technology vs Productivity vs Expectations, Oh My

This post title should be recited to the tune of “lions, tigers, and bears, oh my;” that is if you’re old enough to remember The Wizard of Oz, or young (at heart) enough to have seen it as a rerun. It’s rhythmic and its cyclical and it never stops.

Twitter and Facebook and LinkedIn are potential business advantages right now. Believe it or not, Twitter offers me real productivity gains. If you don’t see it yet, you will, later on. Facebook and LinkedIn do that for others (not me, but only because I can’t deal with too many different media). Businesses that manage these facilities well are ahead of the game, for now. If you don’t believe me, look at Zappo’s valuations when Amazon.com bought it.

Soon, though, they’ll be expected. It won’t be that businesses operating on the leading edge get credit. Instead, it will be that businesses operating behind that edge will suffer.

That’s the cycle: technology boosts productivity, and that boosts expectations, so we go back to the start again.

I’ve seen that same cycle for a long time now, over and over. When I started with spreadsheets, in 1980, they were so new that my use of spreadsheets gave me competitive advantage in business school. (That image to the right is a 1979 ad for VisiCalc, the first mainstream spreadsheet). Not any more; everybody assumes spreadsheets. Complicated spreadsheets don’t buy anybody competitive advantage. The same was true, believe it or not, with word processing (yes, there was a time when business people didn’t all understand word processing). Now we all assume that. There was a time when an early personal computer and WordStar software and a daisy wheel printer was a huge competitive advantage. No longer. And the same thing happened with desktop publishing. First it was competitive advantage, but then the bar was raised, and it became merely expected. And with email, and Internet websites. Technology to productivity to expectations to back to the start again.

True, we got better output. Spreadsheets give us better business analysis, word processing gives us better writing tools, and desktop publishing gives us better output. But we don’t spend less time. We just expect more.

(Photo credit: Woosa Rosa/Shutterstock)

Invention vs. Necessity, Upside Down

You know the phrase:

Necessity is the mother of invention.

Right? You hear it a lot.

But what if, in fact, invention is the mother of necessity. Once the technology exists,  we then complicate things, demand more, and use up the productivity gain in raising the quality bar.

Take budgets, for example. I realize it’s hard for most people to imagine a world without ready access to spreadsheets (you’d almost have to be a baby boomer, since spreadsheets and personal computing burst onto the scene in the early 1980s). But spreadsheets changed what we expect of budgets and budgeting. The invention changed what we define as necessity. We can do the numbers now, so we demand more numbers.

Or word processing, and then, a few years later, desktop publishing. The combination completely changed what we expect of business correspondence. You’ll probably find this hard to believe, but there was a time when we wrote letters and memos and mailed them. Yes, I mean using the post office, and postage stamps. Back then, we didn’t get hundreds of letters to answer every day. The invention changed the necessity. We can email now (or tweet, or blog), so the world demands more communication.

And cell phones.  Ah yes, lots of us remember the world before cell phones. We didn’t bug each other nearly as much, back before cell phones, as we do now; we didn’t expect phone calls checking in, updating each other, nearly as much. Less communication was acceptable.

Are we more productive? Who knows? Do we have a choice on the matter? No. Technology goes one way. Whether we like it or not.