Is information technology change good?

Two different takes on the subject of IT change

If you’re reading this magazine, you’re probably not a Luddite. You probably believe that technology change is inevitable and generally also good. I bought a new PC this week that came with a shocking two gigs of RAM, so I’m right there with you.

But a couple of new analyst studies this week cast doubt on the notion that information technology change is good. A report from New York-based Frost & Sullivan, for example, explains that automation-software vendors in Europe are facing a challenging task as they try to convince factory-floor users there to upgrade from legacy Programmable Logic Controllers to more modern HMI (Human Machine Interface) and SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) systems.

Although Internet connectivity to the shop floor offers major benefits such as remote monitoring and management -- not to mention convenience -- users are apparently more concerned about increased security vulnerabilities and reliability for mission-critical applications. Sounds a bit like the “long live the mainframe” argument all over again: the mainframe’s paid for, it’s been running flawlessly for 30 years, it takes very few people to run -- why would you ever migrate off it? (Hint: Web apps).

Get Back to Work: A second study, from New York-based research outfit Basex, offers a different take on the subject of change. In a report called “The Cost of Not Paying Attention: How Interruptions Impact Knowledge Worker Productivity,” CEO and Chief Analyst Jonathan Spira notes that with all the high tech communication tools available on our desks today, it’s amazing any actual work gets done at all.

“Knowledge workers can be their own worst enemy,” asserts the report, noting that most people have little self-restraint (for example, they open e-mail the minute it arrives). He also estimates the productivity cost of such time wastage to be $588 billion a year in the U.S. alone. But the key point here is that three of the four most time-wasting technologies (phone, e-mail, instant messaging, and Web surfing) have emerged only in the past 20 years.

Twenty years ago, the study notes, you could just shut the door to your office and not answer the phone. Today, however, more people work in nontraditional, less structured (“non-Dilbertian”) environments, carry always-on devices, and don’t make as much of a distinction between work and personal life. This latter point struck a chord for me: This week my DSL has been down (don’t ask -- my 5-year-old modem can no longer seem to establish a PPPoE connection) and it’s sure been nice!