The real Digital Natives are those of us from the 70's
Let’s see how the first generation that doesn’t know how to do anything without a computer completely changed the world of work. And why that technological revolution was completely different from previous ones. Both contain the keys to the digital transformation in which we are involved.
If you are in your 40s or 50s, your first workplace looked like this:
You entered a world of work where personal computers were presumed to become your core work tool. To me of 25 years ago, that seemed natural. I had done lots of laboratory practices with computers at the University, and I had a brand new 386 at home, with which I made my Final Year Project. In fact, were my parents who made me see that having a computer was something exceptional. They were the first generation of “white-collar workers” in my family and developed most of their professional lives in a workplace like the one below.
…just the same I would have found myself if I had started working five or ten years earlier.
The PC provided something we lacked before: a tremendous capability for both computation and information processing. And that computing power also came with the ability to connect to an infinite number of computers and information sources.
With the help of different types of programs, our PC could now assimilate and process Megabytes of information. We could explore files, cross-reference tables, visualize data and graphics and even build small databases.
On the other hand, e-mail and Internet access exponentially multiplied the amount of information we could obtain and exchange. The Information, freed from the physical support of paper, came to us in great quantity. We could assimilate it because we had the computing capacity and tools to order and study it.
The PC brought us the “democratization” of access to information processing capabilities for the first time.
If we want to talk about Digital Transformation, we should reflect on the one we have played a leading role, without realizing it. The PC brought us the “democratization” of access to information processing capabilities. If we want to understand the importance of this revolution we must go back much earlier. Let us review the successive transformations that information technologies introduced in companies and organizations.
Information Technology in Companies and Organizations
Every human organization provides services through the transformation of physical or intangible goods. Handling information is essential to any activity, even if it is only for inventory and workflow management. The spectacular development of the 20th-century economy would have been impossible without the technologies that made it possible to process, store and distribute information on a massive scale.
The spectacular development of the 20th-century economy would have been impossible without the technologies that made it possible to process, store and distribute information on a massive scale.
In a nutshell, we can distinguish four major stages in the evolution of information technologies in companies. Each one has involved a growing number of machines and processes and has led to the automation of increasingly specialized and diverse activities.
1ª Era: The Mainframe
Let’s think back to the ’50s and ’60s and those first computers that occupied entire halls. Only a handful of people could understand and operate them.
We are dealing with a time when computers were almost a handcrafted product, tremendously expensive. Only large companies could afford such an investment. These early computers had to be designed ad-hoc for each customer since programming was closely coupled to the hardware itself. These machines incorporated the most basic and essential operations of the company and gave rise to a notable increase in production capacity.
2nd Era: The arrival of Unix machines
It was clear that companies needed more and more information processing capabilities to coordinate their activities, and that the mainframe model could not grow at that pace. During the 1960s and 1970s, companies such as IBM, NEC, and General Electric designed more manageable computers with more flexible operating systems, customizable to different needs. That ushered in a golden age of business process automation.
Information technology solutions could finally rely on mass-produced hardware rather than handcrafted hardware. Operating systems and the programs built on top of them could be flexibly adapted to the needs of each customer, independently of the hardware.
At this time (1975–1990), large automated systems were deployed to coordinate the auxiliary operations of the companies: The first systems of Provisioning, Contracting, Invoicing, and Collections. But also those of Human Resources, Logistics, Economic Control, or Relations with Suppliers. The company, seen as a set of task flows with different focuses, began to entrust the management of all its activities to information systems.
During the 1970s - 1990s, the company began to entrust the management of all its activities to information systems.
The large Corporate Information Systems stored the relevant information for each activity and recorded with the highest fidelity each and every step to be executed in each operation. Traceability of any operation was essential to ensure that it was completed, and to know its status at all times.
Focused on Operations, Corporate Systems make it possible to industrialize company processes, thus executing a large volume of activity at a really low cost per operation. This is the only way to address the exponential growth in the volume of products and services that we have seen in all sectors in recent decades.
The most faithful image of this type of system is an assembly line. A flow of tasks where the role of human beings is to be at the service of the chain, entering data at different points of the process and executing what it requires.
In a way, humans become the flexible end of a chain of execution “set in stone”. The price of mass automation of activities is paradigmatic rigidity and great difficulty in changing any process.
The price of mass automation of activities is paradigmatic rigidity and great difficulty in changing any process.
There is another considerable price: the systems are optimized for quick response to queries about individual operations. It is really complicated to obtain aggregate information from them. Just what you need to make decisions.
3rd Era: The x86 Revolution
Throughout the 1980s, several companies (Sinclair Spectrum, Commodore, Amstrad…) developed personal computers whose price and features were affordable even for a domestic market. However, it would be the magic combination of Intel processors of the x86 family (the 286, 386, or 486 of our youth) with Microsoft’s Windows Operating System, initially on IBM computers, that would eventually explode and spread as a de facto standard. Wintel computers (Windows + Intel) went on to occupy with equal success the desks of students and workers around the world.
With the advent of the personal computer, a whole new universe opened up in business. The PC provided three revolutionary ingredients:
1º) It made available to everyone a great computing capacity for all kinds of applications: analyzing data in spreadsheets, writing documents enriched with images, preparing presentations… Studying data, extracting information, and sharing it had never been so accessible.
2º) It was the gateway to a huge amount of information. The development of web pages made it possible to share and expose information of all kinds in a simple way. E-mail multiplied the possibilities of communication between people far beyond what could be shared with voice calls or face-to-face meetings. The limitations of time and space for two (or more people) to share something in common disappeared.
3º) It was the key piece for anyone to be able to program and execute information analysis operations on large volumes of data with a machine. Firstly, office tools and, secondly, user-friendly programming environments lowered the barriers to entry for this purpose. Information analysis definitely left the realm of “computer scientists” and “computer science”.
With the PC, information analysis and processing has definitely left the realm of “computer scientists” and “computer science”.
The x86 revolution strongly differed from previous ones, as changes were not driven by the technology, or by those who implemented it. The formula was completely different: people received the means to do new things, and it was left to them to change the ways of working and reorient their activity.
The x86 Revolution differed from previous ones in that the changes were not driven by the technology, or by those who implemented it. Users became the protagonist of change, as they found an infinite number of uses for the means now available to them.
So we could welcome the “knowledge worker” who spends most of his time studying the information available to him and deciding which activities to prioritize or undertake. The knowledge worker is not a person at the service of an automated process, although he may participate in it. It is a person who decides which activities to incorporate into the process, in which order we must attend them, and which to take out of the execution. He is a decision-maker.
The knowledge worker is not a person at the service of an automated process, although he may participate in it. It is a person who decides, based on information analysis, what should be executed, and how.
When we talk about decision support tools, everyone thinks of the impressive dashboards designed to monitor the activity of top management. Big mistake: a company develops its operations thanks to thousands of decisions made daily by people working with rather ugly data tables. These tables integrate information from different corporate systems, internal sources, and lots of hours of analysis by those who have designed them to be their essential tool.
Thanks to the PC, we went from Operational oriented organizations to Decision-making organizations based on analysis.
All this happened little by little, over many years. Thanks to it, we went from organizations at the service of the most operative to organizations where the decision of what to do first, or what changes to make to adapt to a changing market, had more and more weight. In an increasingly complex environment, only organizations with a great capacity for adaptation could survive.
The key to this process was the redistribution of computing capacity and information processing. The bulk of the information needed to run the business neither resided nor was generated on corporate systems. It resides and is created on the PCs of the hundreds of employees in the company. Let’s look at this in detail.
The bulk of the information needed to run the business is created and stored in on employees’ PCs, not in Corporate Systems.
Where the information and computing power resides
Perhaps the best way to appreciate the x86 revolution is to represent the distribution of computing capacity (+storage + communications) within organizations.
The drawing seeks to give an idea of the first two eras of information technologies, focused on the automation of the essential and auxiliary operations of the company. By making the technology cheaper and easier to use, Unix Servers provided a much greater capacity than the previous technology. To access the information stored in the systems, users operated terminals that were mere input/output devices, without the possibility of carrying out any processing of the information obtained.
The organization is focused on purely operational tasks. It is a factory capable of producing mass volumes but little variety. By automating processes, we have made them much more immovable.
And that is where our third era comes in.
Providing everyone with a PC is a game-changer. Although with less powerful machines, distributed computing capacity is far superior to centralized computing. This capacity to process information, supported by tools, and fed by access to information of all kinds (internal and external), completely changes the approach to work.
But the key to this revolution is the end-user. He/she can decide what information he/she will need and how he/she will study it. He/she seeks sources to enrich the information available to him/her and to make decisions. Let’s not forget that Corporate Systems are focused on activity. For example, to see cross-commercial information related to a specific installation, a person must extract data from two different systems and combine them. The PC allows him/her to make this analysis, identifying situations that were previously impossible to detect.
Within the complexity of each organization, each user becomes a specialist in a particular aspect of an activity. There are no longer generic profiles or training. The employee receives a “mission”, tools, and with all this, he/she must identify what he needs to carry out.
His/her first concern is to find sources of information that can help him/her organize the work in the tangle of Corporate Systems. Everyone wants to “download” to their PC the summary lists of the status of the different operations, to study, combine and cross-reference data. The demand for information from Corporate Systems is skyrocketing, and it is difficult for them to respond. For two reasons: they are designed to execute processes with maximum reliability and traceability, and to make requests of specific operations fast. That means that general or massive queries greatly penalize the performance or are simply impossible.
In addition, each system has its peculiarities concerning these queries. The entry barrier of learning what information each one has, what the used codifications mean, how to obtain a list… is years old.
All these problems make it necessary to create specific infrastructures to facilitate standardized access to the information residing in different systems and elaborate cross-references and relevant combinations of this information. Data warehouses have been born as intermediaries between users and Corporate Systems to overcome the barriers of access to the final information and perform the first information processing. It is still the user who executes the final processing from a wide variety of sources to create on his PC the tools for his work. However, the first information gathering, and processing comes from the Data Warehouse.
We have moved from an organization focused on the Operational to an organization focused on Analysis, Decision, and Adaptation to market conditions. That is key to staying afloat in a highly competitive and continuously changing environment.
We can now welcome the 4th Era of information technologies.
4th Era: Software as a Service + Cloud. Who will take the lead?
Without the perspective of history, which has helped us understand previous eras, it is difficult to explain the enormous changes we are living in today. Giving users a versatile tool o access and provide information, the PC, completely changed the enterprise. The Cloud Computing and Software as a Service (SaaS) models repeat this process, this time without the need to put those means on our desks. The enormous development and ubiquity of communication networks over the last 20 years have made this possible.
Today, a worker who needs to analyze a lot of information is no longer constrained by the capabilities of his PC. He can access powerful computing resources in the “Cloud” and specialized Software, which far exceeds the possibilities of office applications. This new revolution is once again in the hands of the applications and uses that users may deploy, and will take place at the pace at which they incorporate and propose new ways of working.
Digital Transformation is a matter of time. The time it takes for users to discover how to take advantage of these new possibilities. That will allow them to develop their next tools and ways of exchanging information in the company. It is a change in worldview, habits, and skills. That can in no way be forced “from outside” or “from above”. It is a matter of learning and personal discovery. Let’s not forget that Learning is 10% Formal, 20% Social, and 70% Experiential.
The PC revolution led to entirely different Enterprises, thanks to all the changes brought about by the users. If we want to repeat this success story, we have to do the same we did before: give the users the means, and let them do what they do best: experiment and create new things. They will do the rest.
And while we wait, let them brag to their children that they were the protagonists of a true digital revolution before them.