September 2002

A lot has changed in the past year. And a lot has not changed.

A year ago, corporations began considering the possible necessity of reduced business travel and the increased usage of telecommunications technology. The idea that travel was suddenly a dangerous and frivolous activity implied that using virtual conferences and Web-based meetings would eventually replace the unnecessary and redundant movement of people.

A year ago, the idea of centralized offices holding large numbers of people began to appear foolhardy. Decentralization of workforces, home-based telecommuting, and de-urbanization of corporations was seen as a potentially life-saving path which would reduce vulnerabilities to a single destructive act at a single location.

A year ago, the concept of secure communications suddenly became more than just a clever spymaster's tool, but rather a corporate mandate and a business necessity. Removal of hacker access points was not only a way to reduce costs, but a method to improve the safety and the welfare of the entire workforce.

But none of these things happened.

Companies stressed by economic considerations and severe oversupply of software-driven products -- a form of "toxic prosperity" in which productivity outstrips need -- have failed to make the cultural changes at the middle and upper levels of management that would be needed to change course. Instead of decentralization and online data exchange, many companies are closing satellite locations and consolidating workforces to save money. Corporate travel, while reduced somewhat, continues to be a major part of the managerial workday. Most travel reductions are actually the result of layoffs that lead to reduced employee rolls, and not due to any significant cultural shift. And data networks have taken on the illusion of increased security by adding extra logon steps or increasing the frequency of password changes, but the underlying infrastructure is as vulnerable as ever.

Why didn't these things change? Why did a major telecom company, deep in the process of selling wireless data services as some kind of "futuristic workforce enabler," recently sack its regional data manager for refusing to relocate his home and his family to another city in a neighboring state? Why did this company order its regional data analyst for telecom provisioning to drive to three cities, 200 miles each way, for a set of 45-minute meetings? Why don't companies put their money where their mouth is, and actually implement the technologies they sell?

Because while conditions change and technology changes, people basically don't change. Not only do they not like change, they don't participate in change, because they don't change themselves. Companies will mouth the words about employees needing to change -- change locations, change work hours, change software versions -- but at management level, people fear change more than anything else. Yes, they fear change more than they fear terrorism!

Another factor in the failure to apply distance-enabling technologies is the fact that IT departments don't like change, either. Change means that IT no longer has an edge on the users, in terms of familiarity with the nuts and bolts of the computerized technology they support. New things -- TRULY new things -- are new to both IT and users, which means that IT loses its carefully-crafted illusion of wisdom and mystical knowledge of computers, a holier-than-thou knowledge that demands an almost priestly deference. The vulnerability of IT is exposed when its people must climb the same learning curve as everyone else.

Therefore, it is more convenient and less embarrassing for IT to maintain the status quo of insecure and unreliable software infrastructures. They merely dress up the outer layers and access points to appear more secure. Try visiting an online 401K management center, and see if things are truly secure or if they have just become more complicated. Read the almost weekly reports of "critical" software holes and the required patches and fixes to hopefully prevent unauthorized entry by destructive external forces.

Newness sounds just fine on the marketing side of things, where such talk has an almost mythical quality, a pied-piper appeal to a fantasy world free of anxiety or fear (but still based on the same old managerial incompetence and intransigence!). But newness means change, and change means fear, particularly at the level of key corporate decision makers. True progress in security, decentralization, and telework cannot come without eliminating the self-aggrandizing comfort of having visible, immediate oversight of the workforce, and the immediacy of movement of people that indicates subservience and dependence in a way that dataflows can never provide.

Sometimes the only way to improve control is to relinquish it.

Most recent revision: August 28, 2002
Copyright © 2002, Tom Nadeau
All Rights Reserved.