Posts Tagged ‘work’

The End of an Error

March 10, 2018 Leave a comment

About 4 years ago my wife decided she would leave teaching (mainly because the school she taught at was managed by a bunch of incompetents, and the roll had reduced so much that some of the teachers were made redundant) and open a business of her own, in this case a cafe. Now, anyone who has been involved in owning or managing a cafe at this point is probably already thinking “bad idea”, and in many ways they would be right.

Why? Because it seems to be almost impossible to make any money from that kind of business, plus for the privilege of making little, if any money, the owner/manager has to work 12 hours a day – starting at 5 in the morning – 6 days a week.

But that’s not the worst of it either, because maybe an even more overwhelmingly soul-sapping aspect of owning a small business is the excess of mindless bureaucracy involved which results in very little of any value.

Of course, Inland Revenue is probably the worst offender, closely followed by other organisations like the local City Council. Then there are a collection of lesser parasites like insurance agents, body corporates, various health and safety organisations, lawyers, business experts, and advertisers.

I have a “real” job but also helped with running the cafe, especially with administration and accounting. Yes, you read that right: I helped with the tasks I most despise. While I felt as if most of them were a waste of time, at least I did gain a few skills in that area – but skills I hope I never have to use again!

On the other hand I did learn some more interesting stuff too. For example, at one point I was doing some baking and managed to make some pretty decent batches of scones and muffins. I never quite perfected making consistently good coffee though – that is a lot harder than you might think!

But getting back to the admin tasks. I had some major issues with those, so let me list a few of them here.

First, tax. Now I know that the two most onerous tax activities – GST and PAYE – are not actually costing me anything because I am just collecting tax for the government by adding an extra amount to prices and wages, but I do object to the amount of effort involved in doing that work. If the Inland Revenue Department (IRD) want to collect tax on sales of goods and services and on wages why don’t they do the work and collect the money themselves?

If I took the amount of time people spend on tax gathering activities (on behalf of the IRD) and multiplied by the number of businesses in New Zealand, it must come to a truly horrendous amount of time. How does IRD get away with this travesty of bureaucratic time wasting? Because they can. They can make whatever rules they like – whether they are fair or not – and impose them on whoever they want.

Note that I am not against tax, in fact far from it. It’s not paying the tax that worries me, it is the amount of time a person like myself, who is talented in many areas, wastes on doing IRD’s work for them.

And other government agencies are maybe even worse. We had to collect a payment from one employee, who had been incorrectly paid a benefit, and process the payment for the department involved. If we didn’t do this – even though it was nothing to do with us and had happened before we even employed the person – we would be fined. Again, this is an arbitrary and unfair law which was created simply because it could be.

Then there are the other forms of bureaucracy. The local council’s hygiene regulations are particularly silly. My wife took that very seriously and she maintained high standards, but I know that the inspection is more to do with paperwork being filled in correctly rather than any real measures designed to optimise food safety. I know other cafe owners who had terrible standards but kept the paper work up to date and achieved the top rating as a result.

My advice is to ignore the hygiene rating you see displayed at food premises, because that is just a measure of how well the person does documentation. Instead, have a look around any place you visit and search for signs of neglect.

It might seem to many people that running a small business is a truly worthwhile undertaking. Small businesses employee a lot of people and contribute significantly to the economy. And the government spends a lot of time talking about how important small businesses are, and how they want to encourage people to start one.

But they sure have a strange way of showing their enthusiasm. If they really wanted people to start a small business, why can’t the government and other authorities make the whole process a lot easier?

I’m sure that people running a cafe would rather make use of their talents in areas like baking, cooking, and hospitality instead of wasting hours every week on meaningless paper work. And I’m sure a struggling business where the owner is effectively making less than the minimum wage while working 70 hours a week would appreciate not having to pay provisional taxes on money which hasn’t even been earned yet.

I am contemplating becoming self-employed myself in the near future, but the advantages of being free of the stupidity of ignorant and dogmatic management decisions are at least partly negated by the dread I have of processing GST and other time-wasting accounting.

People might say that spending that time on tax calculations is just part of their “civic duty” as a citizen, but is it really? Would it not be better for the country if people spent their time doing what they’re good at? Why is accounting considered something everyone has to do, or pay an exorbitant fee to some accountant to do for them.

So yes, the end of our cafe means the end of processing payrolls, GST returns, tax payments, employer returns, hygiene certificates, building safety checks, and various other nonsense I can’t even bear to contemplate right now. It’s like the end of an era… or should that be end of an error?


A Better West

March 3, 2018 Leave a comment

In my last blog post I talked about how most economic and social indicators show the superiority of Western civilisation, but I also mentioned that I recognise that it has real problems. Today I want to talk about one of the biggest problems: our work environment.

This seems to be a major flaw in our society because the majority of people feel disillusioned with their work, and because work is still the most important part of many people’s lives, this seems to be an immediate issue which we should be paying attention to.

As I have said in previous posts, there will probably be no need for most people to work at some point in the not too distant future, so the problem might go away then, but no doubt that will introduce a whole pile of new problems as a result. But that aside, what can be done about work dissatisfaction until then?

Before I answer that I should mention another significant issue with modern society: inequality of pay. It is not unusual to find situations where CEOs, and other high ranking position, are paid at a rate which is hundreds of times more than the median rate for the company they are in charge of. I would say this is unjustified because I see no reason to think that most CEOs are doing a lot more than what any reasonably intelligent person could do, but even if it was justified from that perspective, would it be desirable anyway?

Also there are the biggest barriers to people enjoying their work, according to many surveys: lack of autonomy, incompetent and excessively authoritarian management, and micromanagement and unwarranted bureaucracy and paper work. Note that many studies indicate these factors not only prevent people from enjoying their work, but they prevent the organisation working efficiently as well.

Finally, there is a common situation in many companies (and other types of organisations) where the staff are not motivated to put in extra effort to make the company work better, and this is often related to the other points I have made above. If a person is dissatisfied with their work and is being paid poorly, what motivation do they have to put extra effort into their work?

As you will probably have guessed by now: I have an answer for all of these issues.

Every person in an organisation should take ownership of the day to day operations. Yes, I know that word “ownership” is often used as a business bullshit buzz word and has lost most of its meaning as a result, but I am using it here in a more literal sense.

What I propose is that every person’s pay should be made up from a base rate, plus a bonus depending on how well the organisation is doing. That would encourage people to work more enthusiastically because they would be motivated by their own best interests. They would literally have ownership of the organisation and its profits.

And, of course, because jobs will become increasingly unnecessary, people will get the base amount whether they work or not.

Many companies complain that they cannot afford to pay their workers the minimum wage, especially when there is a call to increase that basic amount. This idea would remove that barrier because everyone would get paid according to what the organisation can actually afford. There would be no false stories about how little is available for pay increases, because they would just naturally occur as a result of the company being successful. And if there was a genuine case of hardship that is allowed for as well, because the everyones’ pay will decrease to compensate.

And decisions could be made based on this system as well. No managers would be necessary because all the parties involved in a decision could be part of it. The vote could be biased towards the higher paid members (because they got that pay through being more highly valued), or to those who have worked there the longest, or maybe towards those who have made successful decisions in the past. Of couse, this would be a computerised voting system so all the details would be accounted for automatically.

Note that there are a few of issues which need to be tackled to make this system work.

One difficulty with this idea comes when the organisation might be (perhaps temporarily) running at a loss. Should the staff then have their part of the loss deducted from the base? I think not, but maybe they should have it deducted from future gains, so that no one ever gets less than the base amount.

Second, the financial position of the company needs to be made known to all interested parties, including the employees. The secrecy which surrounds this stuff nowadays is unnecessary and can too easily be used for dishonest purposes, so I think it should be dispensed with anyway.

Additionally, organisations which are not primarily driven by profit, such as charities, government services, etc, would need to find a different way to evaluate their success. And financial success should not be the only measure of success, even for private companies.

Third, there needs to be agreement on what the minimum base is for everyone and what percentage of profits each member of staff gets. I would suggest a vote amongst all members of the staff assigning value to each position.

You might think that everyone will want to give themsleves all the extra pay but I doubt whether that would happen, because people to have an innate sense of fairness, plus they know that id certain key staff leave as a result of low wages the company will fail.

Fourth, how can his fit in with the current model we have where part of the companies profits are distributed to shareholders? Well, I would like to dispense with that aspect of capitalism completely, because I think the people working at the company should be the only shareholders. Obviously this cannot be done too quickly or suddenly but it should be a long-term aim.

Needless to say, these requirements, especially the second one, present a few difficulties, but every system has difficulties, and I think we need to try new ways of managing work, despite the risks involved.

If everyone is part of the same team, and everyone can gain or lose in the same way that should fix, or at least significantly improve, the problems I listed above. It wouldn’t be easy to do, because the current power elite have a lot to lose, but it’s something which must be done.

Management of Change

December 15, 2017 Leave a comment

My friend Fred (not his real name), who works in a similar organisation and role to me, recently regaled me with a tale of woe regarding the “restructuring” his organisation is going through (I use the word “organisation” here because I would prefer not to say what it is and whether it is a private company or a public institution, but it really doesn’t make any difference to the core message of this post).

One of the farcical aspects of this process is something called “management of change” which basically involves a propaganda campaign which attempts to persuade the participants what a good idea it all is, and to dispose of those who cannot be persuaded as quickly and quietly as possible.

A common complaint made by the perpetrators of these misdeeds against their unwilling victims is that they are resistant to change. That is, they just don’t like new ideas or new ways of doing things, and if they would just be a bit more open-minded and accepting they woud see that the new ideas are good and everything would be OK.

Of course, if the victims really were resistant to change in general then this would be a good point, but Fred always mentions one very pertinent point: that is that it is not change in general that he is resistant to, it is just the type of change which usually occurs.

The managers might say something like “But you don’t like any of the changes we want to make.” and Fred would respond “Exactly. You seem to be incapable of making fair and reasonable decisions, and everything you do is grossly flawed. If you started implementing changes that we actually wanted then we would be fully supportive. Until then, we will resist and sabotage your efforts as much as possible. You are grossly incompetent and we have no confidence in your decisions.”

I can see his point exactly, although he could be said to have a slight tendency towards ranting. I sometimes wonder about Fred’s ranting because it often tends towards the extreme, and having that degree of cynicism and distrust seems a bit unhealthy in some ways.

But here are sorts of changes Fred almost always sees and doesn’t like: more bureaucracy, paperwork, timesheets, accounting records, and other mindless time wasting; more control by management and less self-sufficiency for the actual professionals doing the work; budgets cuts making it harder to get the equipment necessary to work efficiently, to attent conferences, and to get training, at the same time as the organisation wastes huge amounts on pointless projects; and more extreme control and micro-management by managers even though they have no idea what is really required.

And here are the sorts of changes he would fully support: reducing paper-work so that the professionals could actually do the work they are both good at and are ultimately paid to do; letting the workers make decisions based on their expertise and experience instead of following dysfunctional policies devised by people entirely ignorant of the real requirements of the job; diverting some of the funds going to wasteful management projects and using it for basic equipment and training for the people actually carrying out the organisation’s core tasks; and giving the staff the freedom to work the way that works best for them and their clients.

If more (or any) changes came from the second list and not the first then Fred assures me he would be fully supportive of them.

But the saddest thing about these “management mongrels” (Fred’s words) is their total ignorance of how much their staff actually despise them. I mean, Fred often speaks with an air of genuine hatred towards these “worthless scum” (his words again) and he’s not the sort of person to be so negative in general.

He recounts an incident where he was treated with total disdain by the HR department of his organisation, including threats to possibly involve the police, and it was only the intervention of his lawyer which made them back off (and pay him a moderate sum for the stress they caused, because they were obviously wrong). Yet a week after that a senior HR staff member who had been responsible for his persecution casually greeted him on the street as if they were the best of friends.

It’s as if these people are sub-human monsters (his words) and cannot connect with real people. They like to think they are all part of the same team, all working towards the same greater goal, and all good friends, but the complete opposite is true. In fact, they are the enemy and must always be treated as such.

Thomas Paine said that “the duty of a patriot is to protect his country from his government.” Fred would say that it is the duty of every worker to protect his company, institution, etc from its management.

Pointless Jobs

October 15, 2016 Leave a comment

I recently read an opinion piece on the subject of why capitalism has created so many pointless jobs. The idea that increasing automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence would make life easier for people at work has not really worked the way it was predicted to when these trends became more prominent about 80 years ago.

Economist, John Maynard Keynes, predicted that advanced countries would probably reduce the working week to about 15 hours, but that hasn’t happened. In fact, many people are working far more than the traditional 40 hours, and there hasn’t been a conspicuous lack of jobs available for all those people still working for the full week.

So what has happened?

Well a while back I read another piece titled something like “the rise of bullshit jobs” which pointed out that a large fraction of modern jobs are completely pointless and really could be eliminated tomorrow without making any real difference to how efficiently the economy was running.

Our society still values employment very highly and regards unemployment as one of the great social evils to be avoided at all costs. But as technology makes human labour less important shouldn’t we be welcoming the freedom from work, especially the repetitive, unpleasant, and dangerous jobs that really shouldn’t exist?

In a report covering most ot the last century it was found that the number of productive jobs (in manufacturing, agriculture, etc) has crashed but these jobs have been replaced with professional, managerial, clerical, sales, and service workers which have grown from about a quarter to three quarters of the total.

I’m not saying that all jobs in these categories are pointless because they’re not. I myself am a computer consultant/programmer so I guess I would fit into professional or service sector (depending on how highly you rate computer geeks) and I think I perform a needed function. So not all the new jobs are pointless but a lot (maybe most) of them are.

So instead of creating the opportunity for greatly reduced working hours by having the same working population doing the lesser amount of productive work we have created a whole pile of pointless jobs to fill the void. The most ironic thing is that it often people who work in these jobs who complain about the lack of “productivity”, even though it is precisely them who are causing it!

So let’s have a look at the type of job mentioned in the article that the author regarded as being in the “pointless” category: private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs, legal consultants, most administrators, financial service professionals, health administrators, human resources experts, and academic administrators.

These are the sort of people who I often see the blanket term “worthless bureaucrats” being used to describe. It may be that there is a need for these professions to exist at a certain level, but a case could be made that we could dispense with them completely and make the world a better place.

Because the title “pointless jobs” is actually a bit too generous. These people are not only a complete waste of time and space but they actually make the people who are doing the real work less effective and productive. If a worker is constantly interrupted with the need to do pointless paperwork to keep a bureaucrat happy, for example, that bureaucrat doesn’t just have zero value, he or she is actually worse than useless!

And the argument that administrators take some of the burden of the paper work away from the workers doesn’t really work. What is that paper work for? In most cases it is just pointless nonsense to keep another bureaucrat happy who can then use the meaningless information collected to keep an even more senior bureaucrat informed on a subject she/he knows nothing about and is simply being mislead about through junk information. And inevitably the workers are the original source of the information so it is their time which is wasted in creating it.

I do have to say that blaming capitalism for this is arguably a bit unfair. One of the worst places I have seen it is in schools where teachers are expected to teach bigger and more difficult classes while at the same time coping with an increasing burden of reporting, evaluation, and generation of other, mostly pointless, nonsense.

Schools aren’t generally thought of as being run on capitalist models, although modern education does more closely follow the board, CEO, senior management model and have financial constraints as an important aspect of its operational principles. So technically schools aren’t capitalist entities but the rise of neoliberalism has ensured that many capitalist ideologies are followed.

But capitalism is supposed to create efficiencies because each company wants to optimise its income. Surely having a whole layer of bureaucracy stifling greater productivity is an anathema to this ideal?

Well, no. Because companies are run by boards and senior managers who are exactly the type of person who start the bureaucratisation process. It’s hardly likely that these people are going to suddenly experience an epiphany and say that managers are parasites, considering they would be describing themselves.

The other critical factor is what is often referred to as the “Protestant work ethic”. This isn’t to say that everyone who rate the simple fact of working as being virtuous has to be a Protestant, it’s more just that this is where it is often thought to derive from.

And in the past, when there was little automation available, hard work was a genuine advantage to society and many of the advances in Europe and America stemmed from it. But it’s just not relevant any more.

It’s time to make it OK to spend more time on interests, leisure activities, sporting goals, and other non-work related pursuits. We can make society operate on a 15 hour working week. And eventually maybe a zero hour week. People will still do things, but it will be the things they want to do instead of what they have to do. And society will be so much better as a result.

Pointless, Unproductive, Unnecessary

June 4, 2016 Leave a comment

I have a category in my calendar called “administrivia” which is especially reserved for trivial administration tasks. In fact the word “trivial” above was probably superfluous because I think all administration is trivial. Anyway, I don’t use the category much because I do tend to minimise the amount of this sort of work I do, a tendency which often gets me into a certain amount of difficulty with people who take such tasks more seriously than I do!

Although I find it hard to give administration the respect some people think I should, I do recognise that a certain amount is necessary to keep things running smoothly. It is the all too common situation where administration becomes a prime function in itself instead of what I think it should be – an unfortunate supporting function which should be minimised – where I think we have got things wrong.

A recent survey of time wasted doing administration supports this point. The survey was carried out by Kronos, a company which sells web-based management systems. Of course, this should immediately cause a bit of skepticism and perhaps even cynicism because this company has a lot to gain from convincing people they need to streamline their administration and management systems! However, I think the general points the survey makes are valid.

So the basic claim is that New Zealand companies are throwing away billions every year because of time wasted doing pointless, unproductive, and unnecessary administration tasks. Kronos claim that “internal red tape” is costing businesses in New Zealand and Australia $61 billion per year. That is on average $4200 per employee per year, or 3 hours per week wasted. To be honest, I find it a bit difficult to believe it isn’t a lot more.

The survey also showed that 70% of people thought that they weren’t productive because of the environment they were forced to work in. The managing director of the regional branch of Kronos thinks that productivity issues are due to failures in management rather than problems with the actual workers. Again, I think most people could have told him that without the need for a survey.

In addition to these points there was the remarkable finding that 52% of HR managers didn’t view people as one of their organisation’s top 3 assets. I believe that HR is one of the most vile and worthless components of the modern workplace so, again they are preaching to the converted, but even I was somewhat surprised that an attitude like that could possibly exist.

I mean, how could anyone think that the organisation’s staff aren’t, if not first, then at least second or third in order of importance? I guess these deluded management types could maybe rate managers and share-holders one and two, and even that would be wrong, but surely staff should be at least third! And these aren’t just any managers either, they are HR managers. They seem to think the “resource” they are tasked with managing isn’t important. Does that not make them unimportant as well? I suspect they don’t really see it that way.

The recommendations included the following: reduce back office functions, install efficient systems to manage essential tasks (yes, a bit self-serving, I think), automate mundane tasks where possible, and invest in employees and make life easier for them. One of the presenters also offered this: dismantle HR departments which was deemed a “shade extreme”.

Naturally, I would go a lot further and not only dismantle HR departments but all of the worthless and counter-productive nonsensical bureaucracies which exist in modern organisations. So I guess that would be seen as more than a shade extreme. It would be seen as properly extreme, but I think also properly necessary.

The management class are constantly demanding extra productivity while creating an environment where the exact opposite is achieved. There is no way that minor adjustments can fix this problem. We need to start again. We must dispense with everything that is pointless, unproductive, and unnecessary.

IT Support 101

July 12, 2015 Leave a comment

As many of the followers of this blog will know, I do IT support and programming for a New Zealand university. After just spending 4 days away from “home base ” doing some quite intense and varied work I thought I might list a few hints for aspiring IT support people and anyone else who might have a passing interest. I have worked in IT since the days of the Apple II and have learned a few things in that time!

OK, here’s some of my best hints…

Hint 1: passwords.

It has been shown to be psychologically impossible for users to remember their passwords, and in the unlikely event that they do remember a password it will be even worse because it will be the wrong one, they will enter 10 times in a row, and they will lock themselves out of their own accounts.

Many users also “don’t have a password” for their email and other services. When you hear this you know you are in trouble because, of course, they do have a password which is provided automatically by the software. Generally on a Mac this can be retrieved from the system keychain – if you can get the master password for that!

Next, if a user has a password and they can remember it then it will most likely be something incredibly secure like “password” or “123” and the clue for these will naturally be “password” or “123”. Also, when you visit the same person several years later it will still be the same.

My solution to this is to give the user a reasonably secure password and record it somewhere safe for them (only with their permission, of course). I would recommend an encrypted document (with a really secure master password) and this will be stored on your hard disk which is also automatically encrypted, right? Bonus hint: get a Mac and use Apple’s built-in system, FileVault 2, which is secure enough for most situations.

Hint 2: help.

It is extremely rare to find a help system in any software which is particularly helpful. In fact I would say that all built-in help systems are basically useless. Luckily there is an alternative: our old friend Google! Yes, google the question or problem (google is now a valid verb meaning to search the web using Google) and you will generally get a much better answer much more quickly than you can get from any help system.

You do have to be aware of one effect though. That is that every new program, computer, or anything else will have many people complaining about its basic deficiencies whether these issues really exist or not. So don’t take too much notice of general comments that a certain system simply doesn’t work, especially when there is a trendy meme on that topic.

Sometimes the problem with googling (a noun derived from the verb google) is finding an answer which is specific enough. I like to include error numbers or unusual words which are more likely to give more specific information. Don’t google “Microsoft Word crash” because you’ll get millions of answers (that particular query might even overload Google!). Try “word mac hangs at launch” or something like that. Even better, use the Console app (on Mac) to check error logs and find more specific error information.

Hint 3: generic solutions.

Have you ever contacted a helpdesk and been told to reset your modem, restart your computer, rebuild a database, re-install your software, or just to “try it again?” Of course you have! These are what I call “generic solutions” and they are usually (but not always) given when the person has no idea what is going on.

That’s not to say that they won’t work or that you shouldn’t use them, but by using them you do lose something. Specifically you lose the chance to really know what went wrong, because the information needed to diagnose the source of the problem might be lost after a reboot, etc.

So I recommend trying to actually solve the issue unless you specifically know of a problem which cannot be fixed realistically any other way. In some cases I use this solution myself, usually when I want a particularly nasty problem to just go away. For example Microsoft Outlook is a horrendous mess which often corrupts its master database. I’ve never figured out why and would prefer it if people just didn’t use the program, but if they do use it and when (not if) the database becomes corrupted a rebuild is an easy solution.

Hint 4: burning bridges.

Some functions we perform on computers cannot be undone, or if they can be it might involve a huge effort. For example, deleting a settings file, because you think it is corrupt, might fix a problem. But on the other hand it might not fix it, and it might create more problems because valuable settings are lost.

So just move it to a new location or rename it instead. Remember that if you just move it some programs will continue to use it, even in the new location, even if that location is the trash! Relaunching the program, including any background processes, will usually persuade it to relinquish control of the file. And yes, reboot if you must!

If the process above doesn’t fix the problem you can just reverse the steps to get back to where you were. Don’t forget that any file re-created when the app launches will be in use and won’t be able to be replaced unless you quit the app first.

Hint 5: everyone is different.

Every user, every job, every computer, and every situation is different. Don’t get too hung up on policies, rules and regulations. These can be useful as general guidelines but I prefer to evaluate every case on its own merits and come up with an optimal solution for the user. Of course, many bureaucrats don’t like this but I always feel I am there for the users, not the bureaucrats.

Naturally this idea is a bit contentious so use it sensibly. If there are corporate requirements which aren’t too onerous it makes sense to follow them rather than risk problems later. Choose which battles are worth fighting!

Hint 6: don’t panic, and be nice.

This is the ultimate hint really and one that can be very difficult to always follow. I do have to say that on occasions I get frustrated with poor infrastructure, substandard programs some people are forced to use, and outdated hardware which really should be replaced, and might launch into a rant regarding the unfairness of it all.

I generally regret these and a simple statement like: “Unfortunately our network is very unreliable so we can’t give a perfect solution to this problem”, or “Yes, Microsoft PowerPoint often does that and I’m sorry but it can’t be fixed by anyone except Microsoft” is more effective anyway.

Also, don’t try to force people into working in a way which doesn’t suit them. When I was a beginner computer support person I tried to persuade people to adopt a zero desktop clutter policy, or to use PDFs instead of printing, but I now realize that is the wrong approach.

Many people just like throwing junk on their desktop even though I believe it is better to reserve it for stuff which is currently being used or awaiting being filed in a permanent location. By the way, the ability to find files amongst the clutter by just typing the first few letters of their name is a revelation to some users!

And most people still really like paper and I can see why because it has a lot of benefits, so let them use paper if they must. Maybe creating a preset to print double-sided might be a more valuable contribution to saving the trees than trying to eliminate paper completely.

Sometimes people have such hideous computer habits that it is worth trying to correct them. For example I once had a user who stored her documents in the trash because then they “wouldn’t use space on her disk”! That was an accident waiting to happen. And if people store so many items on their desktop that they overflow and pile up on top of each other at the top-right of the screen it is worth encouraging them to use an alternative strategy.

A secret stealth weapon I often use is to be nice. Many people get stressed when their computer is misbehaving and they might not treat you as well as they should. But being nice back to them – even if they are being a real ass – is something they might not expect and often works really well.

I once had a senior manager call me and rant about something I had done and when he threatened to never let me work in his department again I said “That’s unfortunate because apart from this I thought we had a really good working relationship”. I then went on to explain why I had done what I had done and he agreed that he had over-reacted. In the end he apologized to me!

So those are my IT support 101 hints. I hope you find them useful. Now I just need to take my own advice and eliminate those rants!


May 10, 2015 Leave a comment

Many people who work in a large organisation look at Dilbert cartoons and think they were written specifically about them. In the unlikely event you are not aware of this cartoon let me briefly explain: it chronicles the life of Dilbert, an engineer in a large company who is part of a system consisting of out of control office politics, inept bosses, lazy and incompetent workers, pointless projects, and meaningless management speak.

The author of Dilbert, Scott Adams, started drawing it in 1989 and it has been hugely successful, appearing in 200 newspapers in 65 countries. Adams has worked in several large companies and has had extensive personal experience with the dysfunction he documents in the cartoon.

I have been a big fan of Dilbert for many years and have some examples, which seem to apply very accurately to my own work situation, on the wall of my office. I thought I might share a few Dilbert cartoons here and discuss why I think they are pertinent to the situation many people are in at work. Of course, it would be unprofessional to discuss my personal experiences so I will discuss those of my friend, Fred (not his real name), who works in a similar environment to me.

Cartoon 1. Talent versus time…

In this cartoon Dilbert asks “Why does it seem as if most of the decisions in my workplace are made by drunken lemurs?” Another character (a garbage collector) says: “Decisions are made by people who have time, not by people who have talent”. Dilbert asks “Why are talented people so busy?”. The reply “They’re fixing problems made by people who have time.”

Regrettably this is so often true. Fred reports that his management effectively have nothing to do except create meaningless paperwork and attend meetings with each other (see another cartoon later in this post), but they do occasionally have to be seen making a decision. These are almost inevitably bad (because the decision makers have no talent), and because management will never admit a mistake the only option is for the people who do the actual work (those with talent) to spend most of their time fixing them.

Cartoon 2. Ignorance and bluffing…

Dilbert’s boss comes up to his desk and says “I think we should build an SQL database”. Dilbert (sensing the manager has learned but not understood a new word) thinks “Uh-oh”. He then thinks “Does he understand what he said or is it something he saw in a trade magazine ad?” So he asks “What colour do you want that database?” The manager replies “I think mauve has the most RAM.”

Fred cites numerous examples of managers who really have no technical skills at all and whose ideas generally originate in management-oriented magazines and other similar sources. As a result they have a totally superficial knowledge that is easily exposed by asking the right questions where their answer will often involve a lot of misused terminology or they will revert to meaningless management jargon instead (every second word will be “cloud” or “agile”). That is one reason they generally make decisions without consulting with anyone who actually knows something about the subject.

Cartoon 3. Laughable superficiality…

Dilbert’s boss walks into his office and announces “It took us three days at the executive retreat to come up with a name for the new procurement policy.” He continues “We named it the procurement operations over-sight policy.” Dilbert asks “POOP?” The manager says “Do you now how many managers it takes to come up with a good name?” Dilbert replies “A few more than you had?”

The management at Fred’s company/organisation (I can’t specify which) did something very similar and came up with similar pointless, laughably childish nonsense. It’s insulting that people actually get paid for doing something that would be considered sub-standard in a primary school but it’s even worse when those same people spend half their life harassing the workers over doubtful claims of them being “unproductive” when management themselves make a negative contribution to productivity.

Cartoon 4. Meetings…

Dilbert’s boss walks into his office and says “Let’s have a little pre-meeting to prepare for the meeting tomorrow.” Dilbert replies “Whoa! Do you think it’s safe to jump right into the pre-meeting meeting without planning it? Then we see Dilbert, his boss and a colleague. The boss says “Okay, let’s get this preliminary pre-meeting meeting going”. The colleague says to Dilbert “You think you’re funny, but you’re not.”

Meetings are a great way for people with too much spare time (see cartoon 1) to do something. Not only does the person whose idea it is to have the meeting use up a lot of spare time but all the other people invited get to do the same thing. It’s not so good when talented people are also required to attend, of course.

Fred reports that on the rare occasions when he attends meetings he sometimes asks what has been actioned from the pervious meeting only to find that nothing was actioned because people were too busy in meetings. The meeting is possibly the greatest farce in the modern workplace.

Cartoon 5. A bit of all of the above…

The boss walks up to the desk of an administrator and says “Carol, schedule a staff meeting.” Carol asks “What’s the topic?” The boss replies “I plan to fuse six sigma with lean methods to eliminate the gap between our strategy and objectives.” Carol says “I’ll just say ‘waste of time’.”

Fred claims that his management team have no clues of their own so tend to lean on whatever trendy management technique they happen to have been exposed to most recently. Management is a subject full of meaningless nonsense or simple, common sense ideas dressed up to look like they have deeper significance. Words like “lean”, “nimble”, and “agile” are used to describe techniques which fundamentally make some sense and are probably being used by the actual workers anyway. But as soon as they are formalised and turned into a bureaucratic nightmare by managers they lose whatever advantages they might have originally had.

In conclusion, it might seem that if the workplace is so much like the farcical world of Dilbert that we have no hope. That’s not quite true because I do occasionally find managers who do quite a decent job. They tend to be the ones who don’t try to over-manage the workers lives and who shelter the people with talent from the worst excesses of higher management.

Also there is the idea that large organisations cannot operate any other way and no matter how ridiculous they seem things cannot really be made much better. There may be some truth in that but if it is true then surely we should abandon all hope now!