Higher speeds = corporate meltdown

I’d like to suggest one probable cause for the increasing instability of employment in large businesses.  The speed of business particle flow is approaching the threshold of human endurance.

Back in the Fifties, when your grandfather was still working, men, and some women, worked long hours under often depressinging conditions, but they handled fewer cycles of action in a day than we do now in a single hour.

They were busy, oh my yes, and everyone scurried around, as I recall, but firing off a memo took two people and an hour to complete. The secretary, remember her, would be called into the managers office and would sit and take notes while the manager dictated the memo. She would type a draft and the manager would review and revise it and she would type a final and he would sign it, and so forth and so on. Then she would put it in a envelope and put it in the outgoing mail for the mail boy. Remember him?

At the end of a long day, a busy manager might look back with satisfaction on a handful of decisions made and a pile of memos sent off. Weekly staff meetings were the norm, but lowly engineers and clerical staff spent most of the time at their desks or the water coolers.

Today, the cell phone rings while you are still eating breakfast. You have at least one life-shaking decision to make before you leave for work, and you have at least two phone calls to make during your commute to your office which is fifteen miles and 90 minutes away on the freeway.

If you have  a Blackberry PDA, your email has been piling up while you drive and you are tempted to look at the latest ones when traffic slows to a crawl.

You get to the office, and your meeting has been cancelled, but
nobody seems to be able to tell you why. It may just be a minor glitch
with quarterly sales projections, but your manager and the higher level
directors are closeted in an unscheduled meeting.

Meanwhile, you still have work to do on a new product release,
Leviathon IV, and you are running out of time and inspiration. Model IV
has fewer real features than III, and it doesn’t address the problems
that your sales people are screaming about.

While you try to resolve this, you plow through 56 emails that have
appeared in your Inbox overnight, and you find one from the Leviathon
design team that says they will have to decommit on the only
significant improvement in Leviathon IV, because the designer has got
himself reassigned to a higher priority project.

While you are laboring to understand what this means to your bonus
and your job, the phone rings and your buddy at another company says,
"You remember that Open Source project…they’ve announced the release
of a Leviathon lookalike that runs on every platform including LINUX."

He may not have his facts right, but your day is already in the toilet and you haven’t had your first cup of coffee.

Meanwhile your cell phone rings and it is your spouse with the news
that the dog is sick or that the kid has been sent home from school for
anti-social behavior and you are needed at the vet or the principal’s
office as soon as you can make it. Your spouse is in a meeting at work
which will not break until 4:30, so it up to you to save the dog, the
kid, and the world.

Multiply this scenario by the number of workers in a large
corporation and you have a picture of highly dynamic instability. Every
person in the company is being bombarded constantly by news and
requests for action.

We live at internet speed, and we are finally getting a good look at
the enormity of the problem has been unleashed. We are pressed to make
more decisions every day than many people made in a week fifty years
ago.  There is no respite.

We are connected up 24×7 to people all over the world. If it isn’t
family and friends, it will be spammers from Nigeria or Saudi Arabia
carefully crafting letters to tap into our bank accounts. Customers,
suppliers and government agencies are all trying to get our attention
or our money.

As a result, if we are managers, we rarely take the long view and we
make shortsighted decisions. As employees, we are hard-pressed to make
rational decisions in the absence of long-term guidelines. We avert our
eyes from situations we should speak up about, because we suspect
correctly that we will be jettisoned for rocking the boat.

I am sure that we will evolve a more thoughtful and humanistic
workplace model in the next few years, because we face hard times if we

Meanwhile, those of us who can view this from a safe distance, owe
it to those who struggle to keep our economy going to make suggestions
that will alleviate and eventually correct this corporate meltdown.

Bloggers should play a big role in this. We can be a major force for change in 21st century business.


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0 Responses to Higher speeds = corporate meltdown

  1. Linda says:

    God, David, I read this, and it hit home so hard that suddenly I feel so tired that I just want to go home and cry.

    I’m just saying that this post is the absolute, unvarnished truth. Something MUST change.

  2. Frank Martin says:

    You are correct, we are working at internet speeds, but that is also a benefit.

    In your father and grandfathers day, all their life decisions were based on “where” they went to work. they only reason people put up with big cities is that is where the money is. The cost of commuting to and from in both time and expense was just the cost of doing business.

    However, the internet has broken that model, now its very liekly that the people you work with are not even in the same place as you are, making the premium you pay to live in a particular place somewhat obsolete.

    The result of this is thousands, soon to be millions of people who like myself work on home offices with broadband connections to coworkers spread out all over the globe in a ‘follow the sun’ business model that allows us to get far more done every day, while only working an 8 hour shift, one that has no overhead of commute costs in time or money.

    I havent worked in an ‘office’ in 6 years, and I do more exciting work now in my home office with people all over the globe than I ever did when I went to a traditional office. even when I have a long day, its not as long as a standard work day, because I have no commute. you’d be surprised how much stress is created just going to and from work.

    For the first time in my life, I can move to Hawaii and have the same access to employment that I had in Los Angeles. 15 years ago, I had to move to a major metropolitan area to work in my profession, and travel extensively. Now I live in the foothills of the sierras and travel every once in a great while, and still maintain my salary. This is what the internet has brought me.

    This is a tremendous time to be alive.

    ( full disclosure I: – I have a cellphone for emergencies only, since I work at home I do not carry a work phone in my off hours. Since we work in the ‘follow the sun’ model one of my co-workers around the globe can pick up the call during their normal work hours, and the need to contact me direct in my private time is very minimal. If you dont manage this, it will get to you very quickly. You have to set guidelines to acceptible behaviour, just because you have access to equipment, doesnt mean you work 24 hours a day. set work guidelines and hold to them and be very careful not to break them, or the whole system collapses. that is true, internet or not.

    Full disclosure II: We call it “working remote” not “working from home” as that tends to sound too much like there is either no work being done, or the work being done is something like phone solicitation. “working remote” just means the company you work for does not have the overhead of maintaining your office in a building, you are still working, just as you did when you went somewhere, its just now, most of what you did you can accomplish without leaving your house.

    Full disclosure III: I work for a Forture 100 company. Once upon a time, “working remote” was an oddity, but I can assure you that it is the fastest moving trend even in more conservative companies, as it both greatly lowers cost of employment for companies, and is a tremendous boost to employee morale. There is a new term for it, not “outsourcing” but “homesourcing”. )

  3. Amen David:

    Last year I was on a plane from Seattle to Washington. At one point my pager went off and I used the airphone on the seat in front of me to call in, then hooked my laptop into the airphone and uploaded an updated photo to a client.

    A few minutes later my seatmate’s pager went off. She spent 45 minutes on the airphone resolving an issue for a client. When she hung up she looked at me and said: “Didn’t we used to look forward to the time on a plane because we could get away from all this?”

    Last year I shot the Daytona 500 using Nikon D2H digital SLRs with Wi-Fi modems attached. My photos went back to an infield trailer for the magazine I was shooting for and were transmitted to Chicago in real time so they could make that night’s deadline. We work faster, at warp speed, but the speed breeds longer hours, longer work days and little, if any, downtime. Such conditions were a big part of our decision to chuck life in the city and return to the mountains.

    Yet I have not been able to give up my Blackberry or my laptop with both Wi-Fi and wireless modem capability. Until I do, real downtime remains a unreachable goal.

  4. I think that Frank is participating in an evolution that can lead to a more humanistic workplace.

    I must confess I wrote this post based on my last year in Silicon Valley, when the distributed workplace was but an interesting rumor. Commuting makes the impossible worse.

    In 2002, my wife Gretchen worked for Sun out of our house in rural Virginia. She enjoyed the freedom from cubicle claustrophobia, but would be on the phone until 9:00PM because she was sitting in on west coast meetings on a daily basis.

    Internet speed is a real boon and I rely on it every day to get my work done.

    My point is: the unhappy combination of being restricted to a fixed location for many hours and being constantly interrupted causes psychic breakdowns.

    When you are being made wrong by some twit 3000 miles away, you can lean back and roll your eyes to let off steam. You can even signal your spouse to pour you another coffee while you put up with Mr Loggorhea and his distant venting.

    High speed internet, distant and refreshing work locations and and a work arrangement that is part hired mercenary and part equity participant is the desired future as far as I am concerned.

    I think that we will begin to see this on a larger scale in the next few years.

  5. Kim Berggren says:

    This is a big and important topic–someone somewhere must be studying it. The increased speed and ease of communication, I think, has an effect of diminishing returns. Email is one culprit. It is too easy now to communicate quickly among corporate staff. Less planning needs to go into an email than an old-style paper memo. There is a genuine benefit to this, but often the result is a deluge of information–much of it junk, CYA, false crises, misunderstandings, and other corporate flotsam and jetsam. We are swimming in a sea of information debris. As we rely more on electronic communication, confusion and misunderstanding abound. It has to be having an adverse effect on our effectiveness, not to mention sanity.

  6. Welcome to the blogosphere.

    I’ve got news for you: we are studying it right now in real time!

    It is important to realize that we no longer need to wait for “duly constituted authority” to issue a proclamation. Your observations and mine are as valid as we make sure they are true.

    If we notice something and analyze it accurately, our analysis instantly becomes part of the fabric of knowledge that is accumulated on the web every microsecond.

    I first described this in my post describing a weblog is the ultimate power tool. Google it on my left sidebar.

  7. CedarFever says:


    It’s been awhile since I read it, but one of the key topics that jumped out at me in Peter F. Drucker’s “The Effective Executive” was the emphasis on reclamation and control of one’s professional time. I think this notion is something that directly addresses problems that Kim points out and as we become more connected to our work, the skill to tune out or disconnect (as Doug suggests) communication noise and to properly structure our working relationships and environments will be the key to our success and sanity.

  8. There is no doubt that the crux of the problem is that some large corporations are still trying to live the information age in the pre-information age culture (grandpa’s).

    But there are plenty of hopeful signs of large companies successfully making the transition as well. One that comes to mind is Toyota, they are leading the charge in lean thinking, creating better product economically in a sustainable manner. (Fortune magazine’s latest issue has a nice article on the current CEO and how philosophy drives the company.)

    It does not seem to really be an issue of too much work or complexity, humans are remarkably adaptable and resourceful. The issue really seems to be leadership – don’t ask employees to work more… ask them to work differently, those that don’t will go the way of the dinosaur.

    TITLE: Speeding where?
    URL: http://bermans.blogs.com/opinion/2005/02/speeding_where.html
    BLOG NAME: My kids’ Dad
    DATE: 02/07/2005 12:47:46 AM
    David St Lawrence has a thought provoking blog on the sustainability of the pace modern corporate life. Are humans incapable of working at the speed of the Internet? TM Lutas posts on Barnett’s criticism of Bush’s State of the Union
    TITLE: That ratty rat race
    URL: http://www.snappingturtle.net/jmc/tmblog/archives/005200.html
    BLOG NAME: Flit(tm)
    DATE: 02/06/2005 05:32:43 PM
    Bombarded by demands far in excess of what was true in the past, we lose perspective, we make poor decisions, we are frazzled. Sounds like we need better support systems that generate less noise to signal. More on this theme…

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