Is big corporate protecting you from learning about your software?

January 25, 2010

Dilbert is a wonderful trove of vignettes on many corporate syndromes, technology ignorance included. Anyone who has worked in a corporate environment knows that there are plenty of folks who don’t understand what their computer is all about. I’d guess PCs and software, specifically, lead the pack in the “technology not understood” category. Why?

In my consulting, I’ve found that basic software skills — the ability to operate any piece of software once the user knows what function it is intended to provide — seem to be lacking the most within many corporate environments. Yet, I don’t find this true in other places.

Some time ago, I was approached and asked what I consider a very simple software question by a user I would have probably classified as software-proficient. The experience drove me to ask myself, “Why couldn’t this person  — with all her previous experience as a computer user — find the answer?” After all, as my colleague, Ryan, a former technology teacher, taught his students (grade 8 all the way down to grade 2):  software proficiency is not rocket science, but really just about exploration. The answer is likely in one of those menus somewhere.

So students in school/academia can do it. They’re encouraged to do it. And I find I do it instinctively. Is that the difference between corporate America and the rest of the landscape? No exploration, and subsequently no understanding? Is there something about corporate environments that is discouraging and even preventing users from learning about the technology they’re supposed to be using?

When I recently un-boxed and set up my new PC, I realized that I was drawing a lot of my confidence from having previously set up PCs, installed software, and dealt with the results mostly on my own. In many corporate environments I’ve consulted within, technology is governed and administered (to some degree)  by professionals other than the end user. So could it be that by providing a consistent “hands-free” operating environment, the corporate “ease” actually prevents the end user from having the “grounding” experiences — installing software and troubleshooting — that contribute to a core understanding of the technology? Would years of the same dull a user’s sense of exploration? At what point would it become detrimental or even crippling?

If you’ve worked in similar spaces, what are your experiences and insights on the matter? Do you think “hands-off” policies could be really hurting technology proficiency, and in the end, productivity?

I’m not dead yet! (But my old computer is)

January 17, 2010

In case you’re wondering if the man and machine behind Explain Technology have been in permanent hibernation, rest assured: I’m not dead yet. But there is an interesting story about both human and computer illness contributing to the absence of posts.

Back in late summer, I decided to spend a bit more time finishing The Ultimate PC Primer. Ironically, just about that time, my PC began showing signs of decay: freezing, browser crashing on more and more sites, more system errors, you get the picture.  But from everything I read, I needed to hang on until Windows 7 shipped. No problem, I thought.

Well, the end of October rolled around, and instead of getting to know Windows 7,  I had the privilege of getting to know H1N1 personally.  As my symptoms lessened, my PC’s problems became worse. I needed a new PC… but at that point (mid November) I figured I should hold out for Black Friday sales. And that I did, getting a pretty sweet deal. And then… I waited for my new blazing fast computing workhorse to arrive.

And waited.

And waited.

After 3 shipping delays comprising over a month of elapsed time, I finally received the new machine this past Tuesday. Last night, I finally finished getting all my software installed and my data from the old machine copied. Amazingly, today, the old machine won’t even power on. Now that’s cutting it a little too close!

I won’t bore you with my personal opinions of Windows 7 or of the hardware (they’re a dime a dozen on the web. Uh, well, actually they’re free.) But here’s one thought to ponder out of my initial experience: When I opened the computer box, the only introduction to Windows 7  on paper was a note card sized bi-fold piece of paper. How’s that for a contrast between buying a computer 20 years ago and today? Remember when PCs came with inch-thick paper manuals? Granted, setting the machine up wasn’t that difficult (for me), but what if this was my first PC? “Oh, but Ben, all that help is electronic now! You don’t need paper instructions. The software will practically hold your hand!” Right. That’s why, within minutes of powering on and following the prompts, I received the first program failure error (on one of those “hold your hand” pieces software from the hardware vendor, not Windows 7 itself, mind you.) Golly! Is computing really assumed to be flawless? Further, even when it does work, can we assume everyone has the spirit of exploration to figure out a brand new system without much guidance? I not only think not, I find not. It’s becoming more apparent to me that the desire to explore and understand the technology one works with is not a universally-shared trait, but that it is one required for confidence and success in the constantly changing technology space.

So as Explain Technology returns to the web, look for more thoughts stemming from my experiences consulting — especially in corporate spaces — soon… particually on this concept of exploration-based learning of technology.