THE BLOG

The IT Faustian Bargain

02/09/2015 11:26 am ET | Updated Apr 11, 2015
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The IT revolution has us all entangled. Most of us are enraptured. The younger you are, the more likely to be in this latter category. It is like that with all dramatic social innovations. Habit is resistant to change; the older you are the more entrenched your habits. That is to say, habits of thinking and ways of doing things and ways of valuing things. Presumably, adoption of technological innovation is an advantage -- at any age level. It supposedly enables you to be more efficient in performing accustomed functions while acquiring the capacity to perform new things. The widest possibilities seem to be in the realm of communication.

Never before have humans had so many means and methods for communicating -- whether with each other or with the universe of information now open to them. This is the product of ingenious adaptations of electronic science and engineering. That is all self-evident. What is not clear is the extent to which people actually take advantage of these opportunities with what effect on their lives. Lots of assumptions are made about this -- but there is relatively little probing of what actually is going on.

For one thing, having access to information is not the same as having it lodged in your grey cells. Today, there are many, young as well as old, who are averse to cluttering their brains with information. Surveys of what knowledge people walk around with these days makes that manifestly clear. Moreover, there are a range of serious drawbacks to keeping a low inventory in the belief that the gadget in your hand or pocket is there to fill the gaps at your command. First, much of our thinking is subliminal. The mind works even when we are not aware that we are "thinking." This is especially true of what we call creative thinking. Items are catalogued, correlated, and indeed combined behind our conscious thought processes. This is the basis for reasoning by analogy. It is the basis for inspired ideas. It is the basis for all mental activity that results in value added conscious thoughts. Calculated stimulation helps. However, if brain cells are preserved in their pristine condition, all the stimulation in the world cannot generate very much added-value.

At a simpler level, there are the negative practical implications of operating with an information challenged brain. Obviously, it takes longer to access needed information, even of the most straightforward kind, if you have to look it up electronically. Beyond that, web-surfing for whatever purpose is far more difficult when one is denied an in-brain inventory of useful reference points. It is common these days for professors to find a surprising number of their students (even upper classmen) struggling to obtain what they need for preparing a term paper because they suffer from a deficit of such reference points. Identifying relevant web addresses requires knowing what persons, institutions, or labels of any kind to type in. The next steps of skipping from one site to other possibly relevant sites are also handicapped by the shortage of basic information and the absence of connective knowledge that comes with digested facts.

Once graduates find jobs in organizations, they encounter others who suffer from similar disabilities. Most institutions today are staffed by a combination of specialists who have been forced to master one narrow segment of knowledge -- corporate finance, corporate law, human resources programming -- and generalists whose minds are fixed on getting to the top and whose specialty is in strategies for getting there. 70% of all Harvard seniors state an ambition of going into either finance or consulting. The former implies simply "making lots of money" since only a small fraction are enrolled in business school degree programs. The latter conveys similar aspiration animated by the expectation that they are in a position to "consult" despite having no special expertise other than being a smart Harvard graduate. Indeed, many will achieve their ambitious goal since institutions managed by knowledge deficient leaders increasingly rely on consultants whose competence they rarely are in a position to judge. Think of how the Sebelius team at Health and Human Services bungled the technical task of designing the Obamacare website which will stand as a monument to organizational disarray from top to bottom and sideways, i.e. the plethora of under-prepared and over-confident consultants.

Both public and private organizations increasingly place themselves in this situation thanks to the twin beliefs that relevant knowledge is always available "out there" and that it is cheaper than hiring staff who themselves actually know something. In truth, it usually is not cheaper in dollar terms but easier to seek what you need through the electronic "yellow pages" -- or, as commonly is the case, your golfing buddies and political contacts. How useful these consultants are varies enormously, of course. Anecdotal evidence provides reason for skepticism of their value. Think of the Obama administration's use of IT 'expert' consultants to mount its health care website*; or the employment of corrupt and incompetent KBR to rebuild Iraq; or Sony's (Target's/Home Depot's) reliance on hired experts to devise a secure data storage and retrieval system; the CIA's relying on the two charlatans whose purported cutting-edge techniques for interrogating/torturing terror suspects was based on expert knowledge credentialed only by themselves. Or, just think of your own experiences. Beyond anecdotal accounts, it simply defies reason to expect that some consulting outfit that is loaded with freshly minted Ivy League liberal arts majors is qualified to provide expertise on anything of consequence beyond organizing the festivities that accompany the annual Harvard-Yale game.

Consultants bank on three things: expertise, special contacts and/or ultra-sophisticated techniques/methodology for selling their services. As governments denude themselves of knowledgeable and skilled in-house staff capable of handling whatever institutional performance requires, they lean more and more heavily on outsiders who allegedly can supply those special abilities. In most instances, they wind up paying for the services of people no better than those they fired (or failed to hire) and whose talents are diluted by over-extension into areas that are beyond their competence. Of course, there is one great advantage to paying consultants: you can dictate the terms of the advice they offer so that it fits a pre-conceived leadership agenda. Your money in effect buys a "scientific" laying on of hands. That is the main reason a consultant's report never recommends a solution that entails spending more and hiring more rather than making do with less. The goal from the outset normally has been to cut -- recast as reorganization in the interests of "efficiency." IT comes into play insofar as recommendations that come with a heavy IT component have a particular allure -- either in the sense that the solution is IT based or has been identified and refined using IT techniques.

In all instances, the actual use or customer experience with the innovative way of doing things is slighted. It is the organization that counts. The country is filled with offices whose super sophisticated IT systems are used to a fraction of their capacity, that have been circumvented because no one can figure out how to work them effectively, or like those of the FBI are incompatible with what's already in place and don't "speak" with the systems of other agencies. As to customers, they now must fight their way through an electronic tangle of website instructions to accomplish the simplest of tasks that could be far more rapidly and reliably dealt with in a telephone conversation -- if the institution involved hadn't been sold a bill of goods that telephones were retro, bad for the organization's image and cost more. As to the last, the very modest savings may in fact turn out to be a fraction of what it costs to install the state-of-the-art electronic system; moreover, the cost accounting discounts entirely the millions of hours of consumer time wasted.

Of course, the ordeal of navigating the website mazes pales in comparison with the ordeal experienced if one tries to use whatever computerized/digitalized telephone service is available. Designed to subject callers to as much pain and frustration as possible, its clear intent is to funnel you onto the web. It would be worth exploring the combination's attendant effect on the national mortality rate, whether from cardiac arrest or suicide.

The emphasis now placed on encapsulated bits of information either acquired through customized coursework or mechanical searches on the web inevitably will grow. This is due not only to the enormous momentum behind the elaboration and spread of electronic information systems. It also is being propelled by the vocationalizing of education. This is a powerful force at work at all levels of American education with particular successes being marked up in higher education. Various modes and formats are driven by faith-based or self-interested campaigns that stress alleged monetary savings and the desirable matching of the "product" coming out of our universities (especially public ones and especially ones of lower standing) and the consuming employers eager to get a pre-trained, pliable corps of drones whose knowledge and critical skills level ensures their docility. Information deficient minds are compliant minds incapable of skeptical thought.

MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are the symbol and primary vehicle for this movement. Attractive to academic entrepreneurs, to budget cutting governors and legislatures ever on the hunt for more ingenious ways to stiff higher education, to their accomplices on boards of regents, to university administrators keen at once to be "with it" and to make do with inadequate funds, to their cheerleaders in the Obama White House, to self-appointed if ill-informed advocates for the poor and/or less than stellar student -- MOOCs are our future as sure as the sun rises. They are made possible by Information Technology. They embody IT. They are merchandized with the allure of IT. Their full implications, though, are foreseeable only to those who know how to use IT as a tool in deconstructing fraud and fantasy. And to those whose communications with fellows by Twitter, Facebook, Texting, Reddit or whatever else smart phones offer go beyond exchanging monosyllabic exclamations.

* The Johnson administration had Medicare up-and-running within eight months without consultants at a time when computers had barely graduated from Alan Turing's laboratory.