Tangible to touch

This month’s theme for the new My Office magazine is around paper, and it reminded me about the declarations made when I first started my career about the supposed moving into the age of the paperless office. 

The information age came with the promise of not destroying trees for paper, and of virtual offices with no filing cabinets. Even better, going paperless would save companies money, increase efficiency, boost productivity, reduce risk from fire, and make information sharing easier. 

I liked the “save the environment” part, but I wasn’t sure about all the rest of the promises. It struck me then, thirty years ago, that the main flaw of the argument was quite simple: all of those advocating the idea forgot that we are ultimately dealing with an illogical and irrational entity – the human being. I knew that I certainly wouldn’t be able to let go of the physical evidence needed to “prove” things. Having something on paper, even something as simple as a diary or address book, somehow made things a bit more real, a bit more tangible. Of course, the first time I lost all my data in a hard-drive crash, it confirmed for me that paper was not going to disappear quickly.



In fact, it struck me as rather ironic that large IT companies (I think IBM was the first) boasted of a paperless society, yet were the first to print letters, brochures and manuals, and they were insistent in asking you to sign – yes, you guessed it – a paper contract. Some continue to do this today through the ‘cloud’ and yes, Amazon sells more ebooks than real books, but only because they are cheaper and more quickly available. You try passing through any national border without a paper passport, and I’ll show you my paperless office.

Plenty of others got it wrong when they espoused their theories but forgot that we are human beings. Karl Marx and his disciples described the utopia of communism where everyone would share everything and we’d all be nice to each other. The reality? Eighty years of misery wrought on billions of people who didn’t think that it was such a great idea. They forgot that human beings are not equal, and that there would be unintended consequences to this ideal world that they described. Of course, the same is true of many politicians today.

Another myth which came out at about the same time as the paperless office was that employees just loved working in open-plan offices. Okay, Mr. MD, I wanted to say to them, why don’t you let me spend my working days in your private office while you occupy my cubicle? I eventually had to resign and start my own business to make that wish come true. 

Then what about the myth that if you make shareholders happy, both employees and customers will be happy too? Absolute bollocks! The very opposite is true today: if you look after people on your team, they will take care of your customers, and your customers will in turn reward the shareholders. 

These rebellious reflections got me thinking about other businesses, and asking an important question: Are there companies and industries that forgot that first it was about people, and all their crazy idiosyncrasies that make us, after all, human beings? The answer is a resounding “YES!”, and it goes for people both as employees and people as customers.

For example, airlines think that we will all be perfectly happy being squashed for hours into tiny spaces for the benefit of conveniently getting from point A to point B at speed. No, we are not. CEOs think that we prefer to deal with demotivated, demoralised and poorly trained employees in a call centre in order to save some money. Funny thing is that bank fees, medical aid fees, mobile ‘phone rates, and other products in a mass economy context are more expensive proportionately than they have ever been. Big global chains in the food industry, fashion industry, and even in the toy industry, think that everyone around the world wants to have the same bland, boring, and indistinguishable stuff. 

My final example is “the brand promise.” Companies think that if they come up with a catchy slogan co-designed with their ad agency, that customers will believe it all. That has been true in the past, even up to a few years ago, but the world has changed dramatically since then. Now customers say “Yeah, whatever.” We have learned that smoking kills you, fast foods make you fat, your underpants don’t make you cool – even when the label shows above your normal pants line – and whatever promise your bank makes is just a big exaggerated lie.

Human beings – people – are going to want the same things that they have always wanted, no matter what new technologies are fed to us.

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