The magpies of progress

Magpies are fascinating birds; in addition to beautiful plumage, they possess an instinctual behaviour pattern common to most self respecting technologists. They are fascinated by shiny things. They scavenge bright objects from the landscape and pile them in a heap to gather dust in the dark corners of their nests. Sound familiar?

As I look around my work area I’m forced to admit I’m an IT magpie. Here’s a partial description of some of the shiny objects gathering dust in desk drawers and on shelves. A Palm Pilot, two voice recorders (tape cassette and digital versions), a Compaq iPAQ (plugged in, so that I don’t lose the stuff I haven’t used in more than a year) complete with a really cool foldout full-sized keyboard, a pile of fifty or more software applications and utilities and a colour printer.

All of the above (dare I say “toys” while my wife isn’t in the room?) were bought with the best of intentions. Honest. Usually those intentions revolve around the question, “Can these shiny things make me more productive or help produce a higher quality product?”

As a speaker/writer/consultant, most of my time is spent working with ideas and phrasings. The tape recorders were bought with the idea that they would help me capture those fleeting ideas which occur at the oddest times. Then I found that mumbling to myself while on a jet, in a washroom or in the middle of the night made me look, and feel, extremely foolish. Especially when a pen and paper suited my needs better and never ran out of tape, memory or power.

Along the same lines, the Compaq IPAQ and keyboard were supposed to allow me to write while on the road, more accurately, while flying. Based on painful experience I knew that a laptop was too large for the tiny tables and the PDA seemed like the perfect answer to my imagined problem, i.e.: a lack of sufficient writing space.

After many failed attempts at writing an article on the PDA and keyboard, I’ve come to the conclusion that my problem was never the lack of workspace, but that I don’t think well enough at 32,000 feet to write a complete, coherent article. The best I can accomplish is the sketching out of a few ideas and phrases and once again, pen and paper are more than up to the task.

Despite the obvious waste involved in buying things and never realizing the expected benefits, I don’t consider these purchases “bad” decisions. Unfortunate perhaps, but not a waste of my time or resources. In order to find new and better ways of doing things, we must also expect to find new and worse ways of doing things.

Magpie mentality by itself poses no threat or problem to any organization. Every organization needs at least a small (read: manageable) flock of magpies. Yes, there is the cost of exploration, but the potential benefits outweigh those costs a thousand fold.

We go horribly wrong when we foist a technology throughout the organization without first allowing the magpies to play. Too many companies have gone out and purchased [insert your favourite bright shiny object here] for everyone, before the magpies spent enough time with the toy, oops . . . I meant new technology.

For 2004, the big shiny thing is Instant Messaging (IM). IM offers interesting benefits, and will certainly deliver those benefits to some, but not all organizations. Putting aside all the legitimate concerns of security, spam, interoperability and cost, the remaining issues are those of usage and captured benefits. How will people use IM? Will the messages contain real content or casual conversations, jokes and sports scores? Will the added benefit of IM justify the interruptions to other work?

None of these questions are answerable in the abstract. It is necessary, unless you’re willing to waste a lot of money, to find the answers in advance of an organizational rollout. In other words, we need that flock of magpies, and we must accept that some technologies, possibly IM, won’t deliver the promised payoff to our organization. That’s not a waste; that’s the cost of avoiding larger failures.

de Jager is a speaker and consultant focused on how organizations and their people adopt new technologies. Contact him at [email protected] or at

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