"The Social Life of Information"

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted March 01, 2001
by David G. Propson

Freud wondered "What do women want?" Tech companies have pondered similar questions about users. They create tools to please them, but users often don't want them, or won't use them for the purpose they were originally intended. Businesses, too, sometimes cause more problems than they solve by forcing technology down their workers' throats.

The authors of The Social Life of Information make a strong argument that foot soldiers often have a better idea about what works than the generals do. John Seely Brown, chief scientist at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center, and Paul Duguid, a research specialist at the University of California at Berkeley, are the ideal advocates for the everyday user. Xerox itself must be the most thoroughly studied company in history, largely thanks to researchers at PARC. Like many tech companies, Xerox often has failed to pay attention to what users want and even the ways its own workers interact.

Take just one example: telecommuting. The main reason more people don't work from home, they argue, is that those who do lack support. They not only have to take care of their own technical support, but also miss out on emotional support, professional networking opportunities, and the chance to learn from colleagues.

The book also helps explain why information technology, far from bringing about the paperless office, has actually increased consumption, why corporate Intranets so frequently lie fallow, why teleconferences are difficult to conduct, and why schemes like "knowledge management" are hard to implement. It does so in terms that outsiders and -- more importantly -- insiders can understand.

Toward the conclusion, the authors get deep into management theory and then move into a long discussion of how distance learning will affect universities. This may be more than the average outsider cares to think about, but, as they point out, books are a perfect example of a technology that can be used in more than one way. Whether you study, skim, photocopy, or annotate it, this short book contains more smart business advice than most business books, more insight about technology than most tech books, and much more besides.

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