Productivity: Back to the future?

The media seems to buzz an awful lot about “alternative productivity tools” like Google Apps premier Edition and Open Office suites. There’s talk about how mobile, cloud, and collaboration are the next frontier for productivity – and how integrated touchpoints for content-related activities can be tailored to fit a business purpose or workforce segment.

I get that the economic crisis we’ve barely survived has made even profitable companies look harder at alternatives. But just how much more productive do they expect flesh and blood human beings to get? We’re all doing more with less, working longer hours, and remaining “connected” (or is tethered a better word?) to our jobs even when we’re trying to squeeze in some quality time with the family, walking the dog, or driving between appointments.

The boosters of “alternative productivity tools” claim that they’re free or very inexpensive, and therefore available to everyone, that they’re safe and secure because we should all trust Google, and that collaboration – the ability to share documents with a group of people who can review, comment, or edit them depending on the permissions you assign to them – is the wave of the future. I’m in favor of collaboration, but there are plenty of free or very low cost collaboration tools that don’t require me to give up the tools I’ve grown to like and trust.

Years ago, I learned WordStar. I learned WordPerfect. And I learned Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Project, Access, Publisher, Outlook, SharePoint, Dropbox, Basecamp, Acrobat, InDesign and a ton of other branded tools that are very, very good at what they do. Frankly, I like them. They work. The commands are consistent across many platforms, and many years.

I’ve tried using Google Docs. Every time a document goes back and forth between Word and Google Docs, it screws up the formatting. The iPad version of a Google Doc doesn’t look the same as a PC version – and taking that document and trying to get it into HTML, InDesign, or any other standard production tool that marketers use can be, um, interesting. Google Docs runs on the Internet – and the speed of the Internet connection I’m on determines how fast I can type, which annoys me in a way that is distinctly unhealthy for my blood pressure.

In August, 2010, Forrester Analyst Sheri McLeish published a paper called The Next Wave of Office Productivity, in which she compared Google, the three Open Office suites (Oracle Open Office, IBM Lotus Symphony, and 3.0 Novell Edition), WordPerfect, Zoho Docs, and ThinkFree with Microsoft’s integrated offerings. Her conclusion is that all of them have merit, but their capabilities across collaboration, mobility, and other key productivity drivers vary widely.

McLeish’s well-researched and well-written report makes the argument that the next wave of productivity will be “fit to purpose” applications.  She makes a lot of sense, and it’s a common belief, but not one to which I subscribe (despite my friend Jonathan Sapir’s assurance that it is possible for Google and Microsoft applications to co-exist peacefully).

The general argument seems to be that different workers have different needs, and that organizations can save money and streamline IT by delivering only the specific tools that a specific worker needs.

The trouble with this is that when you do that, you wind up with workers who are even more specialized than they were before. Remember the days when you had dedicated word processors with names like Wang, CPT, and NBI? I do. Only someone trained to use them COULD use them. Edit a document on your own? No way. Borrow someone from another department to help out in a crunch? Not likely they’d understand your “fit to purpose” applications.

With Microsoft Office, once you learn the application, you’ve learned it. For over a decade, it’s been the baseline of common skills that nearly every teenager taking a required computer course in school mastered. Sure, Google and the other Open Office applications are easy to learn….but the world is still dominated by users who can make Microsoft Office applications do things that the others were never intended to do.

So, for me, it looks like the brave new future of “fit to purpose” virtual desktops and open applications is a big step into the past.

About debmcalister

I'm a Dallas-based marketing consultant and writer, who specializes in helping start-up technology companies grow. I write (books, articles, and blogs) about marketing, technology, and social media. This blog is about all of those -- and the funny ways in which they interesect with everyday life. It's also the place where I publish general articles on topics that interest me -- including commentary about the acting and film communities, since I have both a son and grandson who are performers.
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