Only connect

31 Jan 2008 View Comments
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Mike Zafirovski, the lantern-jawed chief executive of Nortel Networks, encapsulates something particular about the American dream. Born in Macedonia he emigrated to the US in 1969, arriving in Cleveland, Ohio with his family, $1500 and no English. Two years later, he got into Edinboro University on a swimming scholarship and after graduating went on to spend 25 years with General Motors and four years with Motorola before becoming president and chief executive of Nortel, the giant telecommunications manufacturer that employed more than 30,000 people worldwide in 2005. In short, a big cheese.

So when such a practitioner and proselytizer of new technologies writes an article in the Financial Times criticising the "barrage" and "jumble" of information that an average mid-level manager in business faces and has to process, in the form of emails, voicemails, phone calls, video messages meeting requests, we should play close attention. Zafirovski argues that at a time of unprecedented connectivity, business is singularly failing to reap the potential benefits. "With all this technology you might think people are connecting as never before," he wrote. "The reverse is true." 

Just in case the message isn’t clear enough, Zafirovski refers to the "onslaught" of new technology and paints a picture of billions of devices communicating with each other and with humans. "Information chatter is going to grow louder and so is the complexity and confusion," he said.

This seems a rather bleak if noteworthy assessment of the effect of convergent technologies making information available anywhere at any time. It also manages to turn conventional thinking on its head in the way that it suggests that the proliferation of devices and applications (an employee has six and five respectively in an average workplace) is having a negative impact on efficiency rather than driving it up, as technology is always supposed to do.

Rather than connecting us in a meaningful way, it seems the result of more devices and applications is just that we try more ways of reaching increasingly elusive or selective people. According to Sage research, 36 per cent of efforts to contact someone fail to connect first time, and this has a serious knock-on effect on deadlines and productivity in industry.

Unsurprisingly Zafirovski is unperturbed by this jumble and sees an opportunity for what he calls an overarching "unified communications and service-oriented architecture". Essentially this is a super technology that could "tame and discipline" all other technologies to help drive up productivity and enterprise. However, we are left with two of the abiding and enduring issues that technology used at the sharp end – in the workplace and at home – continues to wrestle with: interoperability and usability.

What this shows us is that convergence is having unexpected consequences. While allowing the free flow of information across networks and devices it is also leading to the fragmentation of consumer and business needs and, in some cases, the divergence of products and services to meet niche market requirements. This then helps form a looser, less interoperable, more patchwork system of communication. How to make all these disparate pieces into one coherent jigsaw is clearly going to be a long-term project. Zafirovski seems to be focused on the task.

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