The other day I read a discussion about Blackboard buying out two different companies. I’ve never dealt with Blackboard, but they are apparently a software company making programs for tracking students in educational institutions: entering grades for different courses and that sort of thing. What struck me was one of the comments by a user. The system was apparently a horrible pain in the butt. But two professors at the university were able to make an alternate system that performed all of the functions of the Blackboard system and was easier to use. Deja vu.
The new Sharp Floor system at work was purchased from outside contractors. It’s a pain in the butt to use. Their idea of a simple interface for assigning a task to a team is for you to click on the task, wait of a page to load, select a team, click to confirm the team, wait for the page to reload, click to finish the task, wait for a pop up window to load, then click to confirm that you want to make that team assignment.
Now it was going to take the contractors several months to add this functionality to the rest of the system we had paid them millions of dollars for. But management wanted it now, so I was tasked with creating an interim system. In a week (while performing my other duties) I made a system where the tasks were in a spreadsheet, and for each row you just selected a team, and then saved the spreadsheet when you were done. Then the program created more spreadsheets with tasks for the teams.
A common complaint that users of the new system has is that it isn’t as easy to use as my system was. So here you have two cases of large organizations purchasing expensive software that could be done better by in house talent (that already understands the business processes involved). It really struck me that this was a case of excess materialism on an institutional level. We I got rid of the vast majority of my stuff and started resisting the urge to buy more stuff, I began to really notice the urges to buy things. It often wasn’t even a specific thing I wanted to buy, it was just an urge to go out and buy. I think this same urge is driving a lot of management decisions. Instead of asking “Can we solve this problem?” they ask “What can we buy to solve this problem?”
The answer to the first question may be the same as the answer to the second question. But if it isn’t the same answer, asking the first question will definitely save you money. And as the Blackboard and Sharp Floor examples both show, it may be more efficient as well, saving you money in the long term. Two ways that having less stuff can create less suffering, without even looking at the impacts on the general economy.