In the unchecked world of network computing, bad ideas can proliferate exponentially

Of all the new technologies, network computing has the greatest potential for chaos. Not since the advent of the airline-reservations system has so much computer power been arranged so precisely at cross-purposes with human nature.

In the analog world, sharing is hard for all human beings old enough to grasp (one week). And communications are frustrating for all human beings old enough to protest (one minute). Now the hard-wired networks of desktop computers combine document sharing with proliferating communications that you can't take back -- and have put those resources into the hands of every employee of any company foolish enough to take the bait.

The bait is reduced paperwork and filing. And better communications. More efficient management of mental work. A vision of workplace democracy and global villages. But there's a glitch. Network computing is ripe for vastly more efficient propagation of bad ideas.

Just look at how the new technology plays out in a typical office task, such as flirting.

In the analog office, the early moves were literally moves: timing "accidental" meetings on the stairs, "just happening" to inspect the storeroom after hours.

Networking technology has brought flirtation up to electronic speeds. There is no deniability with E-mail, no excuse with open-scheduling software. Once Don Juan's contact-manager program is backing up on the common K: drive, the game is up. There is no double-dealing in binary.

Real work also can get too efficient for its own good. Let's look at a business problem most small companies face every so often. Every time they get a new boss or a different consultant or a bright young intern, he or she wants to develop something or other they're long past. In my company we call that "reinventing the wheel."

Now, I have nothing against reinventing the wheel per se. But I am amazed by the number of new bosses and interns who want to revive that old square design. And by how far they get, now that document sharing has increased the speed of erroneous innovation.

I see two processes at work here, guaranteeing us freeway tie-ups on square wheels in the coming years. The multiplication of technology has outstripped organizational memory. (Translation for the jargon-challenged: "Dumb stuff is harder to shoot down when it's moving at Ethernet speed.") And digital communications have flattened the hierarchical nature of management. (Translation: "Eye-rolling, sneering, and pulling rank are lost on the new 'idea men' because all they notice is E-mail.")

What with compressed institutional memories and flattened hierarchies, wheels are getting squarer every day. Basketballs are getting cubical. Footballs are getting positively rectangular.

It always happens this way: Company -- a wheel works, say -- hires hot-shot marketer from giant best-selling soft-drinks manufacturer. She loves the wheel business -- so much opportunity. By the way, have we ever thought of trying a square wheel?

Old technology: Somebody took her to lunch and explained, in suitable marketing lingo, that a wheel company sells, well, mobility. And the square wheel is more like, well, furniture. Case closed.

New technology: Before anyone can take the new director of marketing to lunch, she sends an E-mail about her square-wheel idea to all the other new bosses, posts a note on the employee bulletin-board system, and orders a new scheduling program for the entire building. The new financial officer is very interested in the square wheel, and so is the new production chief. By an unfortunate coincidence, all the experienced people have a server problem with their E-mail, can't understand the new scheduler, and miss all their meetings -- so they don't hear about the reinvention of the square wheel until the next day. By then the president has authorized a $2-million focus-group test of the new wheel.

Old technology: The head of engineering wrote a long memo, in somewhat stilted language, that explained why the square wheel wouldn't turn. Case closed.

New technology: The director of marketing sends a companywide E-mail asking for questions for the focus groups and electronically schedules two weeks of meetings with the financial officer, the president, and the production chief. Dave and Christine (we can use their real names here because every network technician in the United States is named Dave or Christine) spend all day trying to fix the server problem in the other departments. In the process they take down the network several times. The head of engineering tries to write an E-mail about how the square wheel won't turn, but after the second network crash, he gives up and goes home. Forever.

By the end of the week, R&D has weighed in with the statistics. The square wheel has some friction problems on the open road, but the braking numbers are extremely impressive. Marketing confirms that people want safety, so braking could be a very powerful feature. Production says the square wheel will require more material per wheel but will be cheaper than the round variety to warehouse and ship, and is likely to cause fewer shop accidents by, for instance, rolling over workers' toes. The president declares the project top secret because no competitor has a square wheel on the market. We could be the first! A discreet trademark and patent search begins.

Old technology: Marketing posted the focus-group questions on the corkboard. "What do you look for when you are buying a new wheel: innovation, design, safety, traction? What brands of wheel have you tried? If you could change one thing about your present wheel, what would it be?"

A saleswoman typed an anonymous note: "We tried the square wheel five years ago. A disaster. Ninety percent were returned because they wouldn't roll." Case closed.

New technology: As above, except the focus-group questions are posted as a workgroup document. Marketing sends an E-mail to MIS: "Do we still have the names of the nonreturners on the square-wheel campaign of five years ago? We could use them as beta testers for the new square wheel."

On the internal electronic bulletin board, marketing posts a draft of talking points for the venture capitalists: "We have sold rollers, and we have sold wheels on axles. Now we are leapfrogging our competition with the third-generation wheel." The brand-new head of R&D adds, "We have to remember that we aren't in the wheel business; we are in the business of solutions."

A young woman on the 800 line posts a comment: "I used to work for a company that switched to selling solutions about a year before it went bankrupt. Maybe we should stick with the wheel business." Unfortunately, a network crash removes the part of memory carrying her comment. Dave and Christine are certain they can retrieve the lost stuff by next week. Of course, reposting the note will only produce filename conflicts when they do.

Common sense thus bypassed, the focus groups are conducted using wheel owners under 7 in Cincinnati ("a very typical area for the youth wheel market") and non-wheel owners over 70 in Florida ("the most rapidly growing segment of the nonowner market").

Old technology: The head of marketing took home a set of prototype square wheels, installed them on her car, and couldn't get to the office ever again. Case closed.

New technology: All employees get an E-mail from the president, informing them that they are alpha testers for the new, third-generation square wheel. Dave and Christine take a day away from the help desk to install the alpha-test wheels on every bicycle and car in the parking lot.

No one can go anywhere, not even to call on customers. But that's OK with top management because all existing business has been put into maintenance mode so everyone can dedicate his or her time to the square-wheel project. Code name: "George."

Engineering is working round the clock on the noise problem, the wear problem, and the excess-traction problem.

The head of marketing logs onto the network from home and reports on a joint announcement with highway-safety groups. The financial officer has been faxing furiously back and forth to Japanese investors who want to develop conveyor belts made of square wheels -- but only for the U.S. market. Still, a great lead.

Dave and Christine drive slowly home on sets of octagonal wheels they hacked out over the weekend.

Old technology: There was a final fail-safe mechanism: if, somehow, the square wheel went to market, the few that were sold would have led to large liability suits. The company would have gone out of business, and not one person who'd worked there would ever have gotten another job unless he or she claimed to have been in federal prison during the years spent working at our company. The square-wheel story would have been written up in business magazines and discussed in business schools. It would have become proverbial. Case closed.

New technology: Rumors that we are working on something big spread via the Internet. The network modems haven't worked in months, so none of us notices the rumors. A multinational telecommunications company acquires our little wheel works. The press release notes that with our technology and its distribution system, dial-up interactive square wheels will be in half the homes in the United States in 10 years.

A year passes. New bosses from the telecommunications company hope to reinvent the roller because people want to move 100-ton pagan idols again, focus groups suggest. But suddenly our division is closed in a downsizing move. Within six months, every one of us is working at double our old salary for International Pyramid, which wanted our roller expertise. It even brings in our old head of marketing (now a consultant with a best-selling book called, of course, Reinventing the Wheel) to run a very inspirational workshop, after which someone suggests that a squared-off roller would be safer than a round one for moving 100-ton pagan idols and other large loads.

Fortunately, all internal communication here is done on carved stone tablets, so people have to think twice before they pick up hammer and chisel. The circle, note the analog types, is unbroken.

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Moe Meyerson is a manager in a company that serves a market so immature, it won't listen to a word he says.