The concept of the paperless office still lives on at Microsoft

Is it still part of the IT department’s mission to create the paperless office? I thought people acknowledged the futility of that objective years ago. Apparently, not – at least not at Microsoft.

I read a short article called “How I Work” by Bill Gates himself in Fortune magazine recently. Naturally, underlying the piece was a shameless plug for Microsoft communication and collaboration software and Tablet PCs, but it also revealed some worrisome things about what Mr. Gates believes and the way he apparently thinks.

“Paper isn’t a big part of my day”, he writes.

So, what does he need to displace paper documents? Three 21-inch monitors, a Tablet PC and, of course, with that great Microsoft software. I don’t know about you, but his screens collectively are bigger than my physical desktop.

And, what does his “digital workstyle” consist of?

“The screen on my left has my list of e-mails. On the center screen is usually the specific e-mail I’m reading and responding to. And my browser is on the right-hand screen.”

About 900 square inches of e-mail and browsing??? I’m sure we all wish that our work lives were that simple.

I’m reminded of the boy in the bubble, who needs to be insulated from the outside world that is full of life-threatening germs. The boy’s “workstyle” is limited by the size of the bubble (his “corner office”), but there are lots of caretakers to handle the real work that needs to be done.

He doesn’t even have to think about that.

So, my complaint isn’t so much that Mr. Gates’ workstyle revolves around e-mail, but his implication that his workstyle should generalize to everyone at Microsoft and perhaps everyone in every office workplace worldwide.

What’s worse is that he seems to measure his own productivity (and others?) by the amount of e-mail he processes. When speaking about his weekends, he writes, “When people come in Monday morning, they’ll see that I’ve been quite busy – they’ll have a lot of e-mail.”

Mind you Gates does concede that he still has his low-tech whiteboard – his large piece of paper, if you will. “I always have nice colour pens, and it’s great for brainstorming when I’m with other people, and even sometimes by myself.”

Aside from his apparent embarrassment about this (“… probably I’ll get a digital whiteboard in the next year.”), this was the only reference to creativity in the entire article. All the rest sounds more like digital assembly line.

The banner Fortune put over Gates’ article was “Secrets of Greatness.” If that’s the case, I have serious concerns about Microsoft’s greatness. Maybe if Microsoft developers weren’t bombarded with so much e-mail, they’d have time to develop some decent code in a timely fashion.

Charles Whaley has a PhD in psychology and applies it to the human element in the IT equation through his consulting and market research firm, Information Technology Enterprises.

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