08 Nov Shaping a grand design
Earlier this fall, I had the good fortune to visit an Arts and Crafts exhibit at the Milwaukee Art Museum, entitled “Design for the Modern World.” As my wife (and curator) was reading from the exhibit announcement, I realized I was getting a lesson in the integration of technology, business, and practically everything else.
History has a penchant for repeating itself. The late 1800s, when the Arts and Craft Movement began, is described as a time of “unprecedented social and economic upheaval.” Sound familiar?
So what do hand-made objects from the previous turn of the century have to do with the evolution of technology and IT? As Roberta Smith said in her July 26, 2005 New York Times review of the exhibit: “Arts and Crafts established in a broad way that, as Freud might have said, a chair is rarely just a chair.” By the same token, an IT system is rarely just an IT system, at least, not if it wants to be of value to the organization. She goes on to say that “design objects are philosophy in physical form.” It struck me that IT systems are just business philosophies rendered in technology.
This work of taking some ideal, some vision, some set of principles—dare I say best practices—and using it to shape our daily work and life is a tricky business. For the Arts and Crafts Movement, Ms. Smith talks about making mechanization and urbanization serve people rather than enslave them. Your average CIO probably couches it more in terms of return on investments and managing risk, but it’s the same thing. If that IT solution ends up hammering your supply chain efficiency or employee productivity, “service” probably isn’t the first word that comes to mind when expanding the IS acronym. Most of us have had at least some experience with feeling trapped, if not exactly enslaved, by the technology we use.
The funny thing about the Arts and Crafts Movement is that they never completely figured it out. As Wendy Kaplan, the curator of this exhibit, says: “The movement provided a framework for many essential issues still being debated today: the conflict between standardization and individuality, the question of whether a one-of-a-kind object is superior to a mass produced one, and the problem of defining what kind of design most benefits society.” In our businesses today we still struggle with the conflict between the efficiency of standardization, and the utility and satisfaction of customization. We still have endless debates about the relative merits of shrink-wrapped software versus hand-crafted applications. And Lord knows, I could live happily ever after without yet one more go-round on designing the application to fit the business or changing the business to fit the application.
The Arts and Crafts Movement came at the end of that glorious and awful first rush of the Industrial Age. It wasn’t exactly a backlash against the rule of machines and factories, but rather an attempt to properly accommodate these new capabilities in a wider world of human affairs. If there was a single inspiration for the movement, it was to unify design and everyday life. Holy Best Practices, Batman!
Now, here we are over a century later and on the backside of that glorious and awful first rush of the Information Age. Who knows what they’ll say about us a hundred years hence? I wouldn’t be surprised to see a curator respectfully displaying a PDP-11 in muted lighting, or putting on white cotton gloves before they pick up that shrink wrapped copy of Windows XP, or painstakingly preserving that ERP Training Binder. They’ll be looking for those first glimmers of understanding that IT is just another part of a wider world of human affairs. They probably won’t be able to avoid shaking their heads a bit, wondering how we could have imagined that IT is somehow separated from our professional experience, our personal lives, and everything else.
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