Aging and Business Solution Evolution

A recent post referenced a reality facing many experts in business today – they are ‘aging-out’ of the workforce, mostly involuntarily. Thinking about the last 40 years, the period of their professional life experiences, what value added can they provide to the next decade of evolution in the business world? To answer this, I prepared the Gantt chart that illustrates last 40 years of business tools evolution broken down by broad eras that were significant. A review of each of these, along with the skills and knowledge aggregated from navigating these eras, informs the age veteran’s strengths and abilities that can be leveraged in the next 10 years or so. A quick jaunt through of the each of these eras will help to highlight the skills that accrued in each.

At the start of the 80s, companies still accessed their solutions from terminals that were linked to remote mainframes. Engineering analysis, Scheduling and other systems were submitted a data stream and, in return, the terminal’s output included the results of the analysis. Some businesses had mini-computes (IBM and DEC and Wang).

This was a Pre PC Era terminal that provided access to a remote mainframe, or a mini-computer in the ‘computer room’. Skills needed included typing and ability to configure the data request (query), then wait for a result, before moving on to the next request. Ironically, this is where the cloud has brought us back to in 2018. We query and get results. The more things change, the more they remain the same? A major hurdle of this era, is that the system you were using was hard limited to just what it did. You just learned to live with its limitations. It was difficult, and costly, to update the underlying software. Hardware change was seldom contemplated.

These limitations made the, mid 80s, arrival of the first Apple and IBM PCs (personal computers), with their easy to code BASIC language, really welcome. During this era, the dominant operating system was Microsoft’s DOS. Software vendors diligently churned out software that made the terminals obsolete. These PCs were freeing! No need to wait on anyone to update them. Buy your software, and it arrives on floppy disks, and you insert them, in succession, into your drive and install your software. Spreadsheets, work processing, even ad hoc databases flourished. Evidence of this era’s slingshot effect for some companies is that they are still around – Microsoft, Primavera (now in Oracle’s stable). Some were absorbed and some just disappeared. Where’s Ashton Tate the maker of dbase? Or WordPerfect? Or Borland? Lotus?

The IBM PC and clones were the flagship of the MS DOS PC era. In case you are wondering, that black area in the front of the box was 2 ‘bays’, initially, for either 2 full height, floppy or hard disk, drives. Half height drives allowed you to have 4!. As drives got bigger, you upgraded routinely. I’ll spare you a trip to the inside of these boxes, where you could install cards to do the things you wanted to.

Microsoft hit another home run in the early 90s by beating out IBM’s OS/2 with MS Windows. This, MS Windows era, caused yet another flurry of development to help people to work with a user interface that accessed the whole screen, rather than just one line of the screen at a time of the DOS era. Just a few lines on the screen at a time? This is similar to some of your apps today, don’t you think?

Reports were moving from dot-matrix printers to laser printers. The era of paperless computing kept being promised, but simply never arrived, and still has not. New software now arrived on CDs – so you now had another 1/2 height device to install in your computer – but, more than likely, you simply got a new computer!

By the mid 90s, an awareness grew: that having solo-computing created silos. Imagine that! Now businesses saw that what once seemed the epitome of efficiency and independence, personal computing, was now clearly a huge bottleneck when viewed through a business lens. Sadly, many businesses have yet to extricate themselves from this alluring attachment to private spreadsheets, documents and data. Companies such as SAP and PeopleSoft, powered by Oracle and Sybase databases, delivered their proposed software to this silo problem: ERP (enterprise resource planning) solutions.

ERP solutions have swept into many businesses, that can afford them, and are continuing to have a huge impact on businesses today. My experience with ERPs started with needing to get ERP data for assets, so that work can be planned for them. Ironically, this type of planning is a weak link in these systems. Evidence of this is that, upon introduction of an ERP, companies see an explosion of export and silo spreadsheet activity to accomplish tasks that they simply cannot do with their expensive, and costly to maintain, ERP. Due to the impact of ERPs on business processes it is included as an ‘ERP era‘, despite being a data management approach as opposed to a user experience manager. ERP data started out being an on-premises server, and now is just as likely to be in the cloud.

Browser-based applications arrived in the mid 2000s and quickly provided an alternative user experience to Windows, which continues to be a dominant business computing operating system, along with Chrome. The Browser era, which we are very much still in, is characterized by the use of solutions that are silently updated by the vendor, with minimum of ‘friction’. A number of technologies combined to make browsers the current favorite user experience.

As browsers are supported across a number of platforms from your desktop, to your laptop, to your tablet and even your mobile phone, it is a great tool to get your data, as long as it is also accessible broadly, which it would be if it is in the cloud.

Apple and Google have helped to spawn a whole new set of user experiences, broadly knows as ‘apps’. We are in the App era now. Some businesses have already moved, but according to various published papers, digital transformation, the process that leads to app usage, is still in its infancy with most companies.

Apps run on the user’s device and access data in the cloud. A typical location for cloud data is Amazon’s Web Services or AWS. A key aspect of such apps is their ability to integrate your business’s processes. This integration ensures that, rather than enforcing your business rules by edict (i.e. read, and follow the procedure), the app ensures (less risky!) that your team follows the business rules in a timely, error-free manner, complete with specified checks, sign-off and audit trail to ensure trackability. Digital transformation is accomplished with attention to data design, data owners and integration with existing systems to ensure that data is treated as a safeguarded business asset – and not allowed to float aimlessly in spreadsheets and other files.

So, how does this benefit businesses? How can the ‘aging-out’ group of experts help you in the app era? A couple of key ways. They are veterans of a number of eras, virtually from the using slide rules (just prior to PCs) to using mobile devices. The internet was pipe dream at the start of this age. Now, its a requirement. Your mature employees or candidates are nothing if not adept at managing change! Handling change is in their DNA! Secondly, their knowledge! Those business rules that I keep alluding to – the ones that drive how apps really work well? Those business rules have evolved – or should evolve – from lessons learned in the school of hard knocks. Real experience helps to ensure that the generations that follow are not stuck with having to re-learn these lessons.

So, here is a proposed path of businesses heading into the choppy waters of technology improvement that we currently call digital transformation: Recruit, or assemble, a digital transformation team that consists of a mix of people of different skills and ages. People with experience are your de facto SMEs (subject matter experts). Respect, and value, the contribution of each team member. Oh – you better get a move on and sweeten the offer or you may lose the opportunity. Retirement is an alluring option for them! As Ben Franklin supposedly said: You may delay, but time will not.

Product and company names used in this article are the property of their respective owners.

If you spell ‘aging’ as ‘ageing’ – thanks for tolerating my choice.