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TechWatch: Getting Rid of Old Technology

When we think about “watching” technology, we often associate that with looking to the future. What is coming down the road that will affect us? But we seldom look at the companion problem of phasing out old technology. When it is time to upgrade to new technology, how do we get rid of the old? It turns out this problem offers significant challenges on three distinct levels:

  • The components of technology (e.g., a new computer, cell phone, or piece of software)
  • A technology-based system (perhaps hardware and software that together embody the processes of an organization)
  • A technological way of thinking (patterns of thought rooted in technology that are embedded in our work processes)

We will consider examples at each level.

Getting Rid of Components

I have had my current laptop for almost four years. When I was in Switzerland a year ago, I dropped it and haven’t been able to read a floppy from that drive since. When I purchased it, the capability to burn a CD was a significant extra, one I was not sure I would need. I have no wireless modem, and while that could be added to my laptop, it is something I have not taken the time to do. Finally, when I pick it up I hear sounds from it like sand moving inside, almost like an “etch-a-sketch.” You can see I have built the rationale to replace my laptop.

But when I think about upgrading, I think more about the process of discarding the old laptop than about what I will buy to replace it. I have lots of files on the hard drive. Many of these should be discarded, though with the volume of memory on my drive, there has been little need to do so until now. Many of them are important and will need to be moved to my next laptop. The jump drive I purchased last year is capable of holding large files, and unlike floppies can be reused as well. This will help, but the process is still time consuming. I know there is software out there that will support moving files from one machine to another, but it is not software I have learned to use. I could hire a tech support person to move the files, one who has learned a set of tools that I have little need of using. But all of this takes time and/or money.

The new laptop will not come with a floppy drive, so the next step will be converting all of the old floppies to a more modern storage medium, and then discarding the old floppies.

Then there is the question of what to do with the old computer. For years, I had generations of computers in my garage, not wanting to put them in the trash, and not having a good alternative. Now recycling for old computers has become commonplace, though I admit I worry about how they are recycled. Having them end up in a landfill in another country is not the right answer. And before getting rid of the old computer, it is necessary to clean the hard drive to make sure my old records are not available to others.

The new laptop will provide new opportunities, no doubt, and I need to do it. But not this month.

Technological Systems

A technological system for a business is (for example) a collection of hardware and software that allows the business to carry out its important processes. Inventory management, supply chain management, and manufacturing resource management are examples. The processes for these tasks are often embodied in a number of “home grown” software programs that have been patched together over a period of time much like the electrical system in Bangkok, Thailand. (pictured) Discarding this software patchwork leads to a number of difficult problems. First, any new system will likely be purchased rather than built, and will contain new processes and be missing some of the old, familiar ones. Since the old business processes and business data have been built around these systems, both processes and data will have to be redeveloped.

Second, this leads to change in the way work gets done in the organization, including job descriptions, organizational structures, and even the way the company may interact with customers and suppliers. While at some point this may be better for everyone, there is a transition period that can be both painful and costly.

For these reasons, many companies continue to rely on their “legacy systems” which are very difficult to modify and costly to maintain (like the electrical system in the picture), but on which the business is totally dependent. The company challenge is not just how to get to the new system, but how to get rid of the old.

Technological Ways of Thinking

Technology is not only found in the components and systems of a business, but in fundamental ways of thinking as well. Here are two illustrations.

Work and Time

The clock was invented long ago, but it rapidly became a fundamental element of business. People still refer to work as “punching the clock.” Perhaps this was a good way to think about work when tasks were measured precisely, and assembly lines were set up to produce products based on time. But today, work is dependent more on the brains than the brawn of the workers, and time is a much less reliable measure of work.

It is well known that the amount of work in a day produced by two different software engineers might differ by a factor of ten or more. Similarly, two product designers might differ by a similar factor in the parts they can produce in a fixed period of time. Yet both the software engineer and the parts designer are often paid on the basis of days of work rather than software or parts designed.

Work and Paper

Paper is another old technology that was fundamental to the way work was laid out in the past, and is still carried out. We have been waiting for years to get rid of paper. But this is a misleading shorthand for the goal. The real goal is to root the business processes in the digital representation rather than the paper representation. This means making the digital data the authority, not the paper. It means representing the product electronically in three dimensions, rather than in paper drawings. It means using the digital representation to make data and processes more reliable across space and time. It does not mean avoiding paper to read documents or create illustrations.

In spite of the clear progress in this area, through three-dimensional product design and enterprise resource planning systems, there are huge holes in the effective use of “digitization.” The slow progress in the medical records field is but one example of how difficult it is to get rid of not only the old systems, but the old way of thinking.

Conclusions

We would likely become better at discarding old technology components if we incorporated this anticipation at the beginning. I think my files and software would look different if I were consciously planning to discard the computer later. At the systems level it is tougher. Each new patch of a system looks innocent and seems the right thing to do at that time. But it is the cumulative effect of these patches that make it more difficult later. Managing such systems for later replacement is a discipline that is rarely discussed, but is a major factor in today’s trend toward buying rather than building systems. The hope is that the vendor will not put a patch wherever anyone requests one, but will establish a more orderly disciplined development meeting the broader needs of the market.

Discarding a way of thinking is more difficult. That is because it is difficult to imagine how processes would be done with a technology not yet available. We make unconscious assumptions in the use of one technology that would not be good assumptions for the next. Fortunately, cycles for these changes tend to be a bit longer than for the systems or components. So perhaps some occasional examination of how the assumptions might be modified with emerging technology would keep us from locking in too tightly.
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Al Erisman is executive editor of Ethix, which he co-founded in 1998.
He spent 32 years at The Boeing Company, the last 11 as director of technology.
He was selected as a senior technical fellow of The Boeing Company in 1990,
and received his Ph.D. in applied mathematics from Iowa State University.

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