The Journal of Open Computing
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à Welcome from the Editor
à Open Source Groundswell
à Jon Hall on Standards
à The Future of HTML
à Metadata Update
à The Productivity Underground
à Spotlight on O'Reilly Assocs.
à The Open Group: Clustering
à The Open Group: Why Unix?
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Communique From the Productivity Underground

An Anonymous Interview

I conducted this interview in late April 1998. I was initially quite taken by the image of staffers smuggling copies of WordPerfect into the office, hiding the clandestine installations behind different icons, and using them in secret so they could just get their jobs done. Then I read on and heard what this beleaguered user was really saying: they're not even that concerned about what brand the software is, they just want something that works and they want to be supported in using it. - jdj

Journal of Open Computing: First, tell me a little about the work you do and the organization in question.

Anonymous User: I work with many organizations on a consulting basis. Sometimes, I get to work out of my home (maybe going into the organization for meetings to facilitate/train, etc.), but occasionally the jobs require me to be on-site. The organization in question is a national nonprofit civil rights organization, located in downtown DC.

JoOC: Tell us about this office and the impact of their software policy.

AU: The organization switched last year to MS Office, so programs that staff used for years -- such as WordPerfect and Lotus -- are off-limits. They go so far as to erase them from your hard drives if they catch you with them. The tech support folks are cool -- but management is a bitch. They made the decision top-down, based on compatibility, network cost, etc., but with no input from staff (i.e., the people who would actually be affected by the change).

JoOC: How does the staff respond to this prohibition?

AU: Everyone in my department uses WordPerfect -- we install in on the hard drives and use a different icon in case the management comes by. We've set our screen savers to pop on very quickly. I was almost caught once (thank God for ALT-TAB). Someone was recently caught -- so WordPerfect got removed, and we quickly re-installed it. Our department is working on training manuals that were all originally written in WordPerfect 5 years ago -- we're talking thousands upon thousands of pages. One accountant doesn't care -- he uses Lotus openly and almost as a dare. Most people, though, use what is made available to them -- but not, I might add, particularly effectively.

JoOC: Has the organization helped the staff at all in making the transition?

AU: I have to work with a lot of tables and charts, and do some layout work. I can't figure out how to do half the stuff in Word and neither can anyone else in the department where I work. Nor are there training or books available to help me out. The two tech support guys are usually too busy dealing with the network and hardware problems for me to bother them on a regular basis. The organization hasn't thought about asking one person to, say, be the Word expert and available for questions, another the Excel expert, etc.

Even worse, to the best of my knowledge, the organization doesn't provide any training. I tried to get a basic introduction in Excel, to no avail. Nor do they provide manuals. Each department is required to purchase its own manuals; the management says they have a way of "disappearing."

JoOC: What do you think a sane office software policy would be, and why?

AU: I think that asking everyone to use the same software is sane -- the question isn't policy but implementation. The policy is valid -- I think that, particularly for reasons of compatibility, it makes sense to ask that all departments or all staff members use the same programs. The issue here is not that this organization's policy vis-a-vis technology is off; rather, I see this as a cut-and-dried case of what happens when decisions are made in a non-participatory way -- where the people most impacted haven't even been minimally consulted.

Moreover, once the decision was made, the organization could have made the transition a lot more employee-friendly. Indeed, orientation to the current system is not available for current or new staff, and departments with significant reason to use another kind of software are basically not allowed to. So, for example, the accounting department got into trouble when years' worth of files were somehow corrupted in the migration to Excel.

JoOC: Well, good luck, and thanks for your time!

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