Often, when I speak with other technologists, particularly women, they comment on how unusual, yet refreshing, it is to speak with a (another) woman who is passionate about technology. Truth be told, it’s not so much that I’m passionate about technology, but rather the possibilities technology creates — for business innovation, societal advancement, easier living, and/or entertainment.
Today though, as I was perusing the (online) Wall Street Journal, I read two articles that stirred the (soundly) sleeping Luddite in me. The first article (subscription required) describes Walmart’s new workforce scheduling system that uses historical (prior year), recent (7 weeks), and real-time (15-minute) customer traffic data to determine optimum employee scheduling. The optimization is for customer experience and profitability.
So, periods of high customer traffic and sales will have more staff than low periods. This makes perfect business sense. Customers don’t have to suffer through long lines during busy periods. Walmart doesn’t have to pay surplus staff to hang around during slow periods. I get this. Forecasting (sales, inventory, workforce) is a critical, longtime, retail practice:
In the past, store managers for Wal-Mart and other huge retailers, including Sears Holdings Corp.’s Kmart, Payless and J. Crew, scheduled workers based on store promotions and weekly sales figures from the previous year. By comparison, the software systems created by workforce-management software companies such as Workbrain Inc., Kronos and CyberShift Inc. rely on real-time data feeds, such as sales rung up at the cash register and customer traffic.
What stirred my sleeping Luddite was the impact the real-time element has on employees:
But while the new systems are expected to benefit both retailers and customers, some experts say they can saddle workers with unpredictable schedules. In some cases, they may be asked to be "on call" to meet customer surges, or sent home because of a lull, resulting in less pay. The new systems also alert managers when a worker is approaching full-time status or overtime, which would require higher wages and benefits, so they can scale back that person’s schedule.
That means workers may not know when or if they will need a babysitter or whether they will work enough hours to pay that month’s bills. Rather than work three eight-hour days, someone might now be plugged into six four-hour days, mornings one week and evenings the next.
Some analysts say the new systems will result in more irregular part-time work. "The whole point is workers were a fixed cost, now they’re a variable cost. Is it good for workers? Probably not," says Kenneth Dalto, a management consultant in Farmington Hills, Mich.
(emphasis is mine)
Seems like a lot to ask of people averaging $10/hour.
The second article (subscription required), written by John Miller of the National Review, questions the use of book circulation software in libraries as the sole criteria to determine if a book deserves shelf space.
"For Whom the Bell Tolls" may be one of Ernest Hemingway’s best-known books, but it isn’t exactly flying off the shelves in northern Virginia these days. Precisely nobody has checked out a copy from the Fairfax County Public Library system in the past two years, according to a front-page story in yesterday’s Washington Post.
And now the bell may toll for Hemingway. A software program developed by SirsiDynix, an Alabama-based library-technology company, informs librarians of which books are circulating and which ones aren’t. If titles remain untouched for two years, they may be discarded — permanently. "We’re being very ruthless," boasts library director Sam Clay.
As it happens, the ruthlessness may not ultimately extend to Hemingway’s classic. "For Whom the Bell Tolls" could win a special reprieve, and, in the future, copies might remain available at certain branches. Yet lots of other volumes may not fare as well. Books by Charlotte Brontë, William Faulkner, Thomas Hardy, Marcel Proust and Alexander Solzhenitsyn have recently been pulled.
Library officials explain, not unreasonably, that their shelf space is limited and that they want to satisfy the demands of the public.
Miller goes on to question what libraries are for:
What are libraries for? Are they cultural storehouses that contain the best that has been thought and said? Or are they more like actual stores, responding to whatever fickle taste or Mitch Albom tearjerker is all the rage at this very moment?
Noting the broad availability of low-cost books, Miller urges libraries and librarians to embrace their differentiation, rather than compete as lowest cost providers of mass-market titles:
Instead of embracing this doomed model, libraries might seek to differentiate themselves among the many options readers now have, using a good dictionary as the model. Such a dictionary doesn’t merely describe the words of a language — it provides proper spelling, pronunciation and usage. New words come in and old ones go out, but a reliable lexicon becomes a foundation of linguistic stability and coherence. Likewise, libraries should seek to shore up the culture against the eroding force of trends.
The particulars of this task will fall upon the shoulders of individual librarians, who should welcome the opportunity to discriminate between the good and the bad, the timeless and the ephemeral, as librarians traditionally have done. They ought to regard themselves as not just experts in the arcane ways of the Dewey Decimal System, but as teachers, advisers and guardians of an intellectual inheritance.
The thought of libraries dumping classics is just plain disturbing to me.
Now, the above in no way translate to “technology is bad”, rather, people sometimes make bad decisions about the use of technology. So, along with an appreciation of a technology’s possibilities, we need to always recognize the human consequences. May all our inner-Luddites sleep well…