Engage with people, not computers

I was enjoying a quiet visit to the library when it struck me – business needs to engage with more than a computer screen to be truly innovative.


Every now and again I go the public library to do some research, but also for a change in environment. I find that it is quiet and refreshing. I have access to so many books on any subject that sometimes I spend more time trying to decide which books to read than in actually reading.


I was in the library the other day when I noticed something quite extraordinary. I looked up from my book and beneath me on the lower level of the library there were countless computers. A person was seated at each station and they all seemed to be completely absorbed in what ever it was they could see on the screen.


In the meantime, people such as me who wanted simply to access the books on the shelves were few and far between. I thought to myself: “Why do people come to the library to stare at a computer screen when there is this vast rich reservoir of knowledge stored on the shelves?”


My mind flicked to a recent article that I had read on innovation. As we know, innovation is a pathway to growth. The article bemoaned the fact that Australia was becoming less innovative and that we run the risk of falling behind in global competitiveness.


These two experiences (forgive the expression) “clicked” for me. In fact it was like a quadruple “click”. I wondered how many people spend their day glued to a computer screen.


Now, I know that we can learn a lot from the web. These days, my Britannica rarely gets used, but what is happening when people come to a public library, not to access the books but to look at computer screens? The library is becoming another work station instead of a literary resource.


We are becoming a nation that talks with computers. Now it is great to get emails from friends all over the world with whom we might not otherwise communicate, but hell! how innovative are we when we go through our exercises every day to prepare ourselves for the day’s stint at the “screen”?


Perhaps someone will do a PhD one day on the sources of innovation in order to determine how many innovative ideas came from looking at computer screens and how many came from talking to people, reading interesting books, travelling or simply observing something in the workplace. How many innovative ideas come from workers exchanging “if only” stories in the lunch room?


The screw cap for wine bottles didn’t come from communicating with computers, nor did the idea of Telstra to bring out one domestic A-Z directory and one for business.


I just wondered the other day what would happen if the public library closed down the computers for a week. That would really make people think innovatively. “What in god’s name am I going to do without access to the computer in the public library?”

Perhaps they would have to become familiar with the classification system for books and find something on the shelves. I suspect that unfortunately there would be a lot fewer people in the library.


What would happen if the entire web went down and no one could access whatever is accumulating there at a speed approaching the speed of light? I suspect that our response would be the same as when we phone customer service and can’t get an answer because “the computer is down, call back tomorrow”.


I just had this thought in the library, that if we are to grow as a business, to be more innovative and competitive as a country, then we need to spend less time looking at computer screens and more time engaging with one another. It is amazing how many great ideas have come at coffee breaks. But perhaps that is an area of research for a PhD.



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