“Get a system – not just a computer”: GE and UNIVAC: Harnessing the High Speed Computer (1954)

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Osborn RF. GE and UNIVAC: Harnessing the High-Speed Computer. Harvard Business Review. 1954;32(4):99-107. [Accessed March 15, 2008]. If you do not have access to a database that hosts this article, you can look at this one.

I feel so unoriginal, and yet enlightened at the same time.

In my ongoing interest to understand where we came from, so we can move ahead, I was alerted to this article while reading The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google (review coming soon), and had to read it. It has enough quotable quotes to fill 10-20 different presentations on health information technology, because a lot of what we’ve done has happened before. Just begin with the opening:

How soon the first complete electronic accounting system can be seen depends not on the business machine companies, and not on the engineers, but on the controllers themselves.

The article was written by the Manager of the Business Procedures Section at General Electric’s Louiseville plant, describing how General Electric would decide to spend almost $1 million on a tool that had never been deployed in business – the computer.

In the discussion, the fears and promise of an entire information technology industry are presented. Everything from the maverick nature of IT professionals (businesses not embracing this technology were referred to as “Rip Van Winkle”-esque, asleep to the future), to the desire to integrate the tool into ongoing operations:

…we should avoid both the deadening effect of all the limitations that are so often attributed to electronic computers and the frightening requirement of “rethinking entire operations” according to the prescription of so many of the experts of the subject.

That’s a challenging notion – we talk today about rethinking health care processes in anticipation of health information technology implementation. How successful are we at doing that? This paper gives clues that we came from a place where the bias was not to rethink things.

There are other fears presented, each managed by the GE team, including that an entire “electronic brain” would take over the decision making of executives. The computer was deliberately not put in a position to do more than provide information and speed repetitive tasks.

There is also the beginning of the personalization of the computer. UNIVAC is referred to as a person, even a baby, when the author says that it will be tended to and “nursed” by the data centers that will support it. I think we still live with that notion today, that a computer is a person, which generates various emotions among its users.

The article provides a lot of thinking for what the hopes were and whether they were met. In some ways, business went too far, by automating too much. LEAN students like myself are working to dismantle automation in many cases – more databases does not yield more understanding we have now found. The article also failed to predict the impact of the information technology infrastructure that would have to be developed to support this utopia – up to 45 % of capital costs of some companies in the last decade.

One thing that resonated with me (of course) was the emphasis on optimism in the leaders that would enter this new industry. For the leadership of their new computer group, they sought someone with

…enthusiasm, vision, foresight, energy, and an optimistic point of view; he [sic] should be willing to take risks and to devote his entire energies and thoughts to the task at hand.

Is Health Information Technology 2008 equal to General Electric 1954? A little. At the same time, it’s nice to hear that optimism has not gone out of style. It’s always worth looking at our past in the interest of saving some time for the future.

Concidentally, I ran across this post on fellow physician Jay Parkinson, MD’s blog, which also harkens back to a future once dreamed of.

[Note: The article is copyrighted and as far as I can tell, not available for purchase on the Harvard Business Review web site. I have linked instead to another article about the GE UNIVAC purchase]

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