We had cause this week to ponder the tension between personal computing and business governance. Oddly enough, it was three shades of red that set the mental ball rolling. A mid-sized firm of our acquaintance has a logo in three hues of red. For years their outsourced printers have produced newsletters, brochures and posters that carefully create the shades exactly as their designer intended.
Then the company splashed out on a top of the line Oce colour laser printer and looked forward to a new age of prosperity, empowered to produce on-demand marketing materials that would set its sector alight.
It wasn't long before the office colour police called a halt. The shades of red aren't right, they cried. Well, of course not. Put simply, it takes a time-rich, highly trained specialist operator to maintain accurate absolute colours using a sophisticated laser printer.
It's not as simple as printing a black and white page on a $600 laser.
If a business wants to take advantage of high-quality in-house printing it must either pay the price of specially trained staff or accept that the prized corporate colours will vary noticeably from Monday to Friday.
We actually crossed the Rubicon of corporate control years ago. Once, all business letterheads were offset printed, at 6000 dots per inch using ink and paper that guaranteed consistency. Now many enterprises generate letterheads in-house, accepting that two copies produced at a far less subtle 600 dots per inch on different printers or different days may look slightly different, as if anyone cares.
For them, the convenience of letterheads on demand outweighs the supposed benefits of absolute control of corporate livery.
It isn't just in-print colours that personal computing challenges but traditional ideas of business control. In little more than a decade, email has exploded our idea of orderly communication. As recently as 1997, it was the norm for one business to communicate with another via their typing pools and mailrooms, with file references and management determining who approved and signed mail and who received and actioned incoming correspondence.
Now, every junior woodchuck in Enterprise A corresponds with anyone in Enterprise B whose email address they happen to have obtained. Instead of letters typed, proofed and approved through a managed process, uncensored jottings fly from person to person. That may not be a bad thing but it's certainly a less controlled form of B2B communication than we once had.
Likewise with mobile phones. In a past life, our reception kept a note of every inbound caller and we could confirm or deny that Mr X had contacted us on a given day.
These days, half the business calls we receive are in taxis on a cellphone and we have no more than vague memories and often meaningless billing records as records of who called us last month.
Personal computing also has eliminated at least one set of eyes from the production of many corporate documents. When every letter required at least two people to create, an author and a keyboard operator, the typist was an ever-present censor, ready to point out or even correct on sight an obvious error or nonsense.
In a day when producing your own documents is common, an entire layer of control is jettisoned. No wonder business documents are so often less considered than when typewriters ruled.
None of this is to decry the power, immediacy or flexibility of the PC, smartphone, internet or colour printer. It's just that those benefits are often incompatible with the way we were used to running an enterprise in what our bright five-year-old calls "old fashioned", by which he means anything prior to The Wiggles.
The challenge is to make intelligent choices about what control to cheerily sacrifice and what freedoms have gone too far. For our money, nit-picking about precise corporate colours is a poor marketing choice compared with being known as the outfit that produces valuable material at the speed of light.
On the other hand, the tide of email that is sloshing about the business world with little consideration and less management is worth worrying about. We need to revisit what aspects of computerised business conduct really warrant a straitjacket and which should be allowed more flexibility.
• Peter Moon is a partner in Logie-Smith Lanyon Lawyers.
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