Early man and woman were ink stained creatures, with deep furrowed brows and heightened instincts that allowed them to track their prey across unmapped terrain. No, we’re not talking about primitive humans; we are in fact talking about professional business people and accountants who lived once upon a time, in a place not so very far away, in a time not at all that long ago. For many of us, the Internet is a fact of life.

The way out? (from Hell)
Giampaolo Macorig via Compfight

For most of us, the pre-Internet world (and worse still the pre-spreadsheet one) is now a distant memory. If you want to know what it’s like living in a post-apocalyptic world, just take a look around you. From what I can remember of those smoky offices, filled with zombie like people memorizing figures and groping in the dark attempting to identify sales trends, those were the apocalyptic times. Spreadsheets and the rest of the computing wonders that followed may have saved us all. But one question still remains: have we lost something by our reliance on the spreadsheet and the computing power it represents?

Information Hunter Gatherers

The ability to identify your prey and then track it across unmapped terrain has been with humanity for countless generations. Way back in the last century, maybe thirty years ago, these skills were still being utilized in businesses across the globe. That’s not to say city professionals were popping out to single-handedly catch wildebeest at lunch time, although with the way some yuppies behaved you wouldn’t have put it past them. They were using very old skills that have now been mechanized. Gut feeling is not what it was.

The sort of prey we’re talking about here are customers, harsh I know but not without at least a grain of truth. Prior to the spreadsheet and its attendant computer modelling, the chances of identifying a trend were pretty nigh impossible, without truly understanding your customers, and having a real awareness of their motivations or the impact that current economic trends. What can today be modeled to death was, in those days, about learning “real” skills.

Managing Information – not just coping with it

Of course, that makes me sound a bit of a pipe smoking, ale swilling Luddite. Those days are also, sadly, long gone. Today if it shines, beeps, flashes and can do huge amounts of work for me, I’ve probably got one. Spreadsheets, databases and everything that followed them are, to people of my generation, still a little magical and we love them. In the old days, adding together accurately £50,000 numbers took several days, several columns, several people and, on occasion, several nervous breakdowns. You can do it a matter of seconds today. Nerves intact and with less man/woman hours to do it, the final figure won’t need a great big wage bill deducting from it: miraculous.

While some people may say that each great leap forward puts people out of a job, experience suggests it also puts other people in jobs. The speed, efficiency and accuracy that modern accounting software such as Intuit QuickBooks can offer, along with the light speed rates of communication, allows businesses to grow and develop like never before. Today, the occasional accidental gambling of a billion or so dollars may still occur thanks to the odd rogue trader, but in our technologically wired world the attempt doesn’t go unnoticed for weeks or months in the way it used to and no longer offers them the chance to find a safe, non-extraditing jurisdiction in which to retire. Yes, life before spreadsheets was, to be frank, a living hell.

New Skills for Old

The biggest argument that many anti-technology commentators put forward is that we’ve lost important skills. However, there are still plenty of business people ruthless enough to know how to catch a wildebeest (if necessary) and we’ve also developed new skills. Technology, even something as simple as spreadsheets, doesn’t stop us innovating and learning; if anything quite the opposite is true.

Carlo Pandian is a management graduate and blogs about accounting, finance and small business.

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