Efficiency Is Intelligent Laziness

As an Accountant, sometimes I think about how much my department relies upon computers.  Actually, who am I kidding?  Every company in the world is absolutely dependent upon computers, but for my sake – we will pretend that only the Finance departments are of any consequence.  Humor me?  In 2006, I was working for a multi-billion dollar Fortune 500 company as a Senior Accountant.  They were moving things around, getting rid of old records that were no longer necessary to make room for additional employees in the “forgotten wing” of the building.  Every department had to take a 20 minute shift to walk into the “forgotten wing” and re-stack a few boxes, determine what could be destroyed and what had to remain in our possession. 

Naturally, I thought it was a silly request, so I did what I usually do with silly requests … completely ignore the task at hand and find a suitable replacement activity.  My replacement activity of choice on this occasion was to snoop through old boxes and hope to find some really old office supplies or paraphernalia to use in my ‘cube.  My search was leading me nowhere.  Sure, there was a lot of dust and old stuff that was found, but rusty paperclips and yellowed copy paper just wouldn’t quite set the right ambiance in the 6’ x 6’ world that I was given dominion over.  Out of the corner of my eye, I glimpsed an old storage box.  There appeared to be all sorts of items within it … old fashioned staplers, some Happy Birthday streamers probably used last for a colleague’s birthday cake & ice cream party back in 1974, yellowed copy paper, more yellowed copy paper, spiders, dust, cobwebs, and at the very bottom … a solid green leather bound Accounting Ledger with the year 1943 etched on the front cover. Jackpot! 

Sure, this isn’t what I was searching for, but it was way better!  It was old, but in good shape (they really knew how to put a binder together back in the forties.  In 60 years from now, we’ll find our “leather bound” ledgers and books cracked and chipping away in the breeze.  But, THIS, this was quality construction.)  Anyhoo, I wasn’t interested in what held the ledger together anyway.  I was just impressed with it, that’s all.  I’m not sure how my Accountant counter-parts would feel if they came across the same relic, but I felt like an archeologist who had just unearthed a section of history that is so rarely seen nor cared about, and I was excited and filled with questions.  I started skimming through the lines trying to just get an idea of some of the expenses the company had back then … how much were they paying in salaries in 1943?  What about Office Supplies?  Did they stick to the GAAP rules to a T and create a separate Office Supply Inventory which was amortized at regular intervals?  Or was it just a straight expense?  What about political campaigns?  Did they contribute?  If so, to whom?  What sort of taxes were they being raped with charged?

The more I scanned the pages of the ledger the more I realized how much work it was to track and report transactions back then.  Sure, I know HOW to do that … in college they don’t just throw Accounting students on a software package and send them home with a “(insert Accounting software name) For Dummies” handbook.  We all learned the old fashioned, long hand way … but I can’t imagine if we relied on human calculations, handwriting, tracking and reporting today.  For example, a 30-year depreciation table could take well over 3 hours to calculate and write by hand, but only 30 seconds via computer.  Invoicing?  On a computer, you simply use a software program to record the specifics of a receivable … it instantly records it in the Accounts Receivable ledger AND updates the General Ledger simultaneously!  By hand?  You would have to first create the invoice by typewriter or by hand; then input the data by hand into the Accounts Receivable ledger; then, input the same summarized data into the General Ledger.  Payroll; tax calculations; multiple entries that all have an effect on various financial statements.  And, speaking of financial statements … let’s say the Finance Manager wants to see what the income statement looks like so far this month, back in 1943.  He (of course, it would be a “he”) would ask his bookkeeper (most definitely, another “he”) to create an income statement to date … then he would wait for 2 hours while it was being calculated.  They would review the document together, and find an error that would need correction.  The bookkeeper goes back into his office, makes the correction and would then re-calculate the pertinent areas of the statement before taking it to the Finance Manager for a second look.  If we were in the 21st century … an income statement is requested (could be by a man OR woman), an Accountant (again – man OR woman) pulls up a software, selects the report and the date in which the report needs to be representative of and prints it.  If a correction needs to be made, it is done electronically and a second updated report can be printed. Voila!

When my current office experiences network issues which result in not being able to access our network files (i.e. spreadsheets, schedules, etc) I just sit and think about the green leather bound ledger from 1943.  The work that it required and all the WASTED time!!  I wonder what that bookkeeper from 1943 thinks about the technology and progression we’ve experienced since his time.  I wonder if he now thinks of all the time he wasted in that dark office doing the amount of work we can accomplish now in 30-40 minutes?  Or, does he think of our current speed of productivity as an abomination of some sort?  And, what will I think about all of this in another 40 years when I’m long gone from the business world?  Will I smile when my grandchildren talk to me about the latest innovations used in commerce?  Or will I sit then down and bore them with another story about my love affair with Microsoft Excel?

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