Ken Olsen RIP – Lessons for the Public Sector

Blog, Workplace, Peter Holle

Digital Equipment CorporationKen Olsen, the engineer who founded and built Digital Equipment Corporation, has passed away at 84 years of age. DEC, of course, was the pioneering company behind the mini-computer which was swept away by the advent of the personal computer.  It was bought by Compaq in 1998, which in turn was purchased by Hewlett-Packard in 2002.

My wife worked there in the 1990s but like many other talented professionals moved on to other things as the company started to stumble.   It had about 85,000 employees when its remnants disappeared into other companies.   It is almost impossible to imagine such dramatic change in the public sector where rigid old structures rule and highly vocal interest groups dominate services.   

DEC demonstrated the positive side of creative destruction in our capitalist system. The market economy quickly redeployed its resources, people, assets and intellectual capital into other uses.  Many Deccies started their own companies or found spots to flourish in the rapidly changing technology workplace.  Had the government let either Chrysler or GM truly fail in 2008, instead of bailing them out, we would have seen the same sorting out process.  It would not have been the end of the world.

There is a lesson here for the politicians who sit atop the immense low performing structures that permeate the public sector.   Dramatic overhauls of the public sector, inevitable in the face of rapidly changing technology (video conferencing, e-government), changing demographics (labour shortages), the end of public sector monopoly (purchaser-provider splits, competitive contracting) and, most importantly, fiscal reality (avoiding a Greece-style collapse) are very doable with some leadership and knowledge of managing dramatic change.  

One can think of freshly minted Toronto mayor Rob Ford who is moving to reshape local government there.  He’s on the right track. Good luck sir.