Ada Lovelace Day: Enid Mumford

I committed to writing a thing for Ada Lovelace Day, a day in which people are meant to blog about a woman they admire in the technology field, before realising I would be spending the day in Edinburgh, so this may be a little more brief than I would otherwise intend.

The woman I’m going to write about is Enid Mumford. She may seem an odd choice, as her degree and field of expertise was not primarily a technical one – she had a BA in social science, and worked in management for much of her career. However, she specialised in an area that is still horribly under-valued – sociotechnical studies. Her work was in the cultural and social impact of technology. Very early on – in the 1970s, especially with her work for DEC – she noticed that large-scale IT projects don’t ever actually achieve the things it’s claimed they will achieve, and identified the reasons why.

In almost all cases, big IT projects, in industry or government, are designed with little or no reference to the people who will be using them – they often create, rather than solve, problems. Mumford’s ETHICS (Effective Technical and Human Implementation of Computer-based Systems) method, based in cybernetic principles, was one of the first and most effective attempts at designing whole systems – ensuring that computer systems would be created to be part of a larger system, so they’d be an effective part of the workflow, so they’d actually solve a problem, and also ensuring that the people who worked with the computer systems wouldn’t be threatened by the new technology, because they would be involved in the design from the outset. Mumford’s methods, if used properly, would ensure that any computer systems introduced would actually be helpful to workers rather than being the expensive messes we see regularly from big IT consultants.

Mumford set these ideas out in a book, Designing Human Systems, which can be read for free here, along with a number of sequels which set out the use of these ideas in specific industries. Shortly before she died, my uncle (who worked with her) agreed to work with her to update the book to take into account modern programming and design techniques. Unfortunately, she then became ill, and the work was completed by my uncle Steve and Holly working on the main body of the text, and Steve and myself writing the new material on Agile Programming techniques. This book was published (credited to Enid, Steve and Holly) as Designing Human Systems: An Agile Approach To Ethics (NB I don’t make any money from sales of the book). Unfortunately, she died before I got to meet her, but working so closely with her text (doing endless redrafts of footnotes, proofreading and so on) gave me a very intimate knowledge of her ideas, and made me realise how important they are.

Mumford as a ‘social scientist’ had more influence on the development of computer systems over the last thirty years than almost any qualified programmers, but her name is not especially well known outside of specialised circles. In particular, she managed to show, quite conclusively, that employee happiness is actually essential to true efficiency. It’s a lesson that many, *many* IT projects would do well to learn from.

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One Response to Ada Lovelace Day: Enid Mumford

  1. Paul Hulbert says:

    An excellent choice. If only projects like the NHS National Programme for IT had followed some of Mumford’s ideas instead of being so technologically driven. I regularly talk to my students about this.

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