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Parkinson’s Law in IT

“As the capacity of the computer hardware increases, the software becomes more bloated.”

– Bryce’s Law


Ever wonder why our computers typically don’t last more than three years? Many claim that it is due to the rapid pace of technological advances. Maybe. But I tend to believe that there is more to it than that, namely “Parkinson’s Law”. For those of you who have forgotten, “Parkinson’s Law” was devised by C. Northcote Parkinson, a noted British historian and author. The original book of him, “Parkinson’s Law: The Quest for Progress”, it was introduced in 1958 and was a best-selling management book for several years (it is still sold today). The book was based on his experience with the British Civil Service. Among his key observations was that “work expands to fill the time available for its completion.” Basically, it suggests that people do work to rationalize their employment. Consequently, managers create bureaucracies and superfluous work to justify their existence, not because they are really needed.

Besides, CEOs clearly understood Parkinson’s Law, which became the driving force behind the flattening of corporations in the 1990s, such as General Electric under the reign of Jack Welch.


While Parkinson was primarily concerned with people, his law is equally applicable to machines, particularly computers; For example, Parkinson’s Law can be applied to computing in terms of “The data expands to fill the space available for storage.” Years ago I had a Compaq Presario computer with 50MB of disk space, which I considered considerable at the time. I never dreamed that he would be able to fill the hard drive. But of course I did (as did other PCs I’ve owned over the years). My current PC has a hard drive with a capacity of 224 gb and although I am a long way from filling it, I inevitably know that I will for two reasons: I now feel more comfortable downloading large media files (MP3, AVI, WMV, etc.), PDF files, database files, and other larger file formats, and; Second, because developers have become sloppy in programming.

Back when memory and disk space were scarce, there was great concern about the efficient use of computing resources. The program code was written very precisely and the size of the file was taken into account. For example, the establishment of a simple archive index was carefully considered. But as computer power grew and hardware prices fell, developers became less interested in efficient programming. To illustrate, not long ago, packaged software installation programs were delivered on 3.5″ diskettes. Today, it is not uncommon to use multiple CDs to install the same products. This means that as capacity increases From the computer hardware, the software becomes more bloated—but an example of Parkinson’s Law applied to computing.

As another example, let us consider data transmission lines as used in networks. It doesn’t seem that long ago we used 14.4 baud modems on phone lines. I remember when we doubled the speed to 28.8 and then 56.4. It seemed like the sky was the limit with each increase. But eventually performance seemed to slow to a crawl. Was it because the technology was getting older or because our web pages were getting bigger and more complicated and required more data over the lines? Frankly, it was the latter. Today, DSL and cable are common in both homes and businesses, and “dial-up” is fast becoming a thing of the past. But as the volume of data increases with the number of subscribers, will we ever hit a wall in terms of capacity with DSL and cable? Undoubtedly. Again, more due to Parkinson’s Law than anything else.

Make no mistake, computer hardware and software vendors are well aware of the role of Parkinson’s Law. It is what allows them to incorporate planned obsolescence into their products. As consumers reach capacity, they may add additional capacity or, more likely, purchase new computers.

To be sure, there is an incestuous relationship between hardware and software vendors. Hardware upgrades are implemented primarily to increase capacity to overcome software inefficiencies, and software vendors make their products more bloated as hardware upgrades are introduced. To illustrate the point, is it a coincidence that every major version of Windows requires additional hardware support? Hardly. This is done more by design than by accident.


Parkinson’s Law is as much a part of computer technology as it is in the corporate world. But what if we decided to “flatten” computer technology the way Jack Welch flattened GE? Keep in mind that Welch did it to eliminate bureaucracy and force his workers to be more efficient and focus on the real issues at hand. By flattening the bloatware we would probably get a lot more performance out of our computers. But I guess that wouldn’t be good for selling computers (or the economy).

I guess Parkinson’s Law and the slimy circle of computing will be with us for quite some time.

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