CIO Insight: Better tech is not always the answer to your problem
I was speaking to someone about workforce management software (I have the mostexciting life) last week which prompted another one of my interminable anecdotes, to be related below. Then I spoke to my WB-40 collaborator Matt Ballantine about the psychology of technology adoption (I told you about my life) while we were recording the latest podcast. His blog today is a good one as is this follow up from Mark Earls. It’s funny how these ideas flow from person to person, picking up speed and increasing in value along the way.
My story goes like this. Working for a catering equipment service company in the mid-1990s as an IT Manager / programmer / jack-of-all-trades, the MD had seen some new technology that he wanted us to exploit. This was before GPRS, mobile phones were fairly new, and there was a company called Cognito that held the licence for a nationwide radio frequency, used entirely for their mobile data product. The Cognito device was a big black brick with an LCD screen and a keyboard.
We were to roll out these devices to our technicians, and I wrote a piece of middleware that linked their network to our job management system. With some more improvements to that system, we were going to be able to automatically assign new jobs to mobile workers, depending on who was closest, the urgency of the call, etc etc. All those things that still seem pretty complicated today, we were doing 20 years ago. And the technology worked. Yes, it was a DOS-based Foxpro system, and yes, the algorithms were pretty simple compared to today’s analytical behemoths, but it worked well enough that we could magically send new jobs to technicians throughout the day and automatically place orders to replenish van stocks each night and save a whole bunch of time in the process.
(Kids, this was what it used to look like)
What I hadn’t bargained for was the push back from our mobile workforce. Far from being excited about this cool new technological wonder, they were forever trying to find reasons why it didn’t work properly. I would show them how to close their jobs down with a few button presses, and how magical it was that the details of their next jobs just appeared on the screen in a few seconds. They would listen politely, and then proceed to ‘forget’ to charge them, leave them on top of their vans and drive away, and generally be delinquent… (sorry guys 🙂
All this meant that the girls (for they were all girls) on our control desk didn’t get the time back that we thought they would, they still ended up taking a lot of calls from the guys (for they were all guys) on the road. I kept trying to improve the technology, find better batteries, reduce keystrokes etc in an effort to get this technology accepted. When I eventually got the truth from the technicians, I realised I’d been thinking about it all wrong.
The guys on the road used to call in after every job and talk to the control desk to get their next piece of work. They would haggle over where they would go next, always trying to make sure they weren’t too far from home on their last job, that they didn’t have to go to the White Horse where the landlady was miserable, and they would provide local knowledge – ‘don’t send me to Grantham, there’s been an accident on the A52’. What we were asking them to do was to stop those conversations and talk to a little black box via a keyboard. All that chit-chat, flirting and joking, that made their day far more enjoyable, all the feedback and negotiation, was basically being scrapped. The technology was, essentially, good enough – the solution was not.
Since then I’ve learned that the way to make improvements is not by simply attacking the ‘system’ as if it is a crossword puzzle – people interact with each other, and with their IT, in ways that are complex and whilst they can absorb time, they can also add value. Treating people as if they are completing tasks like robots is always a fool’s errand. Matt called this focus on the tools ‘the technologist’s foible’ – that if tech is adopted it must be good, and if it isn’t then it must be bad, and the answer is better tech. And as Mark Earls says – it always seems clear why things worked after the fact but it’s not something you can turn around for prediction purposes.
Technology can be used to create some fantastic tools, which is why I’m still interested when I go to see a company that’s got a problem, or working on a solution, that has a tech component – but that’s all it ever is, a component. It’s never the whole thing, and it’s vital that IT teams and the business colleagues that rely on them never forget that.