Technology – a double edge sword?

BY PHIL WESTWOOD

We are undoubtedly in the technological age – where technology of all shapes and sizes can, and is, making a tangible impact on our day-to-day lives, both personally and professionally. It is therefore unsurprising to hear that business is heavily backing the exploration of this, irrespective of how successful it turns out to be.

Indeed a recent study mentioned in The Times recent Operational Optimisation Special Report, showed that 56% of chief executives are saying that their company has a culture where ‘failing fast’ innovation initiatives are celebrated.

At various points in my career, I have been blessed with the opportunity to work on some leading-edge technological projects – such as enterprise software applications and mobile phone apps; and early-stage augmented reality technology – or the “Terminator glasses”, to use its nickname. My personal life has not escaped this either – with my home rapidly becoming the bastion of the “internet of things”. And to help me achieve the true pinnacle of laziness, I am considering one of those lawnmowers that can cut the grass itself.

But I’ve also come to realise that the impact of technology is not always a positive one, so rather than just channelling my “inner geek” with you, I wanted to highlight some areas where, in my experience, technology cannot always change things for the better .

ONLINE MEETINGS

Online meetings are now the standard in most organisations, with the prevalence of Zoom, Microsoft Teams et al.

My first use of online meetings dates back well over a decade, when Skype was the order of the day. I was managing a multi-national team that I could only converse with via telephone conference facilities and physical visits – all of which needed a level of consideration and planning. Suddenly, this new software presented a new opportunity for instant face-to-face dialogue that I had never experienced before, which I was delighted to have access to. But, over time, I started to notice that all was not well.

As team manager, I was starting to “over-step the mark” – getting too much into the intricacies of detail of what team members were doing, even in technical areas which were beyond necessity. It was too easy to “jump on a video call”. In hindsight, appeasing me became a key activity for my team in itself – with more time being spent by the team trying to impress me and answer my inane irrelevant questions, rather than deliver the true value that the team was there for. 

My over-exuberance with Skype also had unintended consequences on the empowerment of the team. As skilled professionals, they had previously felt trusted to make decisions – but this trust had been significantly eroded by my excessive interference, to such an extent that even the most banal of technical decisions was being referred to me, much to my initial annoyance. It was a very sobering realisation to make – that I was the root cause of this problem. It took time for me to reset boundaries, and even longer to restore the team’s confidence. They weren’t an under-performing team by any stretch, but my actions had inadvertently left them feeling like one.

In these difficult times that we are facing now, where we can’t physically meet, Microsoft Teams and Zoom are allowing us to maintain a degree of normality, in a life that feels anything but normal. But I would actively encourage you to look at how you are making use of this, especially if you are not used to managing at a distance, and to make sure that you don’t fall into the trigger-happy trap that I did.

AUTOMATING BAD PROCESSES

W. Edwards Deming once famously said, “A bad system will beat a good person, every time”. Although this quote comes from a book, “Out of the Crisis”, which is almost 40 years old, it has relevance to how we apply technology today.

Too often, technology is seen as the “golden carrot” which will make a situation instantly better, when in reality it is a dose of process re-engineering that should be prescribed. Throughout my career, I’ve seen first-hand the disappointment in organisations that have spent a fortune on automating bad processes, only to find that they are left with a big software implementation bill, and negligible gains.

The key lesson to learn from this is that it is more prudent to focus on getting the basics, i.e. the processes, right – before committing to technology spend.

WORSENING CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE

In the last decade, we have seen an increasing trend for customer interaction to be automated or made “online only”. When this is done right, the interaction between customer and business is seamless, to such an extent that many consumers probably can’t remember leaving their sofas to go shopping or order a pizza.

Indeed, the unrivalled success of Amazon, and the dire situation of the High Street, is a testament to how technology has changed the behaviours of your average shopper.

But is this change always for the better? How many of you get frustrated by being passed around like a hot potato at a call centre, for a relatively simple query? And aren’t there sensitive times, like these, where the lack of ability to speak to a person just seems downright insensitive?

In this instance, Customer Journey Mapping, or similar, is a crucial part of service design, long before technology platforms are considered. Special attention also needs to be focussed on maintaining service cohesion and consistency where communication channels and technology cross over, to prevent instances of “I already raised this issue with you on social media, why don’t you know my name?”

USE OF DATA

To be clear, I am not going to talk about ethics (Cambridge Analytica), or the like, here – that would require a much longer article. Technology has the power to give us access to unprecedented levels of data and insights, on pretty much anything of our choosing. But this new “data feast” can be fraught with its own inherent dangers.

Early on in my consulting career, I remember working with an organisation that had made significant investment in an analytics system, which I was boldly told could provide data on “absolutely anything”. This was evidenced by statistics that were proudly shown for coffee consumption, broken down by caffeinated, de-caffeinated and fair-trade etc., and toilet roll usage.

In this situation, my advice to organisations is quite simple: think about how you are using this information, and how it is helping to improve your business outcomes – “because we can” is not the right answer.

 

NOT CONSIDERING THE IMPACT ON HUMAN BEHAVIOUR

My final point is regarding the impact that this technology is having on our behaviour, as human beings. Does the relative ease at which we can now do things that we couldn’t before mean that we are far less considerate to the impact?

Is it now too easy to fire off that ill-considered email late at night? Are we becoming less compassionate, and less human, through our incessant use of technology? Some studies (1) are cautioning that this may be the case – particularly for our children .

If you are brought up in a world where your elders shout “Alexa”, and make all sorts of instant demands – with no “please”, or “thank you”, there is a real danger that this could become the norm for how our future generations interact with one another.

IN CONCLUSION

TECHNOLOGY IS A GREAT TOOL, WHEN APPLIED SMARTLY AND FOR THE RIGHT REASONS

I am, and remain, a big fan of technological advancement, and how it can make all of our lives better. And, probably like you, I have high hopes that this will give us some of the answers, and solutions, to get us out of this horrible Coronavirus situation that the whole world currently finds itself in. But as technology advances, we should be careful that we do not regress in ourselves and forget the things that have got us to this point – empowering our people to build excellent processes, to deliver fantastic customer outcomes. And being nice to one another. I remain open to recommendations on that lawnmower!

FURTHER READING

This blog was written as a build on The Times ‘Operational Optimisation Special Report’.

Please click here if you would like to download the full copy of this report.

References:

(1) Brigham Young University, via https://neurosciencenews.com/siri-alexa-rude-14734/

Phil Westwood - Reinvigoration

About Phil Westwood

Phil Westwood is a Principal Consultant at Reinvigoration. He has a passion for driving innovation and change in organisations. . You can get in touch with him directly by Email or connect on Linkedin.

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