Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Technology is not the answer

In the month we hosted the WITFOR conference and had visitors from around the world discussing how to use Information and Communications Technology to help solve the world’s problems it may seem strange to write an article suggesting that technology is not the answer.

However I believe it’s true. Technology itself doesn’t solve problems. Technology has the capacity to mask what the real problems are. Technology can just as easily compound problems as well as help solve them.

So you want me to justify what I’m saying? Let me give a few examples.

Recently I was at a conference when we were told about a new invention that, it was suggested, will revolutionise health care in hospitals. This is a digital pen that will automatically remember whatever a nurse writes on a patient’s notes. When the digital pen is later “docked” at the nurse’s desk whatever has been written will be transferred electronically to the patient’s central medical file. So far so good, but what came next wasn’t good. Apparently the benefit from this is that the doctors won’t then have to waste so much time going to see the patient for themselves and can review the case from the comfort of their desk.

Doctors spending even more time at their desks? Doctors not having to go and see patients for themselves? Seeing even less of the doctor next time I’m ill in a hospital bed? No thanks!

A few years ago the IT industry in the US and Europe was obsessed with the opportunities that IT made available to shoppers. From what they said it seemed that soon we’d all be buying books, groceries and shares on the Internet. Well, what actually happened? A lot of people lost a huge amount of money having invested in these so-called “dot-com” schemes. Why? Because there wasn’t a need for it.

Yes, people are still buying books from Amazon, myself included. However, I do that only when the book I want is difficult to find. I, and millions of others, would MUCH rather go to a decent book shop to browse and chose what I want to read. My mother, who lives in the UK and who has access to the Internet at home, absolutely hates going shopping. Does she buy her groceries using her PC? No, despite hating the experience she would rather go shopping herself and make choices in a natural setting, not stuck in a small room with a glowing screen.

My particular hate is entirely automated switchboards. You know the type. You call in and it says “Press 1 for Customer Service, press 2 for Accounts…..”. How many actually have an option which says “press 9 to speak to a human being”? You can imagine what the salesman said to the CEO a few months beforehand. Something about firing the switchboard operator, saving loads of money and controlling access by customers to information.

Well, there are times when I call and I want to do several things at once. There are times when I call to complain and all I get is that irritating recorded voice that simply will not let me get through to a human being I can complain to. The result? I get even more irritated than when I began the call.

All they’ve managed to do is erect a barrier between me and them.

Before you think I’m some sort of anti-technology fanatic, let me make my position clear. I love technology! Anyone who knows me will tell you that I’m surrounded by gadgets. I consider my Apple iPod to be one of my children! I am no enemy to technology, just so long as it’s there for a reason. The iPod allows you to go shopping or wander round the house or the airport with a vast archive of portable, high-quality music. The critical thing is that it actually addresses a real need. Well, that’s what I tell my wife anyway.

I think that all technology should be seen as being like the iPod, particularly in the business world. The latest technology is NEVER the answer to the problems your business faces. What matters most to your business is how well you treat your customers. What matters are the processes that operate in your company. What matters is not how new your computer is, it’s how well you use it.

My advice to businesses regarding technology? Don’t spend a single thebe on technology until you have identified a genuine need for it. So many times companies and individuals are convinced by smart salespeople that an item of technology is the solution to a problem that has yet to be defined. And I’m not just talking about equipment. I mean the hugely expensive business systems that sales teams will say will revolutionise the way you operate.

Oh no they won’t, not unless you first take a hard look at the way you do business. If when you’ve done that you find that a piece of technology will help then that’s great.

Just make sure you really need it!

No comments: