Sunday, April 21, 2013

Sunday Essay - the importance of people in technology

Browsing in a second hand book shop some years ago, I found a battered management book. Published at the start of the eighties, it argued that IBM would become the world’s dominant corporation because of its dominance over information technology. Ten years later, very similar arguments were being applied to Microsoft.

Both IBM and Microsoft benefited from a technology shift. Both rode a wave of success. Both remain successful corporations. Neither achieved that long term commercial dominance forecast by the popular management pundits.

The creative destruction unleashed by the application of new computing and communications technologies is huge, dramatically altering the business landscape. However, it is not the first such shift, nor will it be the last.

To illustrate, the invention of the internal combustion engine had equivalent effects and in much the same time horizon as the IT revolution. Over the first two decades of the twentieth century, entire industries vanished as new ones were born. The human landscape was reshaped. How we lived, where we lived, what we ate, all changed.

The rolling effects of the internal combustion engine revolution continued for decades. New industries and activities continued to be born. New fortunes were made. The motor vehicle, aircraft, the shopping complex all became natural and apparently fixed features of the human landscape.

If you look at the hype surrounding the internet as the latest manifestation of the computing and communications revolution, there is a huge focus on winners and losers and on the fads, fashion and social implications of the new technology. I am as fascinated with this as anyone else, yet it helps to keep a sense of perspective.

From a practical personal and business viewpoint, the key thing is the way we use the technology to achieve our objectives. We know that a lot of the froth and especially the kit will vanish. That’s just a fact. What is important is how best to take advantage of it all.

My local tennis club is a good example. I play tennis badly, but enjoy the game and the social interaction. Like many of us, I spend far more time in front of a computer than I really should. I need to get out to do something physical and to talk to people.

My tennis club has an on-line presence. I use that to find out what is going on and to make court bookings. They have a simple system that I can use easily. That’s important. However, that’s not why I go back, that’s not why I am such a supporter.

In simple human terms, there are people behind the technology. I am called Jim. If I have a problem, I can call a human. They recognise me when I come to play. We chat.

The technology helps the club because they get more cash up front, have fewer cancellations, make the courts accessible to more people, Yet it works because it helps me as a customer do the things that I want to do without taking away the things that I value.

I think that we all need to remember this when we consider how we might use the new technology to our own advantage. In the end, it all comes back to people.


Denis Wright said...

The technology is pointless without the people. It's good to have physical contact, but if that's not possible, can be a boon to people like me. BUT it mustn't be allowed to dominate life.

Anonymous said...

People are what makes technology inefficient. Can't tell you how many times I had to rewrite perfectly functional code just because some twit of a human pressed the wrong button, or the right button at the wrong time, or two at once, or 'yes' when it was perfectly obvious that 'no' was the appropriate answer.

When we get to gene manipulation I'd like to propose the 'functionally illiterate' one be the first removed. Or at very least that the 'human genome' be more accurately renamed as the 'geewhiz - look at all these buttons'.


Anonymous said...

What's the opposite of 'most favourite'? Whatever..

That would be the word I would always attach to that stock question from operator to software developer: "was it something I pressed?"

kvd :)

Jim Belshaw said...

Quite right, Denis, on all counts! You made me smile again, kvd.

Evan said...

I'm an Edward de Bono fan. He pointed out that information is now a resource. It is the application that matters - which is what the technology is about.

I do think thought that all technology always has strengths and weaknesses. All tools are better for some things than others.

Eg election of individuals isn't a terribly good way to influence policy formation.

Jim Belshaw said...

Actually, Evan, on your last point I disagree! But that get's us into a different discussion.

I agree with de Bono that information is a resource. It always was, of course, but we can now access it a lot faster. Even here, though, we have also lost access to information.