11 Aug Technology isn't about technology
Editor’s note: Richard Thieme’s new book, “Islands in the Clickstream,” is a collection of over 150 reflections on the digital world. Released in May, Thieme’s book has been hailed as extremely insightful and powerfully original due to his ability to explore the world of technology and present his thoughts in the context of everyday life.
As Andrew Briney, editor in chief of Information Security Magazine, said: “This book is about the complex interrelationship between humans and technology: how you interact with computers, how the Internet influences how you learn and perceive reality and how technology both helps and distracts you from knowing thyself.”
Richard Thieme has been a tech guru for years, writing and speaking on the complex dimension between people and computers. “Clickstream” is his first book. WTN will be reprinting excerpts from selected chapter of “Islands in the Clickstream” over the next few weeks. This week starts chapter three, “Doing Business Digitally.”
We hope you will enjoy these samples of Thieme’s writings.
Technology isn’t about technology. Technology is about people.
The initial effect of every new communications technology is greater distance between people. But over time, the technology itself enables people to work and live in closer communion.
When the telephone was invented, no one thought of it as a personal communication device, not even its inventor. Bell is said to have answered when asked what use it might have, “Well, you can call ahead to the next town and tell them a telegram is coming.”
Over time, the telephone taught us how to live the kind of distributed life it made possible.
The same is true of personal computers and other digital interfaces. We are still learning the rules of encounter that enable us to communicate through digital images and words in ways that work.
Learning how to use e-mail is an art. Some companies have experienced disaster when people did not understand the rules that governed e-mail and how they differed from telephone or face-to-face conversations.
We call them “flame wars” on the Internet, those explosions of incivility that make life online unpredictable. We’re learning that our digital masks hide real human beings and the long-term consequence of short-term behavior is a break down of trust.
Free markets are often characterized as dog-eat-dog jungles, but it’s just the opposite. Complex systems extended in time and space require a fundamental basis of trust in order to function.
The basis of capitalism is a handshake.
The trust implicit in contractual agreements ensures predictability. Without predictability, there is no security. Without security, we just don’t do very well in the long term. Things don’t work. The first McDonald’s restaurant in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union was built by a Wisconsin businessman. He reported astonishment at the conditions in which he had to work.
Lettuce and tomatoes were substandard so he had to buy a farm to grow vegetables. The same was true of beef. Materials for building were in such short supply that they had to be brought in by rail from Europe. He recalls freight cars filled with sand and gravel surrounded by armed guards to prevent hijacking.
He had to import personnel until he could train local workers in minimal standards of service and civility. The near-chaotic mob rule in Russia today reminds us what it takes to build strong, flexible institutions that ensure predictability. Businesses are teaching civility too, not because they want to, but because they must. As the digital revolution undermines traditional forms of education, businesses are sponsoring their own schools, training programs, and apprenticeships. McDonald’s “Hamburger University” teaches young recruits how to see customers as human beings worthy of respect and act accordingly.
As a young man, I remember watching a woman approach a counter in Woolworth’s to make a purchase. She was greeted by a salesperson.
“How may I help you?”
The woman handed her a bouquet of plastic violets. The salesperson rang them up, accepted a bill and made change, and put the flowers in a bag. As she handed the bag to the customer, she said, “Thank you very much.”
That’s the essence of civility: How may I serve you? Then, thank you: thank you for the opportunity to be of value.
That’s what works.
I worked my way through college with patronage jobs from the Daley machine in Chicago.
From time to time someone attacked the Boss on what sounded like solid grounds. The newspapers would be full of accusations.
Usually the attacking politician was invited to the Mayor’s office.
“What do you need?” the Mayor always asked. Then, after he had listened a while, he said: “OK. Now, what do you really need?”
The conversation always ended with a partnership characterized by mutual self-interest.
That political system worked because it factored in the real needs of real people and evolved a means for satisfying them. A recent study at Harvard University revealed that most of the effectiveness of any worker at any job is attitude and people skills. Knowledge of the task had less relationship to long-term success than working well with others.
A CEO of a large local utility told me he used to spend 15% of his time on leadership and other process issues and the rest on tasks. Now the proportions are reversed. Why? Because times of radical change require close attention to the people in a system. In fact, the people ARE the system.
Values are not add-ons. Values are intrinsic to effectiveness in the long term.
I once discussed values with the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.
“Why,” I asked, “should we embrace the human dimensions of quality programs? Don’t smart ruthless people really set the pace?”
Sometimes, he conceded, then said, “But I’m not that smart. I need other people. Besides, nothing else works today. Customers cross the street for a penny and just aren’t loyal any more. Employees know that even if we promise them a steady job, we don’t control our ability to make good on that promise.”
Only the old virtues, he said—treating others the way you want to be treated—establish bonds of trust and build the long-term loyalty we need to survive. It’s not just a smart idea to include every stakeholder—customers, employees, suppliers—in our planning, it’s the only thing that works these days.
A Zen monk once asked why monks bow in a temple. Some said, to acknowledge our divinity. Others said, to build respect. The monk listened patiently, shaking his head after every answer.
“We bow,” he said, “because things work better when we bow.” “Getting” what someone meant because they made their e-mail crystal clear … hearing a warm sincere voice on the telephone … knowing by their body language that a person’s word is good … that’s what works.
Because things work better when we bow.
Richard Thieme wrote this piece July 1, 1997. Reprinted by permission of Syngress Publishing. Thieme can be reached at email@example.com.