12 Jan Why bad technology happens to good organizations
Most of us haven’t had too much direct experience with really bad technology. Technology that doesn’t fit, technology that irritates, technology that confuses, yes, but really, really bad technology, on the scale of the exploding Ford Pintos or more recently SUV-flipping Firestone tires? Not really.
Far more common is the less tragic technology badness that sneaks up on us. We’re in a good organization, forward-looking, filling a niche in the market, with supportive customers, a revenue stream, happy employees – upstanding members of our business and social community. And then bad technology happens.
That new Accounts Receivable system is mailing dunning letters to our paid customers. That hot-shot performance management system delivers alerts to a mailbox nobody ever reads. The inventory management software puts a flashing low-inventory warning on a manager’s screen and then over-writes it with 40 other less urgent messages before she gets back from lunch, and customers are waiting weeks instead of days for deliveries.
It’s been said that if you build a fool-proof system, somebody will build a better fool. In one light, this is a useful observation, but in another way it all too conveniently exonerates technology and technologists from most culpability for end results. It seems to imply there is no bad technology, only deficient people. Being the self-appointed high priest of balance I find it hard to maintain this one-sided view, or its opposite. Technology in our day-to-day business lives is a complex thing. Its value emerges from a complex web of systems, procedures and practice.
Over the years we’ve gotten noticeably better at the systems development part of the equation. We’ve got project management and requirements tracking, quality assurance and documentation, real-time training and 7×24 help desks, and a raft of methodologies thicker than a biblical plague of frogs. And over the years, we’ve also come to understand that is not enough. So more recently, we’ve added process re-engineering (I can almost hear the rivet guns; can’t you?), best practices, and continuous improvement. And guess what? We still have much, much more bad technology than we’d like.
Should we scrap the development and process focus? Absolutely not. Wisconsin, the Dairy State, suggests the milking stool as a metaphor. Milking stools work in the uneven and irregular floor of a barn because they have three legs. Those three legs will make a stable (if not always level) platform regardless of the surface. Systems and process are two legs of good technology. Business practice is the third.
It’s unfortunate that the term “best practice” has acquired so much currency, because best practices are so rarely about practice and so often about process. No matter how much we as managers want to ignore the difference, describing an activity is just not the same as doing it.
My intuitional statistics tell me that the probability of bad technology being the result of bad systems has declined significantly. The probability of bad technology being the result of bad process is declining every day. The probability of bad technology being the result of bad practice hasn’t changed a bit and is very high.
Some of the tactics to address practice are already well known if not always broadly implemented. Good training and coaching are a start, but only a start. Practice happens in real-time, and to influence it you have to be there in the moment. How many companies have technologists doing job observations or internships with the people who use their systems? How many companies reward their support staff based on innovative resolutions as opposed to shortened talk times? How many companies have effective digital and cultural support for real-time collaboration between technologists, users, executives and managers?
Good technology requires good performance in systems, process and practice. Bad technology requires a misstep in only one of those. Given the rigid binary/digital foundations of our technology, it doesn’t even have to be a particularly big misstep. To really make a dent in the Bad Technology pile, we’ll need to invest as much effort in that third leg of “good” technology as we’ve invested in the other two.
The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, & do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.