Friday, 17 August 2012

Technology is not the answer

Call me old-fashioned but technology is NOT the answer to any problem. Not a single one.

Don’t misunderstand me, I’m certainly no Luddite. The Luddites were a group of 19th Century British textile workers who destroyed the mechanised looms that they felt was putting textile workers out of a job. Instead of moving with the times they destroyed the technology that was affecting their livelihoods. When they started murdering people their popularity began to wane.

Unfortunately the so-called “neo-Luddites” are still with us. Consider this quote from a modern, deranged example:
“The industrial revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race. They have greatly increased the life-expectancy of those of us who live in 'advanced' countries, but they have destabilized society, have made life unfulfilled, have subjected human beings to indignities, have led to psychological suffering (…) and have inflicted severe damage on the natural world.”
We can’t deny that industry has had an impact on our environment but is this fool really suggesting that longer lifespans, greater prosperity and better health are bad things? He would rather we returned to a world characterised by excrement, illness and dead children. I’m entitled to call this particular neo-Luddite both deranged and a fool because he is Theodore Kaczynski, otherwise known as the Unabomber, a terrorist who killed three people and injured many more in an effort to prevent the greater use of technology.

So I’m not any sort of Luddite. In fact I’m a sucker for technology. I’m writing this on my beloved MacBook and sitting nearby are my iPad, iPhone and iPod and that’s just MY home technology, it ignores the rest of the family.

My point is that none of these things in themselves solve a problem. They make it easier for me to write, research and entertain myself but there’s nothing I now do that couldn’t be done before, I’m just achieving things in a faster way.

The problem is that many people, and worse still, organisations, seem to think that technology IS the answer to their problems. There’s also a ridiculous competitive element to technology. He’s got an iPad so I must have one. She’s got a newer Blackberry than mine so I have to spend a fortune upgrading mine. My competitor just spent millions on a new ERP system so I need to do the same.

Instead we need to be a bit more rational. Do I actually NEED an iPad? A better phone? Should I invest millions in a top-of-the-range computer system for my company when I can’t even get the basics right?

Let’s take a purely hypothetical example. Let’s imagine a parastatal that delivered electricity to the people of a beautiful land-locked African country. Let’s imagine that they’d spent a fortune on a billing system but bizarrely couldn’t get around to reading the meters that would give the billing system the numbers it needed to calculate bills correctly.

Let’s also imagine that the author of a consumer column in a local newspaper in this hypothetical country received a bill for P35,000 for just one months’ electricity consumption, an amount that miraculously dropped by nearly 90% when questioned. Imagine an ex-colleague of his, a single woman, who was suddenly faced with a bill for P23,000 for a month which also dropped to less than a thousand when she complained. The problem here wouldn’t be the technology, it would just be calculating bills according to the rules it had been given. The problem would be the organisation itself that couldn’t collect the necessary data correctly. It would be the organisation that hadn’t reviewed whether the expensive computer system had been taught to do arithmetic correctly. It would be the fault of the people in charge.

Take the case of “e-Government”, or e-anything-else for that matter. You can’t “e-“ something unless that thing works already. If a Government process is hideously inefficient to begin with, putting a web page on the front of it will fix nothing. It will just be a hideously inefficient e-process.

I heard recently of a large private company here in Botswana, one whose name you’ll know, who’ve decided to adopt one of the latest technologies available, so-called “cloud-computing”. This is simply making computing services available over a network, in particular over the internet. Your company’s computer system are no longer stored on a server in your office but “out there” somewhere, hosted by a cloud computing provider. In theory it doesn’t matter any longer where the servers are, they could be next door, in the next town or on the far side of the planet. So long as you can connect to the network, the service is available.

Have you seen the flaw yet? The flaw that affects us in Botswana the most?

It’s power again.

Imagine what happens when your critical business systems and all their data are stored in the cloud and the power cuts. You might have a generator of course but are you confident that the interruption won’t break something? What effect would a loss of connection have if it happened during your monthly payroll run, while opening a new account or while printing statements? It needn’t even be your power cut that breaks things, it might just be your internet service provider that suffers the cut. Any break in connection might have a tremendous impact.

The company I heard of is just starting this process, it’s only their email systems that are going out into the cloud but sooner or later they’ll get more ambitious and it’ll all fall apart. Instead why don’t they invest the money instead in hiring better management who can focus on the things that really matter? The things that might improve the service they offer you and me?

Update: I spoke to the company in question earlier today about a billing issue. I asked them to email me copies of some invoices and guess what? They can't. Their email "is still down".

Quod Erat Demonstrandum

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