Thursday, July 03, 2008

It's not about the technology - it's all about the people

Arthur C Clarke, the renown science fiction writer, formulated three laws of prediction, the third of which stated;
"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
We seem to have largely reached this point in society. The majority of people do not understand how an internal combustion engine works, let alone a microchip or mobile phone.

Certainly we've done an excellent job of educating people about the principles and concepts - most people can explain that an engine burns petrol, or that a microchip is made up of electrical circuits, but could they repair or build one?

To live in modern society there's no deeper understanding required - simply turn the key or push the button and the technological 'thing' just works.

On this basis the people who create and repair technology become the modern wizards and sorcerers, who use indecipherable words, strange rituals and bad smelling components to perform their secret rites.

Why is this relevant to egovernment? Because politicians and public servants are humans too - subject to the same emotions, biases and psychological impulses.

Often in government - as in the private sector - technology is seen as a thing apart, managed by strange people who cluster in back rooms, speaking in tongues. These people, commonly referred to as IT, are regarded by others with a mixture of reverence, awe and fear.

Due to this whenever technology is used to facilitate an activity or task, often the focus, and the budget, is committed to buying or building the computers, software and systems necessary for delivery - and the other aspects, the communication, training and usability, is neglected.

I have watched this happen in organisations on a regular basis for many years. All the funds go into buying the facilitating tools, with little left over for the people.

In my view this is a fundamental misunderstanding of technology and is a large part of the reason why so many IT-focused projects fail to deliver the benefits predicted - or fail to deliver at all.

I've always believed the people are more important than the tools. Get the people parts right and even if the technology isn't 100% you will get a good outcome.

This is particularly significant in egovernment where systems are built to help engage people, inform them, communicate with them and interact with them.

To d this successfully organisations need to build the systems to work for the people, rather than build the systems and then try to change peoples' behaviour to match.

This is simply another way of saying go where the people are, which is a recommendation as applicable to marketers and communicators as it is for IT teams.

These principles apply even more strongly for online social media - which is all about facilitating interactions between people, the technological interface is merely the barrier in-between.

This could be why so many organisations have resisted social media - because they don't see the community interactions as the most important aspect of these projects - they focus on the technology they should use, to the expense of the technology which their staff would use.

So why are so many organisation so bad at this?

Because they think it's about the technology and not the people.

And in my opinion they could not be more wrong.

What do you think?


  1. Because IT departments won't accept their role as an Enabler in an organisation ... instead positioning themselves as a Command and Control unit?

  2. I like that you led with Clarke's quotation (he's a hero of mine) but I think there's a fundamental difference between thinking advanced technology is "magic" and that advanced technology is just something we don't yet understand.

    Thinking advanced technology is "magic" presumes we can't understand it. Thinking it's something we can understand with enough thought or research is an extension of rationality. Those are two very different things.

    Anyway, I've decided to start researching the concept of "technological literacy," which I think is relevant to this post:

    I'd appreciate comments and suggestions.

    Dennis McDonald
    Alexandria, Virginia USA

  3. Hi Dennis,

    I see the distinction you are making, however I do not think it diminishes my point.

    Technology is a tool we use to improve peoples' lives.

    When a small group are set up to control access to that tool and are the only ones who understand how to use it, they are able to change the goal from improving lives to controlling them.

    This is the situation many organisations find themselves in. IT teams have become the masters of their technological tools. Other staff, including senior managers, do not understand enough about the technologies to make effective business decisions.

    Therefore, by default, IT teams gradually take on greater business power. This can easily stop being benevolent.

    The best way to address this imbalance is to level the playing field - educate everyone on how the technology tools work and on how to use them.

    Personally, although I resolutely define myself as a marketer, I've spent substantially more time managing IT teams than marketing ones.

    I understand and are not in awe of IT teams - some IT people even find it confronting that I can speak their language (with an accent), call their bluffs and collaborate with them on a reasonably even level.

    The more people in an organisation who can do this, the better for the organisation's long-term success.

    I feel your comments on technology literacy are very relevant.

    The next difficult task is getting people to want to be technically literate.

  4. I agree, Craig, that in many cases it makes great sense for "non-IT staff" to manage "IT-dependent" projects when the benefits accrue from how business processes are changed. Who better to understand what the impacts are?

    Actually, I don't think this is so unusual. Most of the "enlightened" IT departments I've worked with as a consultant would take that view anyway -- a business person must be in charge, for example, of making sure that benefits from the new system are realized.

    One challenge to this approach is that, sometimes, the people most knowledgeable about project management practices are from the IT department. That may be changing, though, as more easy to use project management tools become available as web delivered services.


    Dennis McDonald
    Alexandria, Virginia USA

  5. I have been in situations where the IT department do not understand the technology or it's uses. It then becomes black magic and must be stopped at all costs.

  6. I'm not in business, I'm an educator, but we are facing very similar problems in our system. Schools (some) now have the infrastructure to enable our staff and students to take hold of the tools to produce and collaborate; to reach out beyond the confines of the classroom to create meaningful local, national and global connections. Providing the infrastructure doesn't address the need to provide the professional development for staff so that they can feel confident with their use of the tools. This is the greatest battle we face. Much hand holding is required to support people who feel intimidated by the technology. Many don't realise the ease of use of the tools that are now available that can support learning environments. We have used wikis very effectively- they are the ideal collaborative tool that can introduce people to the idea of working together constructively. Nice to read your post. As people, we tend to focus on our own environment and the challenges facing us there. These are challenges being faced in all levels of society as we adapt to the changing climate of the 21st century.

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  8. Jenny, I agree with you 100% that just providing the infrastructure for collaboration is not enough. The technology is just the tip of the iceberg, especially when people aren't accustomed to using collaboration tools.