The gospel according to Zoom

Its been astonishing to witness how evangelistic clergy have become about technology most of them didn’t even know existed six weeks ago. Which begs an interesting question, will their appetite for technology continue once things return to normal (whatever normal might look like)?

Both as a practitioner and an academic, I am particularly interested in how an event, such as the Coronavirus pandemic, can change attitudes and behaviours and ‘kick-start’ initiatives previously thought undesirable. An interesting and current example would be the rush towards what euphemistically gets described as ‘Livestreaming’, when most people really do not understand what it means, nor do they understand that is not what they are attempting.

Might this be the time that churches start to take technology seriously and approach it as they do their other deeply held beliefs, and recognise it as a core competency? Quite reasonably, my ‘entry level’ ability to play chopsticks on a keyboard won’t qualify me to accompany the Cathedral Choir on the organ at our next civic service; likewise, we shouldn’t relegate the determination of our Cathedral’s IT infrastructure to enthusiastic amateurs.

Therefore, I urge caution. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. This newly acquired technology insight could, if not harnessed appropriately, create a cognitive bias that involves an over-reliance on a familiar tool (Zoom et al). As Abraham Maslow said in 1966, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail”.

Dr Brad Poulson

Honorary Professor of Operations Management & Information Systems, Nottingham University Business School.

A Friday thought……! Identity Crisis

We appear happy to run the risk of increased security issues for the perceived convenience and cost effectiveness that digital transactions bring. Our ‘on-line’ persona comprises a combination of secret codes, numbers, and phrases, yet despite our best attempts at securing the technology through encryption, it is the user that is the weakest link. The anonymity of using cash in transactions is once again becoming rather appealing!

A Friday thought…..!

Not sure how a text I received from LNER* at 16:27 telling me that the 16:06 to Newark Northgate will leave from Platform 4 is of any value. I was 21 minutes into my journey! I think it might be a service I opt NOT to take in future. A great example of technology making processes worse!

*London North Eastern Railway is a British train operating company that operates the InterCity East Coast franchise.

Technology in sport

The Lionesses disallowed off-side goal against USA in the world cup semi-finals made me question the use of technology in sport. I can see the logic of using technology to support decisions where there might have been a deliberate infringement or potential error by officials however I can’t see how it helps the game when retrospective analysis applies microscopic measurements to a level of accuracy that could never be matched in real-time by the players on the field. Being half a boot in front of your opponent would be imperceptible at speed and pace and unlikely to be detected. Where should we draw the line?

Passport renewals

I have just renewed my British passport which had eight months remaining but will be under the required six months remaining during a forthcoming overseas trip, so I had no choice but to renew. I notice that the new passport runs from the date of application and not the date of expiry of my current passport. This effectively means that my ten year passport was actually only valid for 9 years and 4 months. Doesn’t feel like an equitable way to treat those of us that are compliant and follow the rules!

LNER electronic seat sensor system

One of my regular themes is how by having more information available to us the less information we have, especially where technology is concerned.

It was interesting to observe the apparent confusion amongst travellers yesterday when boarding an LNER service in Kings Cross bound for York. The train was using the electronic seat sensor system which comprises an LCD readout at eye level over the seats that indicates if the seat is reserved or available. A great step forward from paper tickets applied to the headrest of the seat you would imagine. However, the unit has a double screen indicating availability in pairs of seats (fine where seats are in pairs), but adds to the confusion when deployed over single seats (in first class carriages), as infrequent travellers aren’t aware if a blank screen is an indication availability, or its just not working. These units also check if the seat is being occupied several times throughout the journey and to do that its sensors need to be positioned directly above the seat. A single screen version would be better suited to this seat layout or a simple blanking plate or sticker over the redundant screen to clearly show its not in use. A perfect example of a great idea deployed badly. This should be simple to rectify LNER!

Organisations get the ‘IT’ they deserve

I have long believed that organisations get the Information Technology (IT) they deserve.

So, it’s been interesting to observe the apparent horror expressed at the vulnerability of the NHS systems to the recent Cyber-attacks. More so, the reaction and apparent surprise that a major corporation might have a degree of reliance and dependency on its computer systems, and the level of disruption that can be experienced directly by its users when things go wrong. In this case medical staff, doctors surgeries, operating theatre schedules and alike; the end users inconvenience (consultations, referrals, and lifesaving operations cancelled or deferred); the financial impact of historical underinvestment from ransoms and panic refreshing of outdated and insecure infrastructure. Yet despite this dependency, accompanied by real and not imagined distress, it’s almost impossible to believe in this electronically and technically connected world that so many organisations still don’t understand the significance of ‘IT’, and more broadly ‘Information Systems’, and consequently make irrational decisions about how they are managed, used, and the organisation structures that surround them.

How frequently have you seen CIO positions removed from the top table or restructured and subsumed within the Finance hierarchy? This isn’t just the preserve of foolish organisations or even those riddled with ‘technical debt’, it inhabits even the best of organisations. Ironically, its most likely to occur after a significant ‘IT’ implementation or success where an information system is at its core. The behaviour of ‘satisficing’ develops and fools the decision makers to abandon the very behaviour that made them invest in, and support, a successful system.

The recent press headlines regarding breast cancer screening errors have been revealing with phrases such as ‘IT blunder’, and ‘Computer failure’ receiving prominence, yet buried deep within the articles only passing mention of failed administration processes, or lack of quality control by the process owners. This raises a very real and recurring issue of organisations not taking responsibility for the technology they deploy, especially where that technology comes into direct contact with their customers or service users. It’s almost as if ‘blaming the computer’ in some way exonerates them from any obligation.

Despite what might appear natural, obvious, or common sense, rarely prevails especially when it comes to business processes and technology. When observing processes through the lens of the customer there is much to suggest that organisations ignore their requirements; make it worse by applying technology badly; they disregard the way people naturally behave (especially during emergencies); they regularly fail to observe good Operations Management principles; they communicate badly, and despite soliciting feedback then don’t handle complaints well and can often end up including an ombudsman and regulator. Why were concerns from anxious women who obviously missed breast cancer screenings ignored? ‘The computer says no’!

By ensuring that the technology is robust and fit for purpose organisations can get the ‘IT’ they deserve, but when it isn’t of the required standard then this shouldn’t be inflicted on their customers too.

Thank you for reading my post. I regularly write about operations management, technology, and how those two things don’t always serve customers well.

Comparators and metaphors

I’m constantly amazed at the use of some quite random objects as comparators typically when describing size and scale. You know the sort of thing, “it’s the equivalent of two ‘Olympic’ size swimming pools”, or “it’s the length of 10 double decker buses parked end to end”. I’m not entirely sure that these references are at all helpful, as how many of us could visualise and compare something to the size of a swimming pool, let alone an ‘Olympic’ size swimming pool which is traditionally longer, and their scarcity probably means less people have actually seen one! We rarely see a double-decker bus in our area anymore, but if we did then it would apparently take 470 of them to fill the deck of the new aircraft carrier that’s being built for the Royal Navy! I get the point of contextualising what is being described but the comparator should make it easier to visualise and understand and not worse.

A similar thing happens with metaphors (i.e. a thing regarded as representative or symbolic of something else). Carol Kirkwood (BBC Breakfast Weather presenter) prefaces any Met Office weather warning when using the red, green, and amber traffic light metaphor as a proxy for the severity of the weather, but then completely devalues the benefit afforded by the use of this metaphor by having to describe that the ‘Amber’ warning is one step up from the ‘Green’ warning, yet not a severe as the ‘Red’ warning.

Boarding Aircraft

Anyone who as an interest in business processes and has spent endless hours in airports will know that the procedures we are forced through when travelling (in particular by air) are laborious and inefficient, and many a time I have redesigned the processes in my mind to be more efficient, traveller friendly, and time saving. So I read with interest the article on a faster way of boarding planes could save time and money (“Please be seated”, The Economist, September 3rd 2011). Of course to many of us this would seem a good way to proceed, and I’m sure I remember Lufthansa undertaking trials of boarding window seats first (although not in alternate rows) more than twenty years ago. However this approach is fatally flawed as it assumes that passengers have the will and ability to be compliant and disregards completely human nature. Why does Dr Steffen think that the lure of making passengers lives easier would be sufficient incentive to change their behaviour when the very same passengers can’t stand behind the yellow line around the baggage carousel when they retrieve their luggage; or think we can stop those that have perfected ‘silent’ seat belt unbuckling to ensure they can be first out of their seat to get to the overhead lockers; and imagine the anxiety of them not being able to stow their luggage in their preferred overhead locker near their seat as the space had been taken up by earlier boarding passengers? It also raises an interesting issue of families being asked to board separately which could be a challenge when small children are travelling. Great idea if it wasn’t for the passengers!