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?
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!
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.
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.
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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!
Driving on the M1 Southbound I came across an electronic overhead sign that read:
TO M6 VIA M69
The intention of this sign was to inform motorway users that it would take 15 minutes to reach the M6 motorway should they travel the 17 miles by going via the M69 which connects both routes.
By being able to travel this 17 mile journey in 15 minutes assumes that your speed must be averaging just over 60 mph (i.e. approximately a mile per minute). Ordinarily this would have been very useful information, but at that particular time the overhead gantry speed signs were flashing ’40’ MPH, and the actual speed, due to SWOT (sheer weight of traffic) and congestion at a major confluence of two motorways, was less that 10 mph. It made me reflect on the incongruence of these signs, and question what was the point of an ‘informational’ device that is clearly giving incorrect information? What I really needed to know was the ETA under the road conditions that prevailed at that time and surely the sign should be dynamic and take its inputs from what is actually happening on the motorway in order that it gives accurate and helpful information?
Having recently acquired a BlackBerry the immediacy and ‘always on’ nature of information, when you have constant access to it as opposed to the natural time delay until the next time you fire-up your laptop, has heightened my awareness to the inappropriateness of some of the information we receive. Three examples:
Amazon sending me special offers to purchase Dan Browns new book ‘The Symbol’ when I had already pre ordered it from them several weeks earlier and was expecting it to be shipped automatically when available. So although Amazon can tell me what books ‘others who also bought this book’ have purchased they can’t recognise what I have already purchased. Or Pink Elephant Business Parking at Heathrow Airport sending special offers for parking but not recognising that my car was already in their safe keeping at Heathrow T5 Business Parking having been pre-booked several weeks earlier and their number plate recognition system had automatically matched my arrival at the car park to the pre-arranged booking.
But the most annoying incident was when trying to buy foreign currency from Travelex on-line using my Netbook computer. I got to the part of the transaction that uses 3D security but the pop up screen requiring me to enter my VISA security details was ‘pinned’ in a fixed position on the screen. Scrolling down didn’t reveal the foot of the box containing the ‘send’ button. After aborting the first transaction I realised that I could change the zoom level on internet explorer to show more content in the screen and hence reveal the whole box. On repeating the process at the pop up screen I changed the zoom level to reveal the button, only then to get the unhelpful message that my ‘card could not be processed‘. Could not be processed now, for ever, or was this because I had aborted the first transaction, or was there a problem with my card? Typical of on-line sites these days there are no telephone numbers published for you to make an enquiry so I rang a 24 hour Visa number to find out. Several calls later and only having threatened to cancel my card did I discover that Visa had rejected the transaction as, what appears to me as quite normal card behaviour, had conformed to a pattern typical of card fraudsters, i.e. that I had made a small transaction (£4 cardholder not present transaction to Birmingham Library for a document search), and was then trying a much larger transaction (to purchase foreign currency) so they had put a ‘stop’ on my card, very useful as I was just to depart to the US on vacation! What is the point of the security number, and the additional 3D security if it isn’t to validate my identity? How long before the validation requires validation and then further validation, and how do you know if your typical card use imitates fraudulent usage patterns?
Now for those of us who have worked in operational roles we can no doubt rationalise these situations with simple explanations. In the motorway example the two systems are probably quite separate and rely on an operator sitting somewhere in a control room, or worse two operators in two separate control rooms, making a cerebral connection between the motorway conditions and the messages that need to be displayed, but this didn‘t happen. For Amazon and Pink Elephant an extract of those clients who had already placed orders or bought their services should have been run and removed from the mailing list, but once again this didn’t happen. And finally a set of rules applied to a purchasing transaction procedure should also be matched with all the correct security information having been provided – but once again it didn’t.
No matter how you view these incidents they are the subject of process or service failures, and when viewed through the lens of the customer or end user they just don’t work, albeit for all manner of rational reasons be they technological, human, procedural, or design. Their consequences, while in these examples might initially appear minor, I believe could have far reaching ramifications for potentially both the end user/customer or the organisation providing the goods or service. The motorway sign we now no longer trust or believe is the one we ignore that tells us of fog ahead that has caused an accident we are hurtling towards.