Bob Lieberman's Blog

Commentary and Tools For Empowering Change

The Trouble With Technology

Does anyone remember the Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 100? How about the Sharp Zaurus? The Palm Pilot? Apple's Newton?

I go back to 60's in the software business, and I've always been fascinated by gadgets. I see that a million iPhones were sold last weekend, so I guess I'm not alone. As a software professional at many companies, I got to observe or participate in many discussions and debates about whether and how to use technology to solve business problems.

My conclusion – our fascination with technology easily becomes a distraction that diverts our attention from what we really need. Effective leaders must be aware of this phenomenon and know how to manage it.

The fascination has affected many of the companies I've been exposed to, who looked to technology as the solution for nearly every operational problem. That approach diverted leaders' attention from more systemic, organizational, motivational, and interpersonal ways of achieving the same objectives.

I can think of four problems with technology right off the bat:

1. Technology appears to be adaptable but actually isn't

Have you ever used the Banner course scheduling system at a university? That's a mainframe application that's as old as dirt (and it shows). As presentation technologies improve, it keeps getting a facelift (it's now Banweb) but its the same crusty old relic behind the scenes. We have banking and insurance systems like that, too. Technology looks flexible at the beginning, when you have a blank sheet of paper. But once you build the thing, you have enormous costs sunk in its design philosophy and capacity. You may find you've cast your feet in cement – and then what? It takes a strong, creative leader to stand up to that emotional reality.

2. Technology's leverage makes us dependent

Because technology permits us to do things that used to be impractical or impossible, every little glitch can seem like a matter of life and death. For example, if you want to cancel an event by email, you can easily send one cancellation email to 1000 people. But if your email were down you'd have to make 1000 phone calls. So keeping the email system up seems like a survival issue. When we're in survival mode, we don't think straight. We make poor, short-term decisions that sometimes make us even more dependent on technology. You can't lead effectively if you're always in survival mode.

3. Without scale there's no economy of scale

The technology sales process encourages us to see the economies of scale, forgetting that most of us don't need scale. Road warriors need an iPhone, but the other 99% of us don't. Toyota needs a multi-million dollar enterprise-scale supply management system, but a 300-person company doesn't. I've seen the effects of scope creeping out of control like this, when a company thinks it's bigger than it really is. That's an expensive identity error. Avoiding it requires perspective, a leadership trait that is sometimes in short supply.

4. Technology can be an attractive nuisance

My early experience with electronic organizers taught me that I wasted more time configuring and updating them than I saved using them. But other tools, that I use constantly, need little attention and are worth their weight in gold. Knowing which is the IT leader's challenge in a nutshell.

Overall, I believe it's wise for a business leader to be extremely selective when relying on technology. Fortunately, by doing so they will become more observant. That's what's happened to me. Now I listen more before I speak and I look more before I leap. I don't think that's such a bad thing.