What Happened to Smart Technology Choices?

Corporations making large-scale technology changes have learned over the years that it’s a big mistake to go out and buy the biggest, newest flashiest product available on the market without first doing a thorough study of the company’s needs.

In fact, there are procurement guidelines set up for precisely that purpose and best practices that govern the process so that all the right factors are appropriately weighed before a decision is made.  Some professionals make a career in this area, and have developed skills that are highly prized due to the critical nature of certain technology choices, and the high costs involved.

However, up until now, academics and corporate executives have focused on the purchase of single large, complex systems.  My research isn’t complete in this area, but I can’t find any critical thinking to help executives make another kind of technology decision that corporations make — the decision to equip their employees with individual, portable technologies like smartphones.

What are the differences between these kinds of decisions?

Purchasing a Single Large System
– the price per unit is high
– a failure is highly visible
– the processes and requirements are usually well defined before vendors are sought
– implementation, training and maintenance are seen as important elements of the process
– total-cost-of-ownership methods are used
– there is clear accountability for, and measurement of the business impact

Purchasing Smartphones
– the price per unit is low
– failures are almost invisible (such as a near-accident brought on by texting while driving)
– the processes that people use are not defined before vendors are sought
– no training is offered
– the cost of owning the gadget is seen as the price
– there is no-one accountable for the business impact, or any measurement

Here is an imagined “worst case process” that takes place when a company decides to make a smartphone purchase:

1.  The CEO or other executives fall in love with their new smartphones, as it enables them to communicate with each other outside hours, during vacations, weekends, sick days, holidays and from any point in the world
2.  They decide to make the units mandatory for all employees
3.  They offer no training, and no new company policies are crafted
4.  Anecdotal evidence floats up to the executive suite that the devices are being abused, and the CEO takes them seriously when he notices that his meetings at all levels are taking longer because at any moment, half the attendees are someplace in cyberspace via their smartphones.  Among his executives he seems unable to conduct a half hour conversation without someone stopping to answer a call, check email or send a text.  He learns that some companies are banning smartphones from meetings altogether, citing addictive behavior driving up the time spent in meetings
5.  He commissions a study which shows that among his employees, smartphones are being used in the following way:
– 85% are texting while driving
– 72% use their smartphones in the bathroom
– game playing and social networking are the most popular everyday use
– 80% use their device in meetings
– 28% are afraid that they’ll lose their jobs if they are not available on weekends
– 35% answer messages on sick days
– 45% check messages between 12am and 6am
– 70% believe that some overall productivity has been lost, even as 80% “enjoy” their device
6.  He decide to come down hard, and bans non-business apps from being used, blocks social networking and gaming websites and purchases a new technology to block internet access from smartphones within company vehicles, and meeting rooms
7.  The annual company survey reveals a new complaint — work-life balance is suffering as employees complain about being “always on” and required to be available to be at work even when they are trying to get away from work.  A quick check with IT reveals that the volume of email has exploded, driven by new messaging on weekends and holidays.  Also, they report that employees are taking inordinately long periods of time in picking up their gadgets for the first time, or retrieving them from the repair shop.
8.  The CEO establishes a joint team between IT/HR and Operations to look at the issue
9.  A followup study shows that 88% believe that overall productivity has fallen, and a mere 33% are “enjoying” their device
10.  The joint team recommends training for each employee, plus a raft of new policies about the company’s expectations of employees when they are not at work

If you can imagine this sequence of events, you can probably see that the initial error was to skip the customary needs analysis study that is required of large-system purchasing decisions.  The executive team, like many managers, made several assumptions about  their employees’ behaviors and needs.  What’s remarkable is that in this case, everyone is trying their best to save time and boost productivity, even as obvious mistakes are being made.

In most companies, however, a decision to provide employees with “time-saving technology” is made without a good understanding of the complexity of individual behavior in the area of time management.  They don’t take into account the fact that each employee has a unique, home-made productivity system that they put together for themselves as young adults or teenagers.

Employees lack the skill needed to evaluate their time management systems, in order to decide how best to affect an improvement.  That’s why so many unproductive, and unexpected habits cropped up in the “worst-case” described above.  The time-saving technology ended up affecting employee safety, productivity, etiquette and hygiene in negative ways.

Fortunately, there is a great deal that can be learned from the methods used to purchase large systems:
Lesson 1 — understand the current system to be improved.  In this case it means, bring every employee to the point where they understand their current time management system
Lesson 2 — help employees determine the gaps in their current systems, by giving them access to best practices
Lesson 3 — look for process changes that need to be made.  In the case of individuals, this translates into new habits, practices and rituals of time management
Lesson 4 — source new technology
Lesson 5 — train employees to use the new technology within company guidelines and policies
Lesson 6 — monitor the implementation and adjust as necessary

The case described above is not an example of one large mistake, but instead it involves a small mistake repeated many times.  The end-results are no different, but the lack of accountability for and measurement of individual productivity in most companies allows the problem to gain the momentum that it shouldn’t.

If there’s a place to start at a high level it might be to clearly assign responsibility for individual employee productivity to one executive, and give them the authority to decide on how best to use technology to make improvements.

P.S.  This is a new area of research for me, so I’d appreciate any related sources of information that you might know of.