UK thinktank iSociety last week released an ethnographic study of IT usage in the UK workplace, entitled Getting by, not getting on
The research suggests British businesses are not making the most of their annual £50bn IT investments, and “we are becoming increasingly frustrated by the very technology that we thought would make our lives easier.” This situation of ‘low tech equilibrium’ is “largely the result of unskilled users, uninformed managers and disconnected IT people.” The authors argue that when implemented well, technology can trasform people’s experience of work and deliver up to 5-7 times normal returns on investment: “The key is to invest in people and processes at the same time.”
The research also found:
- Individuals who often lack the skills to make best use of technology, relying on informal learning from other employees.
- IT staff who can, quite literally, speak another language. The researchers found IT departments often disconnected from the organisations they serve, structurally, culturally and even spatially.
- A technology industry which has sometimes been its own worst enemy, fostering unrealistic expectations through over-hyping and overselling offerings.
Louise Ferguson, who was part of the research team, has provided a useful roundup of the report and links to press coverage, and she has responded to criticism that the report states the obvious by pointing out that although the conclusions may seem obvious, they are all to often ignored when ICT decisions are made
“Why do managements continue naively to install monstrously expensive systems on empty rhetoric from vendors, only to see it fail to perform? And then do it all over again a year later. Why do they distance ICT departments from employees, and then wonder why communications are so poor? Why do they fail to train employees to use *any* software, and then wonder why users don’t understand how anything works? Why do they blame employees for using their – nice and simple – email clients as their centre of operations, with thousands of emails stored, while they provide complex, dysfunctional and slow KM systems that fail to fulfill people’s needs? And why do they ridicule people for printing out documents, while the rate of machine/system/network failure – often for days on end – stops everyone from getting on with their jobs?”
These findings certainly fit with our own experience of working with a variety of organisations in the UK. A key theme that emerges throughout the report is the prevalence of large top-down IT systems (CRM, KM, ERP, etc) that are imposed from above without enough training and attention to the behviour and needs of the people who are suposed to use them
I think the findings of the report provide useful insights into how we can go beyond this low-tech equilibrium to realise some of the potential benefits that corporate IT has promised. Looking beyond simply making what we have already work better, we believe that an alternative bottom-up, participative approach to building corporate IT infrastructure is called for. This new approach is needed if we are to align the design of corporate ICT with our emerging understanding of organisations and networks as complex systems. This is one of the key themes in our Smarter, Simpler Social approach, and we are currently engaged in trying to develop methods and techniques to achieve this within the workplace.