The introduction of any new technology has unintended consequences. Foremost amongst these is the status quo or the way that things are done. The prevailing consensus would long since have determined the modus operandi for an existing process whether it be social, work or political. All these processes will have their gatekeepers who will ensure conformity and uniformity.
Ordinarily the role played by such custodians of Best Practice is vital to the efficient operation of these interactions. This blog highlights what occurs when new technology disrupts or invalidates the perceived wisdom, M.O. or Standard Operating Procedure.
This blog deals with a number of contemporary examples as well as historical instances where this occurred with disastrous consequences.
Main picture: Business person holding a media image of city in the palm of the hand
All systems, whether social, political, religious, temporal or work, operate on a set of procedures. Unlike theory, which dictates that all procedures should be monitored and measured in order to ascertain what the best practice should be, in reality it is determined heuristically.
Let us take the example of computers.
Many managers have bemoaned the fact that introduction of computers has not heralded the advent of the paperless office. Instead, many managers will lament that the paper consumption, if anything, has incrementally increased.
Quite simply the obvious reason is that the Business Processes have not changed to accommodate the new technology. Alternatively like a Buyer, at a recent company at which I was employed, felt more comfortable having a paper copy of the Purchase Order. So rather than using the computer as an aide memoire regarding incomplete Purchase Orders, she would laboriously print out copies of all Purchase Orders and manage their progress based upon the printed copy.
One aspect of the use of computers, which intrigues me, is why the creator of the information is not the Data Capturer. Whenever this principle is subverted, the quality of the data entered declines alarmingly.
I will provide a recent example, which I had to endure. All of my pets are chipped. By that, I mean that a microchip has been inserted into them in case they get lost. Tracing of recovered animals is straightforward. The animal is scanned and if it is chipped, the owner is traced.
The theory is easy but the practice is less simple. At the vet, one has to complete the Application Form manually. This form is forwarded together with the Chip Number to Identipet where the details are captured.
In the case of all four of our pets, some or much of the details were incorrectly captured. Even more damning is that my email address and contact number were incorrect. In spite of emailing the corrections, none has been amended yet. If I had captured that information myself, such details would, in all likelihood, have been correct.
An example in which the technology has been fully integrated into the process relates to Outsurance. For a quote to be accepted, the vehicle has to be inspected at a Glasfit Fitment Centre. Here an assistant photographs the vehicle’s licence plate and the then the whole vehicle using an iPad. Next, they enter the Registration Number and VIN Number off the Licence Disk and then submit the data. Within 30 seconds, one receives a sms that the vehicle is insured.
In an earlier generation of the system, as this assistant explained to me, the details were recorded manually and then faxed to the Outsurance data capturers, who were located at Head Office. That is when the problems would arise with customers pointing fingers at Inspection Centres and so on. Now once the computer has confirmed the details, the quote is automatically accepted and the policy becomes operational.
Sometimes an unintended consequence of a new technology is that one has to embrace it whole-heartedly or not at all. Imagine attempting to navigate partly using sextants and partly with GPSs. A more illustrative example is swords versus guns. Once guns were invented, any army persisting with the use of swords would have to resign themselves to defeat at every turn. Just ask any of the tribes of Africa who came last in a spear versus gun engagement.
In the opening battles of WW2 when Germany invaded Poland, the Polish Cavalry valiantly attacked a German tank column at Krojanty with devastating consequences, for the cavalry of course.
One can even use this fact to one’s advantage. Before WW1, the British introduced a new class of warship known as the Dreadnought. This vessel was in a class of its own and easily outclassed anything in any other navy in the world including their own, the Royal Navy.
Admiral Jellicoe’s counterpart in the German Admiralty was Alfred Peter Friedrich von Tirpitz. Unlike the British, the Germans did not possess a maritime tradition to rival that of the British fleet. The underlying reason for this was due to the fact that until the unification of Germany in 1871, the Germanic speaking peoples were settled in a dozen separate states one of which was Prussia.
Commencing in 1897, Tirpitz was a Großadmiral (grand admiral) & Secretary of State of the German Imperial Naval Office, the powerful administrative branch of the German Imperial Navy until 1916 when he was dismissed. Tirpitz used the introduction of the Dreadnought to Germany’s advantage.
Tirpitz took the modest Imperial Navy and, starting in the 1890s, turned it into a world-class force that could threaten the British Royal Navy. His navy, however, was not strong enough to confront the British successfully. Perhaps it was an epiphany or maybe it was his mental acuity but Alfred Tirpitz did not perceive the Dreadnought as a threat. Instead, he envisaged it as an opportunity. Based upon an American football analogue, he envisioned a Hail Mary move.
This would operate as follows.
In effect, the construction of the Dreadnought had rendered all other battleships impotent in the new milieu. The stakes against the British were thus no longer 40 to 1 but 1 to 0. An accelerated naval building programme by the German Kriegsmarine would easily ensure equivalence as all older British Battleships could safely be ignored as worthless.
What Von Tirpitz did not count upon was the British embarking on a crash programme of Dreadnought construction of their own in order to retain superiority or equivalence in numbers with the Germans. Von Tirpitz blinked first, or should that read Kaiser Wilhelm.
The British admirals faced their own dilemmas. Once they had acceded to building their first Dreadnought, they had effectively destroyed their naval capability making their navy a one-ship fleet.
The September 2016 edition of the BBC History Magazine reveals yet another example of new technology being introduced without revising the Standard Operating Procedures. Again, the effect of this omission was to nullify the technology. The article is entitled, “Revealed: Why the British Empire sailed into Trouble.”
In a study conducted by Gregor McMillan on the British merchant navy during the late Victorian period, he attempted to discover why the British Merchant Fleet went into precipitous decline. Previously this fleet had stood at the heart of Britain’s imperial project. By delving into Board Reports and Director’s correspondence, he found them to be “dominated by a damaging ‘aristocratic culture” during this period. “Crippled by their own elitism and inability to modernise, British firms found themselves outpaced by more streamlined and hence agile international competitors.
McMillan continues, “It was not that Companies rejected modernisation altogether – more that adaptation was haphazard and hesitant. They struggled to perceive how these innovations would alter the way things operated. McMillan found that some firms simply attempted to use new technologies according to tried and tested methods, a move that proved to be both inappropriate and inefficient.”
“Staff at one major firm,” he continues, “for instance, did not trust telegrams. Thus they had to follow each message up with a letter of explanation that could take days or weeks to arrive.”
McMillan compares that to having a calculator, then waiting to check one’s answer on a slide rule.
What is truly remarkable is that everybody who I have related this story to would shake their heads in disbelief yet they would not consider the procedure used by Identipet to be as inconsistent with the computerised procedure as those Late Victorian shipping barons.
Why is this so?
The technology of the telegram, the telephone and now even the cell phone is now so embedded in our personal world that the thought of having to confirm a cell phone arrangement by personally driving to the person seems rather quaint, if not ludicrous, as if one did not accept the technology implicitly.
Some people might argue in their defence that by re-performing the procedure, they are ensuring its correct operation. However, who would check a Map Book to confirm a GPS route or a slide rule a calculator.
It is farcical and a relic of a bygone age.