For most business people, technology is a means to makeemployees more productive–to help them do their workfaster, easier, better. It is also a means to streamlineprocesses, reduce costs and improve customer service–allwith the goal of increasing profits. And indeed, it’s not hardto see why: Information technology is allowing us to reap gainsin the business world that were previously unimaginable.
But there’s a problem with this productivity- and profit-focusedview: It often leaves humans out of the equation. People withindividual merits and integrity become simply users oftechnology, their value measured purely in terms of the quantityand quality of their output. It’s not uncommon to hear themreferred to as resources or even desktops and workstations. Inoverlooking the humanity of technology users, CIOs and otherbusinesspeople frequently fail to consider how the productivitytools they are rolling out will affect the individual employee,the culture of the company and society as a whole. But it isvery rare to find a technology that does not in some way changeus on a personal or social level.
Consider ERP. Many such implementations failed in large partbecause CIOs treated them as they did virtually every othersoftware package, addressing only the technical issues andneglecting the human ones–namely, how this new software andthe new processes it imposed would redefine people’s jobs andresponsibilities. In fact, the changes wrought by the technologywere so sweeping and tumultuous–and training was often sopoorly executed–that users either could not or would notadapt.
In bowing to the needs of technology over the needs of thepeople who will use it, CIOs give the technology an undue amountof power over the enterprise. With ERP, for example, theprofound changes are not instigated by executives’ innovativeideas; rather, the software dictates a set way in which thecompany must operate in order to maximize the return from thepackage. To reach this Shangri-la, members of the organizationmust endure significant and often painful trials.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. As technology developersincreasingly recognize the need for flexibility andcustomization in their products, and as organizations learn fromtheir mistakes, our focus needs to shift. We must learn torespect users a little more and technology a little less. Theresult will not only benefit people and society, it could alsohelp business.
Artists And It
Rouen, France, 1894–Artist Claude Monet completes the lastin a series of almost 30 oil paintings of a Gothic cathedral inNormandy, France. For two years, the aging visionary has keptpeculiar hours, rising before dawn from restless nights ofslumber and retiring just after twilight, in order to capturewith his brush and oil pigments the transient effects of lightand atmosphere on this great old church.
Linz, Austria, 1997–Digital artist Golan Levin and computerscientist Paul Debevec pay tribute to Monet, one of the foundersof Impressionism, with their multimedia exhibit, “RouenRevisited.” The work consists of a computer kiosk housed in awooden cabinet shaped like a gothic arch. Levin and Debevecinvite users to enter the mind and experience the vision of oneof history’s great artists by encouraging them to interact witha variety of digital images, both contemporary and from Monet’stime, of Rouen Cathedral at different times of day and fromvarious vantage points, as Monet himself might have beheld thechurch.
Levin and Debevec use programming skills and technologyavailable to any CIO. But instead of employing these tools tobuild a kiosk for the sole purpose of selling or advertisingwithout considering users’ needs, they have applied them tocreate an experience that will stimulate people to considertranscendent themes long treated in literature and the arts:time, visual perception, subjectivity and interpretation. (Formore on Levin’s work, visit acg.media.mit.edu/people/golan.)
While information technology executives generally possess adangerously narrow view of the uses and ramifications oftechnology, artists often maintain a much broader perspective:They use it to explore themes, such as memory, relationships andidentity, that ultimately help us better understand our humancondition. CIOs may not be in the business of demystifying whatit means to be human, but they can certainly apply what artistsunderstand about technology to make better decisions.
Not only do artists use technology to explore larger themes thataffect us all, but they aren’t afraid to use it inunconventional ways, often far outside the range of thetechnology’s intended use. Carolyn Porter, adjunct professor ofart and technology at Boston University, calls it “subvertingtechnology.” “Any time artists get a new tool, they are going totry to subvert it and use it for their creative endeavors,” sheexplains. In other words, part of artists’ mandate is to findnew applications for whatever tools they use to create theirworks of art. Whether it’s a new paintbrush or a digital camera,artists tend to put the technology to work for them rather thanadhering to its prescriptions.
CIOs who have had to customize off-the-shelf software packagesare familiar with subverting technology to make it workaccording to their businesses’ requirements and procedures. Nowit’s time to try subversion with users’ needs in mind. Next timeyou consider a new technology for potential adoption, take alesson from the artists and focus less on how it will strengthenthe bottom line and more on how it will affect the people whowill be using it. Then take control of the technology, and letyourself think of new ways it might be used to better servepeople’s needs. Be less mindful of the technology’s needs andrequirements and more mindful of the needs of the people whowill use it. The results will very likely be better technologydecisions, happier technology users and more successfulimplementations–not to mention a better balance of powerbetween technology and people.