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Technology Alone Can’t Save the World

by Miki Saxon


According to Kentaro Toyama, the W.K. Kellogg Associate Professor of Community Information at the University of Michigan School of Information and self-described “recovering technoholic,” technology isn’t the panacea it’s cracked up to be.

“Technology works best in organizations that are run well to begin with. (…) The technology industry itself has perpetuated the idea that technology will solve the world’s problems. (…) Everyone wants to believe the work they do is good for society. But a lot of people in the industry have drunk a little too much of their own marketing Kool-Aid.”

What is often ignored is that people are a necessary ingredient for the Kool-Aid to actually work.

The tech eco-system forgets a lesson driven home by Bill Gates in the 1995 book The Road Ahead.

“The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.”

Aetna Insurance found this out when they first equipped their claims processors with their own terminals connected to the mainframe (before the advent of personal computers).

The effort was considered ground-breaking and was touted as a way to streamline the claims process.

It failed miserably, because the process itself wasn’t redesigned.

In short, claims had multiple steps with approval required at each. Because the process stayed the same, i.e., claims stalled in electronic form when someone in the approval process was on jury duty or out sick just as they did in the paper version.

Once people redesigned the process the desired efficiencies were reaped well beyond expectations.

Technology is a tool, not a silver bullet; the only real silver bullets are found within the human mind.

Ultimately the right thing is for us to find the optimal use of technology — not to eliminate it, but also not to assume that it can replace human skills.

Flickr image credit: Jason Rogers

2 Responses to “Technology Alone Can’t Save the World”
  1. KGNo Gravatar Says:

    Excellent article, Miki. Most technologists, especially young ones, forget that technology is a force multiplier, i.e. it makes us stronger, faster, more efficient. However, if what we want is EFFECTIVENESS, then we have to thoroughly understand the goals we are attempting to achieve, and the strategy used to attain them. Much of this is dependent on human nature and interactions and processes have to be built around this. These processes can then be force multiplied using technology, but unless these are clear, technology will only create inefficiencies, and actually remove our ability to attain our goals, rather than aiding them.

    Most technologists or people involve in the tech industry are enamored by technology – this blinds us to the use of technology and the fact that it's really only a force multiplier. If used in the wrong way, force will be multiplied in the wrong direction. It's essentially the difference between walking and driving. Both transport us in a particular direction, but if we are not clear of exactly where we're going and start off in a wrong direction in a car, we end up further from our goal than if we were walking.

  2. Miki SaxonNo Gravatar Says:

    Hi KG,
    Thanks for the kind words and for taking time to add your thoughts.

    And while everything you say is true, there is also a large component of bosses across the age spectrum who believe that technology can substitute for good management and positive culture—both of which take managerial time and effort.

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