Friday, July 5, 2013

The Failed Promises of Tech

The relationship between user and technology is a rocky one. It's a constant give and take between a group of typically non-technical people who are obligated to use technology to perform their jobs. It's not always easy. After nearly 23 years we have finally reached a point where you no longer have to advertise for "Microsoft Office proficient" candidates, generally speaking. We've transitioned the workforce into the digital age but there have been compromises along the way. (Caution, broad generalizations to follow)

Change? I ain't got time for Change!

Backwards compatibility is evil. When you think about it, backwards compatibility delays the inevitable. The problem is that it builds up a false promise: We'll keep accommodating you until the end of time. As a sector, IT has been teaching an entire workforce the wrong approach to technology. Tech involves a lot of change; It's nearly constant. Even more so now that we're in the cloud where our destiny is controlled by someone else with no connection to our own organizations.

I'm pretty sure we did the backwards compatibility thing because technology used to be expensive. It took a lot of money to invest in the hardware. Often times you also ended up sinking a lot of dough in bespoke software because what you wanted to do didn't have a retail product yet. Any subsequent new OS version had to be backwards compatible to run all that expensive software. The next version of the custom software needed to perform the job of the old one plus the new features AND run on old hardware. It was the economical thing to do at the time and it's not a bad strategy. The unintended consequence is that it created a culture.

We've been doing backward compatibility for decades and now an entire workforce expects it. "This is the way I used to do this process. Now it doesn't work. Make it work the way it used to!" This is a statement that I imagine raises the ire of any first level tech after an update. We techs think to ourselves, "Of course it doesn't work, you nitwit! Read the email we sent explaining the update and changes to your process!!" But users don't do that, do they? They don't because we've taught them that we will be able to build systems around them that are minimally impacting. They won't have to change the holy and sacred process because we'll make the system backwards compatible. Thought will not be required, carry on as usual.

IT is 20% Technical, 80% User Therapy

The resistance to change is really centered around the level of effort it takes. We all have work to do. Adding in a change that requires learning and understanding doesn't help the work get done. It IS difficult but workers encounter change in their jobs in many aspects other than technology. They complain about those as much as any tech change we throw at them. New position created? Complain. New rule for checking out company vehicle? Complain. New TPS report? Complain. Got rid of the TPS report? Complain.

Its time for Tech to deliver on a new promise. The path of least resistance does no one favors. Change must be based on need and requirements. Yes, sometimes that means backwards compatibility too (I'm not totally against it). The success of knowledge workers will depend on embracing change. Change is going to come fast and it's going to be impossible to avoid. IT can be part of the solution here. If we're thoughtful about the changes we introduce and work to help the people we support be OK with change we can start to transition the workforce from grudging digital users to digital adoptees or naturalized digital citizens. I believe they can learn to fully embrace the digital culture and come to terms with their new homeland.

Some day support calls will not be prefaced by a user saying, "I'm not very computer literate or techy..."