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Is digital technology a development or a diversion?




Richard Coughlin

VitAL Magazine

9 September 2013




Whatever our sector, I’m willing to bet that few of us can think of a time when a new business technology wasn’t accompanied by the assurance that “this will make our lives easier”.

Even when Judith Hann and the Tomorrow’s World team documented the unfolding of the brave (but often disappointingly trivial) new world, there was always an underlying thread of optimism –technology would, almost undoubtedly, make life better in the future.

But how many developments have really made business life easier?

Yes, communication is easier with email – but I’ve already received over a hundred emails today and I’ve only just had my lunch. A colleague who recently looked at knowledge worker productivity suggested that up to 40% of managers across the globe spend a half- to a full-day each week on unnecessary communications that don’t add value. This somewhat sobering statistic raises questions as to whether the rapid development of the digital business is taking us in a similar direction. Could it be that digital development is creating more heat than light – and is there anything we can do to ensure progress genuinely makes it easier, not tougher, for all of us to do a great job?

Overall I believe that using smart technologies within a business and digital networks beyond it, open up great possibilities to add value and create competitive edge. These technologies allow us to innovate new propositions and services for customers, enable teams to collaborate in new ways, and make mass customisation easier by streamlining transactions.

Yet it’s important to consider that these technologies also have the potential to flood organisations with more and more data, drowning out true insight. They can create diversions from the main purpose of the business, focusing resources on what technology can do, rather than what it can offer the customer or the wider business. Furthermore, “always on” technology increases the pressure for “always on” staff, and blurs the lines between our work and social lives (and in my experience, that doesn’t mean working less!).

Thankfully, however, there is a way forward – and it starts with understanding why new developments often make the world more complicated rather than better or easier. Frequently, this is because we don’t take the time to really understand both the value and the impact of technology on the operating environment – we are too focused on what we can do, rather than whether it will deliver a measurable improvement.

Secondly, we must understand how to apply new technologies in ways that reflect how people really work, or really could work – either deploying technology that’s sympathetic to the impact it has on roles or being prepared to change roles so that they work with the new technologies. Whenever we think of how a new digital capability can change the world, at the same time we need to consider the impact it will have on how employees’ work; and put effort into managing its uptake in a way that improves productivity, not hampers it.

Many of the new digital technologies have the potential to greatly improve our working lives; but there’s no universal law that dictates that digital development is beneficial for all. It’s going to take smart thinking to make the digital future work for us.


Richard Coughlin is a business transformation expert at PA Consulting Group

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