Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Eliminating unproductive IT

Mobile technology, flexible business processes, seamless networks – all of these concepts have been heralded as fundamental to the advance of business efficiency, delivering considerable improvements in employee productivity and greater business freedom.

According to a new report from analyst group Gartner, however, in many cases the reverse is true. A lack of integration and coordination between IT systems, tools, procedures and policies, it says, is starting to impede – not assist – people in their work. Moreover, it says, the failure of companies to help people absorb new applications, technologies and information flow is undercutting by half the business value of their IT investments.

At the root of the problem is the massive rise in digital information. Worldwide information production increased 30% annually between 1999 and 2002, according to the University of California at Berkeley's School of Information Management and Systems. And much of this data is now being conveyed instantaneously across the globe via email, mobile phones, PDAs and instant messaging, leading to widespread information overload.

Gartner vice president and research director Diane Morello says that a professor at a respected US university once posed a question: Why do teachers continue to use blackboards while the rest of the world goes electronic and digital? The answer: because the pace of writing on the blackboard matches students' capacity to absorb the ideas and thoughts being presented. One can understand, therefore, says Morello, why human beings feel so overwhelmed by the flow of email, instant messages, voice mail, cell phone calls and personal digital assistant (PDA) messages. “Simply put, as human beings, we lack the capacity to absorb information, news or ideas as quickly as they come at us. The result is a feeling of paralysis and exhaustion.”

Companies, says Gartner, need to take responsibility for the co-ordination of these digitised data flows in order to free up employee time and improve communications efficiency. And, with more and more employees spending time out of the office, they also need to take a new approach to application design and development, designing services, tools and information more deliberately for remote and distributed use.

“With virtual work becoming an organisational norm, systems and applications must be designed to be place-independent; and that demands a different perspective for business analysis, application design, infrastructure and supporting services in human resources (HR) and the workplace,” says Gartner. The ultimate aim, it says, is to simplify access to basic services and systems to such an extent that dispersed staff can collaborate with colleagues instantly rather than wasting time navigating the technical underpinnings of tools, networks, passwords and log-in details.

The crux of the problem is, while IT has been a powerful tool for machine-to-machine communication, making processes and systems more effective, it is not so good at making people effective.

So how do companies overcome this challenge. First, says Gartner, they must understand and orchestrate changes. Poor management of innumerable small changes coming from IT, HR and business management will undermine success and credibility.

Second, IT needs to make more effort to cloak technical complexity. No company can justify the amount of time that knowledge workers waste trying to navigate the technical underpinnings of operating systems, browsers or intranets, says Gartner. “Usability and service bundling will shrink the time wasted and go a long way toward reducing total cost of ownership.”

The next leap in business performance is not going to come from mobile technology, service-oriented architectures or from web services. It is going to come from improved understanding, analysis and management of the human impact of IT.

Reported in Information Age 31 Jan 2005


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