Take time to think about the human consequences of new technology

Governments, like all organizations, are composed of humans and technology. And every technical change imposes behavioral changes on people. Understand the consequences of those changes before you deploy.

For an IT service provider, it's often easy to forget that there is a human/social aspect to our work. Often, the reactions of people to our technological deployments can surprise us, because we are so focused on the technical side and "helping business to work harder/smarter." An interesting consequence of this fact was brought to my attention today, and it was one of those "a ha!" moments.

A colleague of mine happened to have the foresight to offer up a Wiki-like tool to a group of individuals who often work together to form a political agenda. Prior to this Wiki experiment, these folks worked on their agenda via emails and meetings, not unlike many of us do on a day-to-day basis. It was decided that it would be an efficient and effective use of technology to stop the email carousel and the numerous meetings to work on the agenda via a Wiki tool. Makes sense doesn't it?

With this tool, all the conversations are recorded in one place and everyone has the opportunity to comment. Furthermore, there would be greatly reduced travel (if any) and people could comment/collaborate at any time, day or night. What a technology tour de force!

Proud as mother hens, the technology was rolled out to the group of users with fanfare and high hopes. After all, this was the perfect application of technology to aid in a process. Why would anyone disagree?

Whoa! In our zeal to provide the whole "work smarter" shtick, we ignored the fact that we were in fact changing a complex social dynamic. Think about it. If the normal process for hammering out any sort of outcome is to meet face to face and exchange emails, there is a great deal of room to practice the use of power. You know that in any sort of meeting, it is easy for one, two, or a just a handful of people to control the conversation. Some people will get their points across while others may never be heard from.

Taking things from a face-to-face process to a virtual one means that some people who are adept at controlling meetings suddenly find themselves with less power to influence, while those that might not have ever had their voices heard, suddenly have a voice. In a Wiki, everyone’s voice is the same volume.

Needless to say, as the process moved forward, we found those that loved the idea and those who had some disdain for it. Bet you can guess which camps they belonged to.


Now, those that are more tech-savvy know that even in the online world there are ways to get your voice heard above the din, but it is harder to do so and harder to squelch voices than in our normal conversational activities. My guess is that as the experiment proceeds, some will become experts at the process, but overall I think it is a healthy exercise that will lead to better outcomes.

But to take a moment to pause and think about how our activities actually can and do change the social dynamics of an organization is actually both daunting and breathtaking at the same time. We deal on a daily basis with the basic processes of our organizations -- shaping them, enhancing them and, unfortunately, detracting from them. There are few functions other than IT that can cut across an organization and introduce change like we can.

As someone said, "With great power, comes great responsibility," and we need to be cognizant of the fact that, while it  seems we are making a change for the  better by introducing new technologies, there may in fact be some nontechnical disadvantages that we did not anticipate. This insight is especially important to analysts, architects and developers.

So having crossed over into 2006 and anticipating the rush of new technologies appearing on what sometimes seems a per-second basis, it is important to take a step back and remember that we work in organizations made up of humans. Our work does have consequences--some intended and some not-- and it is worthwhile to have a step in our planning processes to consider what those consequences might be. Call them part of your risk management plan, if you need a place to put that kind of thinking, but take the time to do it. It will prove worthwhile in the long-run.

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