What if... we didn't have modern communications and IT?

A simple life, right? Wrong...

A simple life, right? Wrong...

Dale Vile outs an industry stuck in the dark ages. How many more are there?

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My son learned how to use a mouse when he was three years old, a keyboard when he was five and an internet search engine when he was seven. At seven and a half, he now takes sending email to his cousins in Australia for granted. We haven't yet had the request for his first mobile phone but I'm sure that's not far off as he is already very comfortable using the land line.

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It is tempting to think his progress in the use of information and communications technology (ICT) is something special. When you look around, though, it is clear most of his school mates are equally competent, more so in some cases. Furthermore, seeing his younger sister progress even more quickly by looking over his shoulder really does bring home how much technology is being woven into the fabric of the world to come.

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We older folk have also generally done pretty well in embracing modern technology, especially in a corporate business context. It is now normal for many of us to conduct the majority of our communication over a phone, mobile phone or by exchanging email. We also take fundamental things like PCs, word processors and corporate applications for granted. The level of dependency we have on technology becomes apparent when it is not available. Most of us have seen whole offices come to a stand still when someone declares that the phones are out or the computer network is down.

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But does all of this technology really help us or have we just taken it on board in the name of progress because it happens to have become available?

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A good way of answering this question is to consider what life would be like if we didn't have modern ICT. To do this, we don't actually need to use our imagination. Hard though it is for some of us to believe, the last 25 years' advances in ICT seem to have completely bypassed many organisations out there. This became apparent when my family recently decided to move house.

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The first job was to get the estate agent around to value our existing property and put it onto the market. I was actually quite impressed with how technology was being used here. The agent turned up with an electronic measuring device and a digital camera and within a few hours details of our house had been automatically emailed to relevant buyers based on their preferences held in a database.

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Finding a mortgage was similarly painless. I did some basic research on the web and the rest was done over the phone. This led to a mortgage offer in a few days, something I remember taking weeks the last time we moved house a few years ago.

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Both the estate agent and the mortgage company had been using technology to improve efficiency and deliver better customer service.

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Things changed when we appointed a solicitor to handle the legal side of the house move. The whole experience was like driving down a well lit motorway at high speed then suddenly finding it had turned into a dark country lane that was thick with mud.

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The first clue dropped on the door mat in the form of a letter from the solicitor. The address on the envelope had obviously been typed on a typewriter and corrected using Tippex. Inside was a form to complete that looked like a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy of an original ancestor form that had been produced some years before - again on a typewriter. We were also forwarded a similarly unimpressive form from our buyer's solicitor, suggesting it isn't just one legal firm that has been bypassed by technology.

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Communications too were quite different to the corporate world I am used to. During the proceedings, for example, the question came up of whether we had permission from the original builder of our house to add a conservatory. In most businesses, this kind of query is dealt with through a quick phone call or email. Here's how it worked in this case:

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1. The solicitor identified the issue
2. He composed a letter and dictated it to his secretary
3. The secretary typed letter, separately typed envelope, and put it in the post
4. The letter arrived the following day while I was at work

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By the time I got home, the solicitor had finished for the day which meant the first chance I had to do anything about it was on day three. It turned out further action was required. The solicitor then wrote a letter to the builder requesting permission on our behalf, the builder wrote a letter back saying it needed an admin fee, the solicitor wrote a letter to us asking for a cheque (forget credit card payments over the phone) and so on.

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The issue itself is still ongoing and looks set to drag out for another couple of weeks - not because of the problem per se (which everyone agrees is a trivial admin job) but because of the way in which the communication is being handled. It's as if the legal firm is stuck somewhere back in the 1970s when it comes to the use of ICT and this is reflected in the staggeringly inefficient business processes and the frustratingly slow rate at which things happen. Compared to even dubious professions like estate agents, this makes the customer experience very poor and undoubtedly leads to higher legal fees to cover the unnecessarily high overheads.

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Examples like these remind us of what a world without modern technology would be like. We all complain about voice mail, email overload and the intrusion of mobile phones into our private lives. Personally, however, I can live with these in return for good customer service, lower prices and just the simple ability to get things done.

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Does anyone else out there have examples of firms or professions that have been similarly left behind?

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Let me know by posting a Reader Comment below

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**Dale Vile is service director at analyst house Quocirca. His C.V. boasts years at Nortel Networks, Bloor Research, SAP and Sybase and his job now involves working with vendors and users wanting to tap the business benefits of technology. For more information see: http://www.quocirca.com

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