Most of us are familiar with the turmoil of the Industrial Revolution. It took generations for man to come to terms with the changes brought about by the industrial revolution. Man went through the turmoil of that revolution and finally came to terms with the change.
People who went through it were not aware that they were going through a transition that was called the industrial revolution. It was only later that we realized as hindsight that the pain they went through was due to the turmoil of the transition to the industrial era.
Similarly, we are all going through the pain and turmoil of the information revolution right now. Most of us may not be even aware of it.
"Turmoil of the Information revolution?", you may therefore ask. "What turmoil? The computerization scenario looks very euphoric. Computers are proliferating business organizations and entering every walk of our life. So where is the turmoil?"
Just as man did not realize he was going through the turmoil of the industrial revolution till it was all over, we are not aware of the turmoil we are passing through. If we look more closely at what is happening in most of the companies trying to automate processes using computers, it will be evident that deep inside, this technology is still foreign to us. Man is still not at ease with this device. He is perplexed, foxed, fidgety and sometimes angry when dealing with this animal. This leads to considerable friction, frustration and conflicts between departments as companies go through the transition to computerized processes.
In this article, which is a summary of my paper, I briefly deal with the reasons why we are not at ease with computers. I first thought that the situation was chaotic only in developing countries, till I did global projects for advanced economies. I found that the situation was the same all around. This led me to the realization that the problem is not related to technological advancement or otherwise - it is related to the human species as a whole. It is a problem of the evolution of human psychology from the era of industrial revolution to the information age. Managers, therefore, need to evolve from the industrial age psychology to the information age to successfully face the challenges thrown by IT-driven changes in the business environment.
I believe that the world incurs colossal loss on account of delays in implementing computerized application systems, cost of application software developed or purchased but not implemented, and opportunity cost due to unimplemented systems. Stories of failures of ERP implementations are not new, and there is colossal loss of people's productivity due to conflicts and stress during the transitions.
Implementation of computerized systems, particularly business application systems, is a major problem in most countries. Most of the computerization projects fail because of poor implementation. More often than not, it is due to people related issues and not technical issues. It is due to the way people, particularly senior managers react to computerization and what they understand or misunderstand about computers. The gap between computer users and computer professionals is evident. And so is the turmoil of the information revolution.
There is a need to address this issue. Surprisingly most IT forums and meets discuss vividly about computer technology and the "bits and bytes". But rarely is the people issue addressed, which is the primary cause of unsuccessful implementations. Rarely do we talk of the implementation issues or deliberate on methods which will help bridge the gap between people and this technology. The turmoil of the information revolution should not be pushed under the carpet but discussed threadbare and openly.
Why don't computers find a smooth entry into the minds and lives of human beings? What is the root cause of this confusion? Why do humans still have a problem accepting computers?
I have analyzed and found few fundamental problems in man's perception of computers and his understanding of computers, due to which however hard he tries to be at ease with them, he finds himself jittery and confused. So the next time you experience the frustrations of automation as a senior manager, remember that it is not your fault, not the fault of the IT folks, it is a global problem of humans evolving from the industrial culture to the information culture. This will help you to focus your energies on solving the problem on hand without getting upset.
What's required is a few "eye-openers". I define an eye opener as something which brings to fore a simple fact which always existed, was obvious but was never noticed. Managers need to open their eyes to some very simple common myths and misconceptions about this technology called computers.
The first problem has to do with our mental make up which has been shaped and groomed in the machine age and is unable to adjust itself in an age of computers.
It took generations for man to come to terms with the changes brought about by the industrial revolution. Man went through the turmoil of that revolution and emerged victorious. As centuries passed by, machines and mechanical thinking started seeping into his mindset. Slowly, he had mastered the change, and knew how to live with machines. A new era dawned over mankind creating a new industrial culture.
As man was evolving into the industrial psychology, machines too were evolving. Initially there were mechanical machines. Then came the electrical ones and then electronic. Thereafter came computers. As the industrial culture was deeply ingrained into his mental makeup by then, man thought that computer was just another machine. Armed with his centuries' old knowledge and the experience of dealing with the change brought about by machines, he adopted the same old approach to deal with the introduction of computers. He thought it was just another electronic machine.
What he did not realize was that it was not merely the introduction of one more new machine, but a dawn of a new era altogether, a change from the industrial era to the information era. Little did he realize that just as the industrial era required a new thinking, new approach and a new culture, the 'Information era' too requires adopting new methods and new ideas to tackle the onslaught of computers. His concepts of machines, which were shaped and developed in the machine age, failed miserably when applied to computers. He did not realize that the computer was not just another industrial age machine but an information age device. This failure on his part has caused some key misconceptions, which leads us to the second vital mistake.
There are various misconceptions about computers, but the ones discussed here are those which arose out of our "Living in the Machine Age" and not opening our eyes to the fact that a new era had dawned.
Myth 1: The computer is an electronic machine that can carry out amazing multifarious tasks.
The first and root cause of misconceptions about this technology arise out of our perception of the real machine of the information era. We have been looking at the computer as the machine of the information age. The real machine of the information age is not the computer but the software running inside. The computer is only the fuel running it.
What produces the wonderful results that we see is not the computer, but the software running inside the computer. So if there is a 'miraculous machine' sitting there, it is the software which executes inside the computer.
With our Machine age mindset, we are used to seeing one machine perform one task, as in a car which performs the motor task. Since we wrongly look at the computer as the machine performing our task, we get bewildered to see the same machine performing so many tasks. Somewhere it is keeping accounts, somewhere else paying your employees the salary, somewhere replacing your astrologer to give you your forecast, somewhere designing a machine, somewhere else controlling a factory, and so on. This leaves the common man awe-struck, and really confused. This gives rise to his unrealistic expectation from the computer. He feels the computer can do anything.
With such an image of the computer in our minds, we expect computers to perform miracles. We mistake it to be flexible also and expect it to adopt to our ways. But when it does not, we get frustrated.
Over the centuries we have got so used to the machine of Industrial age that we expect computers to behave exactly like any other machine. This is why children adopt to computers much more easily than elders - because their minds are not trained to think 'mechanically' (or in terms of mechanical sequence of movements or actions). In case of elders, the mechanization culture has seeped into their very mind-set which they need to unlearn.
Myth 2: The computer is a very versatile, superior and efficient machine.
We think that the computer is very versatile and far superior when compared to other machines of the machine age. Since we are immensely satisfied with the machines, we expect bigger miracles and more satisfaction from computers. This is where lies our biggest folly. With such high expectations, naturally there is more frustration. Actually, the computer (or the 'software machine') is far inferior when compared to a machine of the machine age. This may sound incredible, but is true. Whereas the machine is clearly superior to man with respect to the physical functions that it automates, the computer falls far short of man and his brain in the mental functions which it attempts to simulate.
We still see it as the same machine and expect it to give similar benefits as the machines did. The computer can post and print a thousand ledger entries in no time which a man would take days - but where a human being could detect a common sense error, the computer fails miserably. Deep inside, we are still not ready to accept this. We have not yet realized the difference between Industrial Revolution and Information Revolution.
Computerization is not just introducing a new machine, it is the question of introducing a new culture of the new era.
There is a very subtle difference in the way we should look at computers. When we realize this distinction, there will be a marked difference in our comprehension of computers, and our understanding of computers will be much clearer.
Managers need to remove these misconceptions about computers. They need to change their machine-age mindset in order to see computers in the right perspective. The computer is very different from a machine of the industrial age.
Having gone through the turmoil of the industrial revolution, we should be wiser to deal with the turmoil of this new revolution.
First, let us acknowledge that we are all going through the inevitable. It is not just you and I, but the whole humanity is going through the troubled times. Doesn't that make you feel better? The next time you feel agitated and frustrated during computerization, just sit back and think that you are not alone. You can keep your cool and that will really help.
Second, let us learn from the lessons learnt from Industrial revolution. We did not benefit from the Industrial machines for free, we did give something so that we could reap the benefits. To understand what we gave during the industrial revolution, let us compare the case of an industrial age machine (aircraft) and the information age machine (the computer or software).
In the same vein, if we gave something to benefit from the industrial revolution, there must be something that we need to give to benefit from the information revolution. Are we giving what we are required to give? Are there any rules of the game? Are we playing by the rules of the game?
I was once discussing the issue of computerization with a friend. I said that we fail to use computers effectively because we are quite ignorant about computers. We do not have enough computer awareness. His immediate response was, "Why do I need to know about computers in order to use it? You are asking for too much from a computer user. When I travel by airplane, I do not know how it works. I do not know its inner parts or its aerodynamic principles but I can still make full use of the airplane to the best of my advantage. I may not know how my car works, but that does not stop me from getting the most out of my car. Then why do I need to know about computers to effectively use it? Why is the computer so demanding?"
His argument sounds very logical and justified on the face of it. But there is a flaw.
The argument that we do not know anything about an airplane or a car is not really true. We know far more about them than we know about computers. What is interesting is that we are not even aware of what we know about airplanes and cars, and what we do not know about computers.
We may not know anything about the inner parts of a car or an airplane, but we certainly are very clear of what is expected of us to use them effectively. We at least know that the airplane cannot be used unless there is a long airstrip and a big open space to take off. We know that however far the aerodrome is, we have to use a taxi or a car to go to the airport and avail the services of the aircraft. We know what is our responsibility, we know that the aircraft will not pick us up from our residence.
We know that the aircraft benefits us, provided we take the pains to start at least a few hours early, labor our way to the remote airport, go through the inconvenience of security checks, and wait for several minutes or hours. We never complain about all that. We know that a car can pick us up from our house and take us to the airport, but it cannot take us to a distant city in a few hours as an airplane does. We know that a car cannot be used effectively unless we build good roads.
We are so used to the machines now that we immediately know that if we have to go to a distant city, we must use a plane; if we want to go shopping in town, we must take the car. If we have to visit a friend a few blocks away, we would rather walk up to the friend's place than use the car. We are now so used to these machines that we know immediately when to use which machine, and when not to use a machine. We take these decisions subconsciously in split seconds.
We have learnt to benefit from their merits and live with their shortcomings. We are not even aware of the pains we take in order to take advantage of their strength. Would you call that knowing a lot about cars and aircrafts? Yes, because in the case of computers we do not even have this simple awareness.
In case of computers we do not even know our responsibility. If we were to draw an analogy of our approach to computers with that to the aircraft, we expect an aircraft to come to our house to pick us up and take us to our office a few kilometers away. If it doesn't, we curse the 'aircraft'. This leads to frustration. We don't realize that the 'aircraft' is not designed for such services. If we expect the service of a car from an aircraft, then something is wrong with our expectation. This exactly is our ignorance with computers.
Look at the pains we have taken to use technology of the industrial age. We built roads to use cars, airstrip and airports for aircrafts, long rail lines for railways, etc. We built tall transmission towers and insulated wiring to use electricity. Electricity can be very useful, but at the same time it can also kill. When this technology was introduced I am sure there must have been a great deal of resistance to using it. But now we do not complain. We make safety provisions and we use it. There are mishaps when lives are lost. We no more blame electricity for such mishaps. Similarly, software, the devise of the Information Age, has some prerequisites. Most often, we do not even identify these prerequisites, leave alone implement them. We tend to blame the technology if it does not yield results.
For computers, too, there are certain rules of the game. For computers we need to change the way we work, change some of our procedures, some of our habits, etc. We need to think up-front (at least make a serious attempt to the extent possible) of all our requirements before we start developing or implementing. We need to give the developers some time when we expect changes in the system and not expect procedures to change the way a clerk used to change procedures immediately in the manual system. We need to understand the rules of the game and play by the rules.
I believe that correcting these misconceptions and looking at the computer in the right perspective will go a long way towards a smoother and less stressful transition, and towards a successful acceptance of this technology into our businesses and lives.
A major part of the stress and strain for a manager today arises out of the change happening in his surroundings. He finds himself particularly helpless in the change brought about by IT, since he understands very little of it. He feels very strained and tired. On the other hand, he also knows that a manager's growth depends on his awareness of IT. He knows that knowledge of IT is very important for his career, but does not know how to acquire it. He thinks he needs to know the technicalities of IT and finds it all too complex.
There is good news for the manager. He need not learn the bits and bytes of IT. He does not have to be computer literate, he has to be computer aware.
Today's manager needs to understand computers more clearly without the maze of confused and outdated concepts that plague his mind. When he knows what was wrong in the way he looked at computers, he will evolve out of his machine age psychology and leapfrog into the information era.
The problem of acceptance of computers is evolutionary. Man will evolve out of it. The faster he corrects his outlook, faster can be the evolution.
With better understanding of the computers, software implementation projects will be smoother and more likely to succeed. Man will be able to make better and more effective use of computers. He will be able to contribute to faster assimilation of computer technology for his own benefit and to that of companies.
Businesses can gain from the savings achievable due to less turnaround time of automation projects, improvements in operations, improvements in efficiency of the employees and overall improvement in quality of products. Managers can have a better quality of life due to less stressful encounters with the new technology.
All those who have anything to do with computers, the executives who wish to benefit from the promises of IT and wish to contribute to the progress of their organization through use of IT, need to correct their perception of computers. IT professionals need to understand the people aspect and the psychological aspect of IT, an aspect most ignored by them. IT forums, management institutes need to focus more time and effort to make people more aware of this psychology of change from the machine age to information age. This will help managers to psychologically evolve from the industrial age mindset to the information age mindset.
Thanks for your feedback.
The distrust of the new machines is mainly a result of over-expectations – expectations which have been raised sky-high because of misconceptions, some of which are discussed in the article. The common human resistance to change and fear of the unknown compound the problem.
Due to our ignorance of this technology, we tend to violate the rules of the game by asking for new features or changing our specs as the project progresses. Either due to their over enthusiasm to please the customer or their inability to say "No", some computer professionals agree to such requests which leads to increase in the scope of the project (scope creep). Scope creep is another major cause of project failures.
A very interesting article.
Would it also be fair to say that another factor that links the Industrial and Information 'Revolutions', and leads to implementation failure is distrust of the new' machines.
Just as the Luddites of the 19th Century feared and resisted the implementation of machines so the modern worker also is concerned about how new technology will effect both their employment and quality of life. So while the the modern worker may not intentionally 'smash the new machine', perhaps their fears contribute to an undermining information age programmes.