The problem with deification of technology at work

Many of us deify tech in our personal, day-to-day lives. How could we not? Our phones are always with us and there are dozens of things — functional and fun — we can do on there. Tech has also made our lives generally easier (more on that in a second), from finding entertainment to staying connected with friends to how we use our ovens. Many of us love us some tech.

There are inherent problems with this on the personal side, of course. Social media is a pre-eminent example. It’s made the general “rat race” a lot worse for most, and it’s an echo chamber at best. That means we’re getting less exposure to different ideas, which is going to continue to make people divisive on important issues. It’s also going to increase feelings of social isolation.

None of this is rocket science. But tech is cool, fast, and fun — so we deify it and let it creep into all corners of our lives. That train is not going backwards anytime soon. We just need to continue to deal there.

That was all the personal side of things.

What about work?

I’d argue work has mostly benefited from tech in terms of productivity metrics. Tasks that would have taken 40 hours/week in 1950 could be done in 11 or less in 2015. Just by benefit of Excel and Google being invented, our connection to organizing data — and finding more data — at work were changed forever.

In those ways, tech has been great for work.

Other ways? Not so much.

Let’s bring some recent research into this

First, from “The Real Reason Superstar Firms Are Pulling Ahead:”

Makes sense. You can quibble with “labor productivity levels” as a metric. But in general, I think there’s a large-scale sense that some firms are killing it (in diff. industries) and others are lagging or meandering.

As you’d guess, the major theory for why this is happening is IT adoption, or getting in bed with more tech:

Bessen’s findings are consistent with a lot of other data. Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee reported a link between IT adoption and industry concentration in HBR in 2008; since then, multiple analyses have linked increased use of digital technology to higher profitability at both the industry and company level. Researchers at the OECD have documented the rise of superstar firms and their relationship to wage inequality, and found that use of IT is one of the primary drivers. Other academic research has found the same.

So we should deify tech in a work context then, right?

Hold the boat for one second.

A little bit further down, there’s this:

For instance, research has shown that IT is more effective when paired with good management. Getting the most out of, say, analytics software also requires well-designed processes and effective managers — the two are more valuable together than either would be on its own.

Welcome to the core of the issue.

Tech on its own doesn’t solve issues, and especially certain issues

Let’s say you have the greatest tech stack of all-time. It’s smarter than a college student. It can do anything.

Well, OK. Awesome.

But unless you eliminate the entirety of your human workforce, you still need people to:

  • Help the tech figure out what problems it’s solving
  • Set the priorities of the other human beings you’re paying salaries to
  • Present and organize the data in a way that check-writers can understand

So now you have the best tech, but the optimization of that tech won’t be full unless you have somewhat-decent management, or at the very least priority-setting.

Best tech + shitty management = output probably still not there.

Great management + no tech = you’re Amish.

There has to be a yin and yang between the two.

The area with the greatest confusion around this seems to be “engagement software.” Engagement is a people issue. It only gets better when managers communicate, prioritize, and care. Having a “NPS score available rapidly” means nothing to engagement. It’s often just tech for the sake of tech. We’ve seen that market explode in 10 years, but engagement scores globally have decreased. Why are those trend lines moving in different directions? Because you don’t solve people issues with tech. You solve them through people.

The worst assumption many executives make

“If we buy this tech, our problem will thus be solved!”

Makes sense why they think this. Salespeople are taught to speak to pain points. If they are good salespeople, they can make some blubbering exec think “Solution A” is the ultimate answer. It’s not. But a good sales guy can get to that point with an exec, and six-12 months later, the exec is throwing out rationalization after rationalization with his team about why nothing has improved.

I’ve seen this at every full-time job I’ve ever had.

We deify tech, buy into sales scripts, buy the tech, roll it out/adopt it horribly, it fails, and many play the blame game.

There are two parts of that process we can fix:

  • Stop assuming tech will solve everything
  • Roll out new tech with some context for your employees on how to use it, what the expectations are, changes in process, etc.

When we assume Bullet No. 1, we make bad decisions and rack up potentially unnecessary costs.

When we do Bullet No. 2 wrong, it becomes a deal where the new tech is seen as “another thing I have to keep track of,” and everyone begins confusing “busy” and “productive.” 

How can we stop deifying tech at work?

It’s hard because, as noted at the top, tech is so pervasive in our day-to-day lives.

Plus, every article about business these days gives a total handjob to a Silicon Valley company — so we’re constantly surrounded by that idea too.

It’s gonna be a long road on this topic.

I think we just need to realize that work is an ecosystem. It’s made up of people, products (tech), and processes. The three have to work together. That’s how work actually, uh, works.

Oh, and — kind of a big thing — the more we deify tech, the more tech will replace us. Already happening at work and will happen more and more. Companies will say “We will find value-add roles for those automated out,” but of course they won’t. They’ll take them off the books and put that money back into the executive pockets.

We all want to hope increasing tech stack is a “value play.” It’s often a “cost play” to the guys making the decisions now. We’ll see how that evolves out.

The point: tech is pervasive, but at work (and in your real life) it’s just one aspect of everything. Don’t deify. Work with it as best you can.

Ted Bauer

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