Why users need to take a “hands-on” approach to technology

Man with head down on his desk in front of his computer.Every time I hear someone lament about how their computer couldn’t possibly be working correctly, or it is somehow making their life more difficult because “it” should be here to “do that” (whatever the ubiquitous “that” happens to be), I enjoy handing them a hammer and nails and telling them they now have the tools to build their dream home… get to it.

Funny… another one of those articles written over 10 years ago that, until recently, I thought was completely irrelevant today – but after having worked with a few government entities that were deploying computers and new workflows for the first time – I found myself repeating much of the same mantra as I had with the introduction of new technologies and computers in both the Army and the Railway industries nearly 20 years before.

As with all these “older” articles – the fundamental truth remains valid today as it did then.

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Every time I hear someone lament about how their computer couldn’t possibly be working correctly, or it is somehow making their life more difficult because “it” should be here to “do that” (whatever the ubiquitous “that” happens to be), I enjoy handing them a hammer and nails and telling them they now have the tools to build their dream home… get to it.

On those rare occasions that I’m not immediately swatted up the side of the head, I’m often told “I can’t… I don’t know how”.

Yes… but you do have the tools in your hand that can “do that”.

Users need to clearly understand that computers aren’t magic. Likewise, the myth that “technology will make all our lives easier” is one of the biggest lies since “income taxes are only an interim measure to pay for the Great War”. There is a balance; and the pivot point is the knowledge, skills and expectations of the user.

The fundamental “truth” that the users need to understand is that the computer is nothing more than just another communications tool… no different from a telephone, television or VCR.

It will not auto-magically perform all the tasks that will move us into a Roddenberry-esk (yes, that’s a Star Trek reference) era of only “happy work” and lots of leisure.
Regrettably, just as with programming a VCR, there is a requirement to spend some time learning about the new technology.

Users shouldn’t feel that the technology is being thrust upon them however… and that they are in some kind of do-or-die/learn-or-leave environment (unless that really is your corporate culture).

Contrary to other myths, computers have actually replaced very few people. Instead, workflow and business process change.

More often than not, the “personnel savings” that come from implementing these new information systems are quickly eaten up by the requirement for support staff, subject matter experts, or simply the redirecting of the efforts of the old staff away from their manual duties to now focus upon the benefits of the new system.

Efforts wind up being directed towards system validation and ensuring its operation derives the maximum benefit from the investment (engaging in tasks such as data integrity verification, report generation, monitoring, trend analysis, etc.).

Likewise, the velocity or reaction time of the organization changes – to make better use of the information derived from the information technology – thus creating a strategic advantage (one of the reasons why we embraced the technology to begin with).

It is essential that users understand that act of learning and adapting to change rarely puts the operator or the new computer, technology or work-processes at risk (although a good hiccup in the system can be quite aggravating, and perhaps invoke a heart attack in those operators who haven’t seen their doctor prior to initiating training).

I still believe that the greater threat comes from not knowing how to operate and leverage the technology, rather than the risk of an aneurysm from using it.

Ever notice how Grandmother seems to have problems using the VCR (we’ll ignore the clock part… since most of us can’t do that)?

Many of us view the VCR as a pretty basic technology… put in the tape… press play, record, rewind, stop, etc… and it does what we want. Too simple?

It seems simple because we already possess the foundation knowledge required… probably gained through a similar technology that many of us regularly played with as a child… a tape recorder.

The lesson to be learned here?

Technology is changing fast… and its getting harder and harder to keep up.

There will quickly come a point where a novice user no longer possess the critical foundation knowledge/concepts required to adapt to the new operating systems and software (not without a LOT of effort).

That’s not to say that it’s going to be impossible; but users must be encouraged to make every effort to LEARN NOW! Encourage novice users to keep “black books” of lessons learned… participate in discussion forums and user groups where they can share their insights and ask questions.

Reward/acknowledge those “expert” users who help the others (yes, this can be a double-edged sword… and you need to watch out that these same experts don’t get overworked/abused).

All this effort by the users should be thought of as an investment… and as with retirement savings programs, investing at a later time will probably take significantly more capital to achieve the same degree of gain compared to investing just a little bit early on.

While I don’t necessarily advocate the use of pressure or scare tactics, users who want to procrastinate and not participate should understand one key lesson:

While almost no one has been replaced by a computer,
many have been replaced by a competent computer user….

Author: Stephen Holton, PMP, CISSP, SSGB, ITIL, CD

After completing over twelve years service in the Canadian Armed Forces, Stephen moved to private industry where he was employed as a Director of Information Technology, Director of Operations and CIO for a number of private sector companies before finally electing to become an independent consultant in 2000. Since then he’s served as a management consultant, project/program manager and business analyst/solution architect in a number of industries and organizations - including a big-5 consulting firm. These industries and organizations have included the airline, railway, telecommunications and banking industries, the Canadian and US Governments, as well as mandates in Brazil and Bermuda. Presently Steve lives in Ottawa, Canada.

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