This paper was presented at AICTE Sponsored National e-Conference 2020 titled “The Role of Management Practices in Business Sustainability in an Era of Technology Disruptions”.
Technology changes fast, but it takes generations to change the minds and behaviour of people. It is natural for people to resist change. The real problem, then, is not technology, but the basic human instinct to resist change. The vehicle of business runs on two uneven wheels – one wheel (technology) runs at jet speed and the other (people/mindsets) at bullock cart speed. It is extremely important to address this “inertia of the human mind” to sustain businesses.
Since the problem is behavioral and not technical, you need a solution with a behavioural approach. Hence the author has coined a new term called “Behavioral IT®” to address the social issues of IT. Behavioral IT can be looked at as a new field of study, a managerial skill or/and a strategy which deals with the psychological, behavioural and attitudinal aspects of technological change.
Business Sustainability stands on three pillars: Environmental Sustainability, Economic Sustainability and Social Sustainability. Behavioral IT® contributes directly to social and economic sustainability, which are relatively overlooked aspects of sustainability.
For sustaining businesses in a VUCA World, or a world with Vulnerability, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity, it is important to address the primary cause of VUCA. The culprit is the rapidly changing technology, more significantly the Information Technology. Though the primary driver of change today is IT, not many change management courses discuss how to manage IT-Driven change.
It is natural for people to resist change. The real problem, then, is not technology, but the basic human instinct to resist change. Technology changes fast, but it takes generations to change the minds and behaviour of people. The vehicle of businesses runs on two uneven wheels – one wheel (technology) runs at jet speed and the other (people) at bullock cart speed. It is extremely important to address this “inertia of the human mind” to sustain businesses.
To deal with the social sustainability problems arising out of Information Technology, you need a solution with a behavioural approach. Hence the author has coined a new term called “Behavioral IT®” to address the social issues of IT (Ref.2 “Managers Don’t Need IT Skills..”). Behavioral IT can be looked at as a new field of study, a managerial skill or/and a strategy which deals with the psychological, behavioural and attitudinal aspects of technological change. Most of what we will discuss in this paper can be classified as “Behavioral IT®” concepts.
Man has gone through a major disruption before – that of the industrial revolution. It took over 100 years for the human mind to cope with machines. We had just mastered the disruption of machines when we got another jolt with the onslaught of computers and another revolution – the information revolution.
The inertia of the mind caused us to look at the onslaught of computers as just an introduction of yet another machine (maybe super machine) and to use our old industrial age mindset to tackle this change. But is the computer a completely different animal as compared to the industrial age machine? Do we need a mindset different from the industrial mindset to tackle this revolution and the VUCA world? What is this information age mindset that will correct this inertia of the mind? This paper tries to answer these questions. Over 70% failures in IT projects indicates that something is seriously wrong.Preview(opens in a new tab)
This paper is a study of evolution of human psychology from the industrial-age to the information-age. It takes a multidisciplinary approach with major stress on psychology of change. It looks at the key features of information technology in contrast to the industrial one to draw useful conclusions as to what we need to learn and unlearn from the past to ensure a smoother change.
This paper is useful for all CXO’s, managers, heads of companies and heads of departments – in short, for all the change drivers or change catalysts in businesses. It is of course useful for students of management too.
People aspects of IT, Behavioral Aspects of IT, Behavioral IT, IT-Driven Change Management, Psychology of Change, IT Soft-Skills, IT for CXOs, IT for Corporate Leaders, IT Strategy, IT Disruption.
Business sustainability stands on three pillars – Environmental, Economic and Social Sustainability. Unfortunately, though important, social sustainability has had considerably less attention than economic and environmental sustainability.
This paper focuses on this often overlooked aspect of sustainability. Since it is overlooked, it is not understood too. So let me start with highlighting some key aspects of social sustainability that need emphasis:
Social Sustainability talks of Sustainable Human Development, work-life-balance, wellness of people, good quality of life both at work and at home, not just for the employees but also for the family and society at large.
Moreover, since the focus is on sustainability in the VUCA world (or a world of vulnerability, uncertainty, confusion and ambiguity), it needs no emphasis that VUCA creates stress and tension, impacting health, well-being and overall quality of life.
This paper tries to go to the root cause of VUCA and explores what can be done to reduce this uncertainty, confusion, pressure, tension and stress to improve the quality of life and overall well-being.
It is no secret that the primary cause of VUCA is the rapidly changing technology and the disruptions caused by the change, which people are unable to cope with. It is also true that Information technology is the fastest-changing technology among all technologies. It is the most prominent cause of disruption and is entering almost all walks of life.
This paper looks at this technology and examines how it is contributing to VUCA, and what can be done to soften its impact.
Strangely there is a lot of euphoria about IT. IT scenario looks so very rosy that few would believe that IT could be the cause of confusion and stress. The spread of social networks and the use of electronic tools and gadgets like mobiles, laptops, PowerPoint presentations, etc. amongst GenY gives an impression that everything is hunky-dory in IT.
But if you peep into what is happening in businesses trying to implement IT/ERP projects, you can see major upheavals during IT implementations, friction and conflict among people due to overwork and fatigue, and blame game and politics due to high failures. As per researchers, there are above 70% failures in IT projects (75% as per [Ref.9]. Simply google on “IT Failures” to find more). The picture inside businesses trying to introduce ERP/IT is not so rosy. With 70% failures, it can be anything but rosy – in fact, it is miserable. IT implementations cause stress due to overwork, ambiguity, unfamiliarity and change. The high rate of failures causes finger-pointing, blame game and politics. This is a big contributor to VUCA, stress and lack of wellbeing.
The author believes that the problem is not with technology, it is with the people. People naturally resist change. Technology changes fast but it takes generations to change the minds and behaviour of humans. I call it the “inertia of the human mind”. To deal with the social problems arising out of Information Technology, you need a solution with a behavioural approach. Hence the author has coined a new term called “Behavioral IT®” to address the social issues of IT (Ref.2 “Managers Don’t Need IT Skills..”). Behavioral IT can be looked at as a new field of study, a managerial skill or/and a strategy which deals with the psychological, behavioural and attitudinal aspects of technological change. Most of what we will discuss in this paper can be classified as “Behavioral IT®” concepts.
Technology and people are two important wheels on which the businesses run, but unfortunately, one wheel runs at jet speed and the other wheel runs at bullock cart speed. While technology has changed from industrial technology to information technology, from machines to computers, human minds are still in the industrial era. Man still has an industrial-age mindset.
So how do we bring the other wheel to speed? How to overcome the inertia of the mind? We like to make rapid upgrades in Software, but what about upgrades to our minds?
Business Managers need to mentally evolve from the industrial-age psyche to the information-age psychology to successfully face the challenges thrown by IT-driven change. This paper discusses how to leapfrog into the information era by changing our machine age mindset.
Upgrading our minds to information psyche from industrial psychology will help improve social sustainability in multiple ways:
1. Since the cause of failure are people and people’s mindsets, upgrading minds will help reduce failure, reduce the overall time for transition. Fewer failures and more automation will ensure more efficiency and better processes, resulting in less stress and more free time for employees.
2. It will cut conflicts and promote collaboration, reduce stress during IT transitions, cut politics, thereby promoting corporate harmony and improving wellbeing.
3. The impact will be seen not only with the employees but their families too. Less stress and more free time would mean that employees can spend more stress-free and quality time with their families resulting in family wellbeing.
4. In the long run, increased human productivity through reduced conflicts will lead to higher profits. More success in automation would mean industrial growth, overall prosperity, a better world and happier people.
Man has already gone through the shocks of industrial revolution. Not many, particularly of the younger generation, know that man went through 100 years of turmoil of industrial revolution. WUCA is a result of the turmoil of the information revolution. A study of the industrial revolution can help us to be wiser to tackle this turmoil of the information revolution and contribute to social sustainability.
Upgrading to the information age mindset should not be as difficult as it has been made out to be. There is a subtle change required in our outlook and the way we look at this technology called IT. This paper should work as an eye-opener to see that subtle change in outlook from the industrial age to the information age.
2. EXISTING SCENARIO: TURMOIL OF THE INFORMATION REVOLUTION
Computers are proliferating business organisations and entering every walk of our life. But a closer look will reveal that man is still not at ease with this device. He is perplexed, foxed, fidgety and sometimes angry while dealing with this creature.
Though the computerisation scenario may look very euphoric, if we peep into 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.
It is not uncommon to have computerised application systems shelved simply because the people for whom the application was built or configured do not accept it, or are not too keen to use it. The same people who seem very enthusiastic when they first view the system, seem to have cold feet and seem disinterested when it comes to putting it to actual use. “This system just does not meet my requirements. This is just not the way I wanted it. You have not understood my requirements.” These are familiar words that most systems professionals have heard from the users of computerised systems. Most systems look nice when viewed as a demo, but fail miserably when implemented.
The reasons can be many: the requirements were not given or understood properly, the information requirements were drafted without serious thoughts, the system needs to be modified to meet the new requirements and the IT personnel need more time to modify the system, and so on… Whatever be the reasons, the gap between the IT personnel and the end-user, or computer technology and the consumers of this technology is very evident.
Why aren’t computers having a smooth entry into the minds and lives of human beings? Why this confusion? Why this problem of acceptance of computers after years of introduction of this technology?
The situation is not so only in developing countries, it is so even in developed countries as the problem relates to the human species as a whole. It is a problem of the evolution of human psychology.
There are two very basic problems in our perception of computers. We have made fundamental mistakes while understanding computers due to which, however hard we try to be at ease with them, we find ourselves jittery and confused.
Our mental make-up which has been shaped and groomed in the machine age is unable to adjust itself in an age of computers. The very concepts of machines that have been shaped and developed in the machine age fail miserably when applied to computers. There is a very subtle difference in the way we should look at computers. When we realise this distinction, there will be a marked difference in our comprehension of computers.
What is this subtle difference that we have to see? How should a manager now look at computers and how should he change his outlook in order to see computers in the right perspective? We shall try to find answers to these questions in the following paragraphs.
First, let us look at some historical and psychological reasons for this state of affairs.
3. THE BACKGROUND AND THE LEGACY
3.1 MACHINE CULTURE OF THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION
For a long time, man was accustomed to doing things manually both at home and at work. With the onslaught of machines came the Industrial Revolution. The industry changed and these changes brought with them their own cultural shocks. The turmoil of Industrial Revolution cannot be forgotten. Machines changed the work culture, changed everybody’s jobs, increased the scale of operations and created a need for organizational restructure and overhaul.
Man took considerable time to adapt to the industrial culture. The idea of work being performed by machines several times faster was both exhilarating and depressing – depressing due to the changes in the work culture. As centuries passed by, machines and mechanical thinking slowly started seeping into man’s mind-set. Slowly, man got used to the industrial and machine culture. He went through the pains and emerged victorious. It took generations for man but finally, he succeeded in evolving a new industrial culture. A new era dawned over mankind and man had mastered the change.
While man was evolving to the industrial psychology and the automation culture of speed, machines too were evolving. Initially, there were mainly mechanical machines. Then came electrical machines and finally the electronic ones.
Then came computers. As the industrial culture was deeply ingrained into his mental makeup (or mindset), he thought that the computer was just another machine. Armed with his centuries’ old knowledge and the experience of handling the change brought about by the introduction of machines, he went about adopting 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 just the introduction of one more new electronic machine, but a dawn of a new era altogether, a change from the industrial era to the information era. He did not realize that just as Industrial era required a new culture, new thinking and new approach, Information era also demanded that he gave up old ideas and methods and adopted new ones to deal with computers and computerization.
3.2 CONFUSION CAUSED BY THE NEW ‘MACHINE’ COMPUTER
Just as man was adapting to the machines of the machine age, there arrived on the scene this new ‘machine’ called computer to confuse him.
Man soon started to see some differences between the two machines. Whereas the old machine always did the same task, this electronic machine seemed capable of doing almost anything. Somewhere it was maintaining business accounts, somewhere preparing salaries and somewhere else controlling the factory. He had seen one machine perform one type of task. For instance, a car did the motor task. This new electronic machine could perform multiple tasks. Two computers looking exactly alike were doing completely different tasks.
There was something bewildering too about the computers. The industrial age machine did mechanical tasks which were clearly understood. You could see something happening before your eyes, as there were physical moving parts. On the other hand, computers had no moving parts. Something seemed to happen inside and yet it delivered wonders.
This new machine created by man was certainly very versatile, he thought. Man by now was immensely satisfied with machines since they did simple mechanical tasks much better than humans. So expectations of computers, the new electronic machine, rose sky-high. After all, computers were perceived as more versatile machines. The new machine would certainly cross all boundaries of human satisfaction, he thought. Man had seen computers do so many different tasks that he expected them to satisfy all his fancies.
Expectations showed clearly in businesses where people expected computers to do wonders. A manager expected the computer to satisfy his requirements immediately as he had seen so many computers do almost anything. He expected computers to satisfy all his needs and he expected quick results. He thought that his life would transform the moment the computers arrived at his premises. Moreover, as his business needs changed, he changed his processes on the fly and expected the computerized solution to instantly follow suit.
But the reality was unfortunately very different. To his utter disbelief, he found nothing happening although the computers were in place. (“It’s been ages since we brought in the automated solutions but things have not changed”). On the contrary, he was expected to go through a nightmare called “Implementation”, which he was not prepared for. The over-enthusiastic salesmen had painted such a rosy picture post arrival of computers, and reality was in stark contrast. He was surprised that his requirements were not being immediately addressed by computers. When he asked for a business process change, he was surprised that it could not be done so quickly. His ire showed on the technology folks. “Why can’t they understand my needs and my dynamic environment?” was his reaction.
When everything in the office was being done manually, the manager was so used to changing methods by simply instructing his clerk to do it differently. Since habits die hard, the manager did not change his habits and suddenly told the IT folks to change the business process and would expect the changes implemented immediately, just as he used to expect from his clerk in the manual system. When the IT department could not react so quickly to his changed need as his faithful clerk used to, he found it unacceptable.
The initial awe and respect for computers soon turned into bewilderment, frustration and finally disillusionment.
The frustration is evident in offices. When computers do not give exactly what you need, when IT folks do not understand, they are branded as “totally incompetent to deliver”. They cannot change the system immediately when you change your ways, and they ask too many awkward questions! “The computer folks keep asking me so many questions when I ask for a change. Clearly, they don’t want to do it. This computer department is a “Department of NO”.
The computer people seem to expect too much from you!
You protest, “Why do you guys (the so-called experts of the new versatile machine) expect so much from me when the old machines never demanded so much? I have been using other equipment like telephone, or an aircraft – and they never make so many demands from me. I don’t know anything about the aircraft, yet it serves me so well. It never expects me to learn the internals of the aircraft, nor to learn to fly the aircraft myself. I don’t change my ways to use the aircraft. But the IT folks want me to change my ways and learn to use the computer.”
We shall see later (in Section 9.1) the big fallacy in the above statement “I don’t know anything about the aircraft.”, but it shows that the frustration is real.
4. WHERE WE WENT WRONG – TWO MYTHS ABOUT COMPUTERS
Technology changes very fast but it takes generations for man to change his basic outlook. The main problem of acceptance of computers today is historical, psychological and cultural. We haven’t changed our outlook from the machine age to the age of computers. We have now got so much used to the machines of the industrial age that we look at computers too as just another machine.
One may ask, “What is wrong if we look at a computer as an electronic machine?” There lies the biggest problem. The basic mistake we make is that we look at the computer too as a machine of the machine age, and expect similar results. We approach computers as we would approach any other machine.
We make some very basic mistakes when we look at the computer as a machine. All the disillusionment, confusion etc. is a result of two misconceptions or myths about computers.
The following are the myths arising out of our machine age mindset are the root cause of most of the confusion 1. Computer is not a superior machine. It is far inferior to the machine age machines 2. Computer is not a Versatile Machine. 3. Computer is not a machine. There is no comparison. It is just a fuel running another machine. The real “machine” (if we are forced to compare) is the software. The following three statements, I am sure, will initially add to the confusion. But as you read further, they will make more sense.
1. Computer is NOT a superior machine. If you compare it with the machines of the industrial age, it is far, far inferior. If we look at their respective roles in terms of the human functions that they automate, the machines are far superior to the computers.
2. Computer is not the versatile machine as we have labelled it. The real “machine” which gives us the desired results is the software or the application program running inside. The computer is only the fuel running the “software machine”. Software gives a versatile image to the computer.
3. To add further to the confusion, software is also not really a machine, as it is very different from the machine of the industrial age that we know. We shall soon see how. Software is a new paradigm, and addressing it with a machine-age mindset is the third big mistake.
The root cause of the confusion is that we did not notice the paradigm change. We made the first mistake when we looked at the computer as not only a machine, but as a far superior machine. Even if we were to correct our perception and see the software as the real machine, we would still be erring (as we will see). So there is a need to unlearn the industrial culture that is so deeply ingrained into our psyche and look at software as a new paradigm.
Let us look at each of these myths.
5. MYTH – COMPUTER IS A SUPERIOR MACHINE
5.1 MACHINE AUTOMATES OUR PHYSICAL TASKS, COMPUTER OUR MENTAL CHORES
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 our biggest folly lies. With such high expectations, naturally, there is more frustration. The computer is far inferior when compared to a machine. This may sound hard to believe, but we shall soon see how this is true. We can appreciate that the machine-age machines are far superior to man and computers far inferior to man if we look at the respective functions of man that they substitute. Whereas the machine automates the physical activities of man and is far superior to man, the computer falls far short of man and his brain in the mental functions which it attempts to simulate.
The normal machine of the machine age attempts to automate operations which man would have to do by physical labour. Machines serve our physical needs – they reduce our physical strain. Machines automate physical functions of man. A car does something which our legs would be doing otherwise. A lathe does the work of our hands.
A machine does the physical task several times faster and better than humans can do it. It is much faster, untiring and far more accurate than man. The machines have a clear edge over humans and we are immensely satisfied with the results. Machines are clear winners.
5.2 COMPUTER IS FAR INFERIOR TO THE MACHINE-AGE MACHINE
On the other hand, a computer attempts to automate our mental activities and reduce our intellectual work. It tries to automate the functions of our brain but falls miserably short of the human brain. Although the Computer does the calculations more accurately and much faster than humans, it fails miserably when it comes to other mental processes like decision-making or logical thinking. The computer just cannot do mental activity.
When there was a change in the manual work procedure in an office, all you had to do was to tell a human being and the change was effected. A human brain can quickly comprehend the changes and change the methods. Whereas in an automated process, it cannot be changed very fast. The Software machine needs to be re-configured or sometimes altered, and then it has to be thoroughly tested. The entire process is quite tedious and slow.
These are some simple facts that we have not come to terms with. 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. This is simply intolerable and unacceptable to our “machine-age-conditioned” minds. . This is one area where a change in mindset is necessary.
6. MYTH – COMPUTER IS A VERSATILE MACHINE
6.1 SOFTWARE GIVES THE VERSATILITY TO COMPUTERS
It is quite natural for us to believe that computers deliver some real miraculous stuff for us. But this belief can be one big source of confusion about computers. It is not the computer that does the miracles for you, but the software that is running inside and is invisible to the human eye.
As we see the same computer performing different tasks, the computer has wrongly attained an image of being very versatile. We think it is a machine which can perform multiple tasks. What is versatile is not the computer but the software. Very often we expect instant results from the computers. But in most cases, the software has to be configured or developed to suit our requirements, tested and implemented. We do not know that the real “machine” or the software may still not be ready.
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. We see it keeping accounts, paying your employees the salary, replacing your astrologer to give you your forecast, designing a machine, controlling a factory, and so on. This leaves the common man awe-struck and 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 start expecting results instantly. We expect computers to perform miracles at the keystroke. We expect computers to react and perform instantaneously. But when it does not, we get frustrated. We mistake it to be flexible also and expect it to adapt to our ways, whereas we do not want to change our ways.
This confusion will be removed if we see that it is one application software performing one job just like a machine. Just as the same fuel somewhere drives a car, somewhere a train or ship and somewhere else it drives a turbine to generate electricity, the same computer can run different programs to give different results.
6.2 SOFTWARE IS THE ‘MACHINE’, NOT COMPUTER
As we will see later, it is highly inappropriate to compare the computer with a machine of the industrial age, or even to compare the two technologies. But if you are forced to compare, the software, and not computer, comes vaguely close to a machine as it is the software which delivers the desired output.
The real ‘machine’ therefore is the software and not the computer.
The computer is only the fuel that runs the software machine. Just as the fuel in the car gives the piston the strokes one after another, the computer only kicks off the execution of each instruction of a program one after another. Just as what happens after the fuel ignition in an engine – whether it moves a motor, a railway engine, or drives a generator – depends on the rest of the machinery, what happens after the kicking off of the execution of instructions depends on the set of instructions which make up the application software. Moreover, whether a machine is running on electricity, diesel or petrol makes little difference to its user, say the car driver or the passenger. Similarly, running the same program on one computer instead of another gives you exactly the same result, maybe a little faster or slower.
These are some simple and obvious facts that most of us may know, but we do not realize the subtleties of the impact that they have on our approach to computers. A considerable amount of confusion about computers and computerisation will be removed once we start looking at the software as the ‘machine’ instead of the computer.
6.3 MORE CONFUSION: SOFTWARE IS NOT A “MACHINE”
There is more reason to add to the confusion. We said that the computer was not the machine but software was the real “machine”. The software which we have so far called the “machine” is not really a machine, at least not the same machine of the industrial era that we are so used to. It is a different concept altogether.
We are so used to the machine age that we expect computers to behave exactly like any other machines. Man has over the centuries got used to the machine of the industrial age. This is the reason why children adapt to computers much more easily than elders – because their minds are not trained to think ‘mechanically’ (or in terms of a mechanical sequence of movements or actions). In the case of elders, the mechanisation culture has seeped into their very mind-set which they need to unlearn. Software machine is different from the Industrial age machine. Therefore, we need to look at software not as any other machine, but in its right perspective.
A look at the differences between the industrial-age machine and software will help us to correct our perception.
7. SOFTWARE A NEW PARADIGM – WHY SOFTWARE IS NOT REALLY A “MACHINE”
Software is not really a machine-age “machine” as there are three fundamental differences between the machine and software. It is a new paradigm:
i. Whereas in the case of a machine, the machine is visible and the fuel is hidden, in case of computer, the machine (software) is not visible, and the fuel (computer) is visible.
ii. Whereas the normal machine automates the Physical activities of man, Software machine automates the mental processes. While the physical activity is similar in all human beings, mental processes are not uniform.
iii. Unlike the industrial age machine, software “machine” is easily alterable and flexible.
7.1 SOFTWARE MACHINE IS NOT VISIBLE
Normally you can see the machine, whereas the fuel acts behind the scene and is not visible. You can actually see the machine perform, you can see the physical movements, and thereby easily understand its operation, limitation, etc. In case of the computer, you can see the “fuel” (computer) but not the machine. In any case you cannot see any physical operation of the machine. It all happens behind the scene and you only see the result – how it happens remains a suspense to all but a few. Hence the entire operation is very bewildering, confusing and mystifying.
In case of computers, as the ‘machine’ (software) is invisible but only the ‘fuel’ (computer) is visible, we think that the computer is the real “machine”.
7.2 SOFTWARE MACHINE AUTOMATES MENTAL PROCESS WHICH IS NOT UNIFORM
We saw that the machines serve your physical needs – they reduce your physical strain. Machines automate physical process, whereas computers automate the mental process.
A car does something which your legs would be doing otherwise. A lathe does the work of your hands. The computer attempts to automate the function of man’s brain.
While physical process is the same for all human beings, their mental processes vary from man to man. While physically we all do things in the same way, mentally we work in different ways. For instance, a car has the same basic human need to satisfy, that of moving from one place to another. In the absence of the car or any other transport machine, everyone would be doing it the same way – by walking across. The computer is used for various diverse tasks, and for each task, there are umpteen different ways that different people would do it manually. So whereas the same machine can serve all humans equally effectively, the software machine has problems satisfying all. To automate the mental processes, you need a machine which is flexible to accommodate different mental styles and mental make-up.
Let me take a crude example. Imagine that different people had different body structures and different ways to move – some walked, some hopped, some walked on hands and some even flew. Imagine what would be the plight of the car manufacturer. He would have to provide flexibility in the product to provide for the different styles and body structures of individuals. People would have to tailor the car to their requirements or amend their ways – maybe change sitting positions, use body parts in a different way – to make the maximum use of the car. Cars would have to be tailor-made and no standardisation would be possible. In spite of that people who could fly naturally would say that the car was of no use – it does not help them with all their tasks.
Now because there is a standard way there is no problem. Not so for the computer. The mental functions it automates are not performed in the same way by all.
Though standardisation of procedures is now becoming a reality, one of the major hurdles to computerisation is the difference in everyone’s ways of working.
7.3 SOFTWARE MACHINE IS EASILY ALTERABLE: FLEXIBILITY
We saw that the computer is used for various diverse tasks, and for each task, there are several different ways one could do it manually. Therefore, to satisfy the varying requirements, the fundamental prerequisite of the software machine is that it should be flexible. The software machine needs to be very easily modifiable to satisfy varying human mental processes.
The software machine indeed gives you the flexibility and modifiability to enable you to change its specifications so as to tailor to a particular requirement. Not only can you perform different functions using different software in the same computer, even within the same software, you can easily change the functioning by merely altering the code. Its behaviour can be easily changed by changing the set of instructions in an application program. This is very unlike the machine-age machines where the specifications depend on hard physical objects like plugs, carburettor, steel pipes, etc. which cannot be altered or modified so easily.
But this flexibility comes at a heavy cost. A change in one character, word or full-stop can completely change the behaviour or output of a program.
Since it is so easy to change its performance, unwanted changes could happen inadvertently. Also due to the flexibility, yet another outcome is that there can be too many variations or versions of software to do the same task. The cost we pay is that there are no standard methods and procedures and no standard software.
Flexibility and Modifiability, which is the biggest strength of the software is also the greatest weakness.
8. FLEXIBILITY OF SOFTWARE ‘MACHINE’ – THE DOUBLE EDGED SWORD
8.1 MERITS OF FLEXIBILITY
Flexibility and Modifiability of software, which is its biggest strength is actually a double aged sword. It is also its greatest weakness.
We saw that the main hurdles to the acceptance of computers were the three basic misconceptions in our outlook towards computers. We also saw how the software machine is different from the other machines. Moreover, we saw that to automate the mental process we need a flexible machine like the software.
As computer has to satisfy varying mental processes, it cannot be as rigid as the machines. The prerequisite is that it should be flexible, versatile and modifiable. To satisfy varying needs and mental styles, man has been able to make an equally flexible device which is the software machine.
Its flexibility and easy modifiability is the greatest merit of the software machine.
However, this flexibility is also turns out to be its greatest demerit. Flexibility of the software machine has given birth to some major problems and complexities (discussed in next section) which are characteristics of the “software machine” only and are unheard of in case of other industrial age machines. We get frustrated with computers because we have never seen such problems in other machines of industrial era.
Let us discuss each of these problems.
8.2 DEMERITS OF FLEXIBILITY – SERIOUS LIMITATIONS OF THIS TECHNOLOGY
8.2.1 A Working Program can Misfire with a Small Change
The flexibility or modifiability of the software machine has actually become a problem.
A machine cannot be changed so easily as the specifications depend on hard physical objects like plugs, carburettor, steel pipes, etc. which cannot be altered or modified so easily. So we are used to seeing a machine perform the same task consistently for ages. Machine may stop working, but when it works, it is consistent. But in software machine, it can be changed so easily by changing just one character in the program. So it can suddenly start misbehaving. A program which is working perfectly today may stop working or start giving undesired results tomorrow with a small change in the program. So whereas a machine is consistent in its behaviour, software is not.
In the versatility and flexibility of the software machine, it has lost consistency as it can be changed easily.
Although this may sound very weird, let us imagine similar thing happening in a car. Imagine a car made of components whose shape can be easily changed. The characteristics and the behaviour of the cars would easily change with the change in shape of its components. You may suddenly find your car going left when you turned your steering right or hitting somewhere when you did nothing wrong. Each day you will see your car behaving differently, probably because someone changed the shape of one component without your knowledge. You will be frustrated, particularly having seen your friend’s car working perfectly. Sounds ridiculous! But that is exactly what is possible in the software machine. A small change in the program can easily disturb a program which was working to your satisfaction. This is more common in companies having their own developed software than those who use packaged software.
So when man sees other person’s computer performing but not his, he gets frustrated. Also the behaviour of the software keeps changing (because there are so many parameters and each one alterable so easily). So when he finds a computerised system behaving differently, he gets frustrated. He only sees it as the computer machine performing, what he does not see beyond that is that it is a different software machine sitting inside.
This leads not only to frustration but also mistrust.
The following is a very common situation in most offices: All is working fine and the computerised system is running fine. Suddenly on a fine morning, there is a big goof up by the computerised system. Everyone starts cursing the computer department. Such a situation may arise on two accounts. There was a minor change in requirements and the amendments carried out to improve the system created a bug in the system leading to the mishap. Another possible reason for this situation could be that the software team thought of an enhanced version, but the new version had a bug.
8.2.2 Lack of Discipline
Because the software is so easily alterable, the user of this tool needs to exercise strict discipline not to alter it unscrupulously. In our analogy of the modifiable car, a person who is more disciplined in his use of the car and does not make frequent arbitrary changes will find his car serving him well. A disciplined user of such a car will not only minimize changes on the fly, but will also test the car well every time he makes a change to ensure that the change has been done correctly, and that the car is behaving as desired. Another person not doing so will wonder what was wrong with his car and curse his car, when actually the fault did not lie with the car but with him, with his habit of frequent modifications.
8.2.3 Innumerable machines, No Standardisation
One outcome of flexibility and modifiability is that there are innumerable variations of the same software machine. There must be so many different types of software to keep a company’s accounts. Whereas in case of machines, there are a few brands, e.g. brands of cars, etc. There is standardisation. As there are fewer variations, we know their behaviour better.
In case of other machines (say a car), all machines are mainly alike, at most there are a few standard brands (or variations). But each of them performs exactly as per its specifications.
In case of the software machine, there are thousands, almost millions of machines. In Financial Accounting software itself there must be thousands of variations worldwide. Each Financial Accounting software package made on this earth is a different machine.
8.2.4 Lack of Trained Personnel (“mechanics”)
As there are few variations in the car, there are more trained people who are trained as car mechanics. The mechanics have full knowledge of the machine. Now car mechanics have only a few brands to learn. In our analogy of a modifiable car, you would not have trained mechanics to look into any car. There would be no car experts. Every mechanic would first have to learn the car insides before he would diagnose because he would be only having the general principles and no knowledge of the specific car he is repairing.
In case of software machines, there are no standard machines and hence less trained personnel on these machines. The software personnel have the basic skill but if they were to diagnose a program, they have to first understand it and then diagnose it. In case of software machine, there is only one fully trained person, the person who developed the machine (software). He too tends to forget the details over passage of time unless he has fully documented it. To make matters worse, there are various programming languages using which software is developed and not all software developers know all languages.
Solution to the problem appears to be the standardisation of procedures. When all offices will have the same way of keeping accounts, same formats, same rules, there will be standard few software packages, tested and proven. Betters skills would be available because people would have to learn the same package.
8.2.5 Poor Man-Machine Interface
This is the most critical problem caused by easy modifiability and lack of standard software. We shall therefore discuss it at length in the next chapter.
9. POOR MAN-MACHINE INTERFACE (MMI)
I am not using man machine interface in the usual sense that HMI (Human machine interface) is used. My definition is a bit different. I refer to Man-Machine interface to mean not the input output devices but the practices, habits, processes and methods which we humans need to adopt in order to use the technology effectively.
For example, to ensure proper usage of computers, you need to ensure that the data that you feed or input to the system is error free, accurate and in the specific format desired by the computer. You cannot expect correct output if your input is not right. This principle is also called Garbage in, garbage out. It is a way that defines the way you interact with computers/software. So when we refer to “Man-Machine Interface”, we refer to the rules and practices that you need to follow in order to effectively interact with and benefit from the computers.
The following example of a machine age machine (aircraft) and how we need to interface with it to use it will make it more clear.
9.1 UNDERSTANDING MMI WITH AN ANALOGY OF AIRCRAFT
I was once discussing this issue 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 immediately response was, “Why do I need to know about computers in order to use it? You are asking for too much from the users. When I travel by aeroplane, I do not know how it works. I do not know its internals or its aerodynamic principles but I can still make full use of the aeroplane 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 aeroplane or motorcar is not really true. We know far more about them than we know about computers. The funny thing is that we are not even aware of what we know about aeroplanes and cars and what we do not know about computers.
We may not know anything about the internals of a car or an aeroplane, but we certainly are very clear of what is expected of us to use them effectively. We at least know that the aeroplane 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 take a taxi and go to the airport to avail of the services of the aircraft.
We know that the aircraft benefits us provided we take the pains to get up early, labour our way to the remote airport, go through the inconvenience of security checks, etc. We know what our responsibility is, we know that the aircraft is not going to pick us up from our residence, that we have to slog our way to the far off airport, we have to check in, etc.
We know that a car can pick us up from our house and take us to the airport, but it cannot take us from Bombay to Delhi in two hours. We know that a car cannot be used effectively unless we build good roads.
We have learnt to benefit from their merits and live with their shortcomings. We are not aware of the pains we take in order to take advantage.
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 one doesn’t own a car, he should look for the right bus route, should walk up to the bus stop, should stand at the right bus stop and wait till the bus comes however great be his urgency. Or he should walk up till the taxi stand if he can afford it. If we have to deliver a message to a friend a few blocks away, we would rather walk up to the friend than use the car. We are now so used to these machines that we know immediately when to use which machine. We take these decisions subconsciously in split seconds.
Would you call that knowing a lot about cars and aircrafts? Yes. Because in case of computers we do not even have this basic awareness.
In case of computers we do not even know our responsibility. If we were to draw an analogy with computers, what we do is expect the aircraft to reach us to our office a few kilometres away, or sometimes want the scooter to reach us to far away towns. What is worse, we are not ready to even go to the airport and expect the aeroplane to come to our house and pick us up. If it doesn’t, we curse the “aircraft”. This leads to frustration. We don’t realise that the “aircraft” is not designed for such services. If we expect the service of a car from an aeroplane, then something is wrong with our expectation. This exactly is the scenario with computers.
9.2 WHY IT IS DIFFICULT TO DESIGN MMI?
Let us look at another aspect of Man-machine interface. While it is easier to design MMI for the industrial machine, it is not so easy in case of the “information-age machine”. The human interface with machines (as defined by us in the previous section) has not changed much over the years for industrial machines. Moreover, machines have changed very little over the years – at least what they expect of human beings has changed marginally. As a result, man has learnt (although the hard way) what are his responsibilities and what is expected of him while using a machine, as we saw in case of an aircraft. He knows under which situation it is useful and under which it is not. He knows what to expect from the machine and what he needs to do to get the best out of a machine. Man has been able to, over time and slowly, get familiar and adapt to the change that was expected of him. Unlike the computer, the same machine of the industrial age always performs the same task. As a result, we know the behaviour of the machine very well. This is schematically illustrated in Fig 1. The machine in the diagram has not changed, man has slowly changed his behaviour and lifestyle over the years to develop a compatible or matching interface.
Fig 1 is an illustrative diagram to show how man has changed his lifestyle, thinking, behaviour, expectations and attitude to suit the machine. The figure shows two parts which have to fit together. In fig 1a, because of the odd shape of the two parts, they are unable to fit together. The part on the left represents the machine of machine era and part on the right represents man. In the three figures 1a to 1c, you will notice that the part on the left remains almost the same in shape. The part on the right in each figure has slowly changed to match the part on the left so that in fig 1c, the two parts match together. Whereas machine remained the same over the years, man has changed slowly to coexist with the machine. At least the user interface of the machine has changed very little over the years, whereas man has changed his style to fill the gaps and developed a compatible interface with the machine.
In fact man has got so used to the machine that he does not even realise how he has adapted to it, how he has changed his habits and lifestyle to take advantage of the machine, as we saw in the previous example of our interface with the aircraft.
In case of computers, there is no standard machine and the user interface has also changed over the years (from centralised batch processing to distributed end user computing to web based computing). As a result man has not so far been able to develop a suitable interface (Fig. 2).
In figure 2, the part on the left in the three figures (which represents the machine of the information age (computer)) keeps changing constantly and hence the two parts do not match.
In case of computers, because of modifiability of software, the same software behaves differently from time to time. So man can’t easily get used to or familiar with its behaviour. He finds it difficult to get used to the software machine because there is no standard machine. As there is no standard machine, there can be no standard protocol. Each one has to design his own interface the hard way and therefore takes more time to utilize his machine.
As there is no standard ‘software machine’, there is no standard man machine interface. Man has not got familiar or has not adapted to this machine.
9.3 REAL-LIFE EXAMPLE OF POOR MMI
We saw the MMI in case of the industrial machine in our example of the aircraft above. Let us look at what we mean by MMI in case of information age “machine” with a real example of a business process automation scenario in offices. In case of computers, we have got a new tool but we have not changed our old methods. I will take a real life example to illustrate this. The case is of a very simple application like payroll, which most companies used to start their computerisation with.
One business unit of a company I once worked with was in oil exploration business. It had rig sites at remote locations where only mode of communication was wireless and radio telex.
The accounts clerk prepared the salary manually. He used to get data related to attendance and other employee details from sites directly on wireless. Most often, the attendance came piecemeal one by one from sites. Sometimes, having sent the data, the sites would send in amendments quite late. Sometimes they never sent the data or the data sent was incomplete or unclear, and the accounts clerk used to call up the sites on wireless to get data or clarifications.
In the manual system, this did not create major problems as, in the worst case, salaries of a few employees were held up due to non-receipt of data, or lack of clarity. Most of employees got their salaries on time.
When I joined them, the system had just been computerised. Now accounts clerk gave the data to the computer operator (who incidentally was in IT department. Distributed end user computing was the buzzword then, so the computer had been shifted to the user department, but so had been the computer operator! ). In the new set up, the same old practices continued: data used to come piecemeal, there were last moment corrections by sites, some data was not available (particularly for the new recruits) for which the accounts clerk called up the sites on wireless. Salary processing essentially being a batch process, used to be run and re-run several times due to last minute changes. In a manual system it was easy to correct individual cases where corrections came in, whereas in the computerised system, all salaries had to be processed together. So even if one employee’s data was not available, everybody’s salary was stuck. Even if one employee’s particulars were changed, the salary had to be reprocessed. As a result, all employees started getting salaries late. There was a big hue and cry. There were complaints from sites that they were not getting their salaries on time. Very senior people spent time meeting and trying to analyse the cause for the delays. All that only resulted in the cut-off date for attendance getting advanced to 20th of the month! Still complaints from sites did not stop.
Nobody knew who was to blame – the sites, the accounts department or IT department. Naturally as most often happens, in such a situation, the blame fell on IT and their computerised system. Everything was fine before the computerised system, so naturally the system was the culprit.
I could easily see that this was a case of old methods being used with new tools. I will cut a long story short and describe here how the methods, procedures, responsibilities and discipline were changed to adapt to the new system. All I did was redesigned manual processes and fixed responsibilities/ target dates for different tasks.
1. Personnel department was made responsible for providing and ensuring the accuracy of all attendance data and employee additions/changes. They would give a signed paper.
2. Personnel department was instructed to give the monthly data by a cut-off date. It was made clear to them and all site employees that any changes in data coming after the cut-off date will be incorporated in the next month.
3. Accounts department was made responsible for providing and ensuring the accuracy of all financial data like loans and advances/recoveries.
4. As a part of the IT department, I took full responsibility of the accuracy of computer programs – that given the correct inputs, the programs would process the payroll correctly.
Immediate effect was that salary preparation which was earlier taking more than 10 days was now taking 3 days, with scope for further improvement. No longer did the accounts clerk have to make last minute calls on the wireless, no longer did sites insist on last minute changes.
This is a simple example where the system was made successful not by changing the system, but by changing the Man-Machine Interface (MMI). I introduced a discipline of work which had to be strictly followed by the assignees of the work.
Most ERPs fail not because of technical issues, not because the product is unsuitable but because an appropriate MMI is not put in place. “Steering a Failed Peoplesoft ERP Implementation back on Track” [Ref.7] is another real life story of why an ERP failed and how it was revived by simply designing and introducing a disciplined MMI.
9.4 NEED TO REDESIGN MMI FOR INFORMATION AGE
Man refuses to change his methods and practices to effectively use the computer. He has not been able to evolve the right protocol to use a computer. He does not know what his obligations are.
It is possible to design software and write a book on how to use the software. But no software developer designs the manual interface or writes about it. It is not possible because it differs from organisation to organisation. So each organisation has to design its own manual interface and reinvent the wheel.
It is not uncommon to see computerised systems made which look excellent on the screen, perform all functions but fail miserably on implementation. Most often the reason is that the manual system interfacing with the computerised system was not designed or suitably amended. Same old methods were used on the computerised system, and the same discipline continued as was there in manual system.
In contrast, look at the MMI we have designed for the industrial machines. We have taken pains to use technology of the industrial age. We built roads to use cars, air-strip 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 use it. But now we do not complain. We make the safety provisions and use it. There are mishaps when lives are lost. We no more blame the technology for such mishaps. But for software implementation we do nothing. We do not want to do anything nor do we want to change our ways to use the technology of information age. We do not know our responsibility. We only blame the technology if it does not yield results.
Designing MMI for industrial machines is much simpler and obvious because everything is physically visible, the moving parts in a machine are visible. The “machine” of the information age is not visible and has no moving parts, hence the confusion.
10. DEMANDS OF THE NEW SOFTWARE PARADIGM
In the Payroll example which we discussed in the previous section, it will be interesting to analyse what the users of Information Technology gave in order to get the benefits which they got from successful computerisation. What they gave was their willingness to change their expectations and their thinking. They were ready to postpone the effect of last minute changes to next month. They changed their behaviour and style of working. They were willing to own responsibility and be accountable. They changed their attitude to work and brought in more discipline – no longer was there a casual way of giving data. They realised that giving accurate and timely data was most important.
Apart from these, this technology demands something more from the user for effective use. Apart from changes in behaviour, attitudes, expectations, thinking, etc., there are certain responsibilities to be shouldered when the computerised application software is developed, customized and implemented.
In a computerised system, you would need to think in advance what you want, give details specifications so that there are minimum changes after programming or customisation. In a manual operation, you would start and keep instructing your clerks to change methods wherever you notice a flaw. They themselves are also capable of making improvements in their own methods.
As testing is difficult and modification is easy, one small change in the program renders the product untested and needs re-testing because it is not very easy to see what will be the effect of the change on the rest of the program. By avoiding changes after programming you would avoid risk of malfunctioning caused by tampering a tested program.
You would need to give a detailed set of instructions, called program, absolutely error free in all respects. The instructions should have correct syntax and should have the right order so as to give the desired output until the last dot.
Once the system is in use, you need to give the data together and timely, as we saw in our example of payroll system. You need to change the working environment and the style. You need to reallocate duties and fix responsibilities. Whereas initially the emphasis was on the accuracy of posting, calculating, now the emphasis has to be on the accuracy of coding, timeliness of input data and daily checking the accuracy based on some control checks. Whereas manually you kept on posting and left the checking work to the end of the year, here you need to check the accuracy daily to ensure no work at year-end.
Computers demand that you change your working style, your thinking. In short, you need to change your ‘Industrial culture’ to ‘Information culture’. Is this asking for too much? Common perception is that computer technology asks for too much from its users. But do we realise that even other technology which we have put to effective use asks for too much and we have given it – for instance, airstrips for aircraft, roads for cars, rail lines for railway, tall transmission towers and fail-safe insulation for electricity, etc. It is only when we do so much that this technology helps us, not otherwise.
The problem of acceptance of computers is evolutionary. Man will evolve out of it. The evolution can be faster, the faster we correct our outlook.
We need to look at computers in the right perspective. We have to give up old methods and approach of dealing with machines and adopt new ones. We must recognize computer as an entity different from a machine, and devise altogether new and fresh methods of dealing with its introduction in our lives. In other words we have to evolve an entirely new approach towards computers, probably by first unlearning what we learnt in the industrial age.
Our encounters with computers will be far less frustrating if we appreciate the following:
Software is the machine and not the computer.
Do not expect the same result as a normal machine. Keep in mind that the software is not the same kind of machine that we know of and are so familiar with. Do not expect it to be similar to other machines. Expectation leads to frustration.
Acknowledge that computer and software are far inferior to humans, whereas the machines outperform the humans in the physical activity. Once we are clear of this fact, we will stop expecting the moon.
Acknowledge that man has changed his life style to take maximum advantage of the machines. He has got adjusted or adopted. Ask yourself what you need to do to make the maximum of the Computer technology.
Most important of all, acknowledge that humanity and the world is in a state of flux. It is in the process of change and a change is always unsettling. Soon standards will emerge or evolve and water will settle. The world is going through the turmoil of change from Industrial age to Information age. The Industrial revolution had its own upheavals, doubts, and problems. We are now going through the same phase of scepticism, criticism, and doubts with respect to the Information Age. Soon we will know what to give in order to get the most of computers. Soon we will stop complaining about giving what we have to give, as the benefits of what you get will be obvious – as clear as the benefits of electricity.
1. Prem Kamble, “What Top Executives Need To Know About Computers” https://premkamble.com/probfull/
2. Prem Kamble, “Managers’ Guide to Evolve from Machine Age to Information Age” https://premkamble.com/it2/
3. Prem Kamble, “Behavioral IT®: Managers Don’t Need IT Skills, They Need ‘Behavioral IT’ Skills” – https://premkamble.com/behavit
4. Prem Kamble, Seminar/Training on Behavioral IT – https://premkamble.com/seminarbehavit
5. Prem Kamble, CEO as a Leader of Technology Driven Change https://premkamble.com/ceoleadschange/
6. Prem Kamble, HR! Discover Your New Role of the IT Era, https://premkamble.com/hrnewrole/
7. Prem Kamble, “Steering a Failed PeopleSoft ERP Implementation back on Track”: A real life story of why an ERP failed and how it was revived by simply designing and introducing a disciplined MMI, https://premkamble.com/erprestore.
8. Prem Kamble, “Behavioral IT® – A Multi-disciplinary Approach to Address the IT Woes of Businesses & Top Professionals in an IT-Driven World”, https://premkamble.com/behavit2
9. 4 Valuable Lessons From Major ERP Fails (May 4th, 2018) – https://www.mbtmag.com/erp/article/13228432/4-valuable-lessons-from-major-erp-fails
Behavioral IT® Model of Successful IT Implementations https://premkamble.com/behavit
Unique Behavioral IT Seminar for Top Managers https://premkamble.com/seminarbehavit
More Seminars for CEOs, HoDs and Senior Managers by Prem Kamble https://premkamble.com/seminarlist.htm
Behavioral IT Course for MBA Students – The first of its Kind in the World! https://premkamble.com/behavitcourse.htm
Seminars for CIOs and IT Managers https://premkamble.com/seminarlist.htm
Articles and Real Life Case Stories by Prem Kamble https://premkamble.com/blog