Why is it So Hard for Workplace Tech to Make a Difference?

The cyborg generation that never was

When I was in high school, the world was all abuzz about the fact that many people my age had “grown up with technology”, which really meant “grown up with personal computers and, for a while, dial-up internet”. The idea was that while our parents’ generation struggled to deal with trash can metaphors and concepts like double-clicking, to us bleeding-edge early millennials, digital technology would be second nature, and thus we’d all be really good at it. At the time, this made a lot of sense to me, and I eagerly awaited a world in which technological incompetence was effectively obsolete.

Well, more than fifteen years later, you know what I’ve noticed? Most people my age are actually pretty terrible with technology — even the kind we grew up with. Oh sure, we’re used to it. We use PC-like phones every day, constantly interact with different web applications at work, and voraciously consume things via various forms of the internet. But in a lot of ways, the technology really just caught up with us, by becoming simple, consumable, and socially ubiquitous enough that deep understanding simply isn’t required. Most people don’t understand why Netflix isn’t loading (or more importantly, why it’s not not loading), why their phone gets hot, or why some JPEGs look crappier than others. The products they use have just gotten better and better at making that knowledge unnecessary.

Is this how things get better?

I’ve thought about this a lot recently in the space I’ve worked in for a while now, which is information tools. In fact, for the last seven years or so, all I’ve really worked on is building, designing, and helping to sell tools designed to allow people to work with different kinds of relatively complex data. But in every place I do this, I run into the same problem — the vast majority of people (even paying customers) fail to use even fairly intuitive tools effectively to actually do anything. Many of them want to, and they often understand what the potential benefits would be if they were to figure it out. They simply get stuck as soon as they have to make a critical decision about how to use what we’ve handed them. And the fact is, most business productivity tools require you to make these kinds of choices, and most people are really bad at it.

Ezra Klein had a really interesting piece in Vox about a problem that I think is related to this — how technology has struggled to really change the way people work except on the margins, especially compared to how it’s changed the way people relax at home. If you’re waiting for a technology tool to make a paradigm-shifting difference in the way anyone other than highly technical specialists work, you’re going to be waiting for a while. That’s because (as has always been the case) most people simply aren’t that good at using most kinds of tools. For people who are, the right tool is amazing — but that number is often so small, you rarely see major social changes come from better tools alone.

(Notable exception : social tools, which don’t require high quality decision making to be used, or have a major impact in our lives. Actually, the fact that social tools are changing society even though most of us make poor decisions in how to use them is probably why we have such a mixed reaction to the post-social network world. But I digress.)

What about consumer behavior?

For the average person, I don’t think consumer interactions with technology are that much different from workplace interactions with it. The big difference is that:

  1. consumer technologies are designed to provide you with an end result — your favorite TV show, a constant, ample supply of laundry detergent, a ride to the airport, etc.
  2. professional technologies are designed to empower you to do something — share information, analyze data, make decisions, etc.

As I’ve indicated, my kind-of-cynical new theory is that radical improvements doesn’t come from empowered people; they come from technology eliminating the need for people to do something at all, so they can do other stuff instead.

So you don’t end up with better, smarter people. You just end up with the same people spending more of their time doing things they’re good at, or enjoy, and less time doing things they are terrible at.

For instance, hailing a cab is a pretty bad way to get a ride somewhere. If Uber was designed to enhance my ability to make cab-hailing decisions, it might be useful, but I don’t think it radically changes anything. Instead, it’s a big deal because anyone with the intelligence of a child can pull out a $50 piece of electronics, clumsily paw at a few pictures on a screen, and boom — they get a ride anywhere they want. That’s not improved, empowered cab-hailing; it’s the removal of cab-hailing from the list of things that people do.

Consumer internet technologies get this, and more importantly, consumers get it, because they are usually aware of their own laziness and incompetence, and are eager to mitigate it. Business technologies may or may not get this same principle, but businesses themselves — or at least the decision makers inside businesses — definitely don’t get it, probably because it goes against their self-interest. Consumers desperately want to remove as much effort and challenge from their life as possible; it’s in their interest, and it’s at no one’s expense for them to do so. Professionals want to do this too, but only to a degree, because most of them feel like if they were to completely eliminate one of their tasks, or a decision-making point, they’d be reducing their value to their organization. If I’m in charge of some critical accounting task at my company, and I find, test, purchase, and integrate a flawless accounting robot that does my task for me, I don’t get to stay on the payroll and go golfing. At many companies, I don’t even get promoted — I’m probably out of a job, especially if what I’m best at is doing the robot’s task.

Most professionals are not entrepreneurs (yet)

This artificial, self-interested inefficiency is a problem pretty much every organization larger than a couple of people has to deal with, and it’s such a normal, internalized part of professional culture that I don’t even think we really notice it anymore. We just say “big companies are different”, or “the enterprise has certain needs”, when 90% of what we really mean is that maximum efficiency runs counter to the best interests of the people who work at these companies, and anything you want those people to buy has to take that into consideration.

Of course, there’s one group of people whose interests are solely aligned with the efficiency of the company. Owners! When I showed my owner-operator friend how AdWords could handle many of the manual adjustments he was making automatically, he didn’t grumble, or get into a big argument about the value of human intelligence and intuition. You know what he said?

“This is great! I hate doing this, and now I don’t have to do it anymore!”

In most cases, you’re not going to hear that from middle managers, especially if they have vague, business-related titles, and even more especially if they have mortgages to pay. That’s a human problem that is going to continue to slow the pace of technological improvement in the workplace, especially since business technology vendors are smart enough to know it. That’s why so many of them tailor their offerings around it giving you lots of data, but not necessarily altering any of your work routines. Lots of dashboards, lots of analytics, lots of empowerment — and very little “we’ve simply removed this from the list of things you need to do”. No matter what inefficient, dumbass thing you want to do at work, there’s a piece of enterprise software that will help you do it with charts.

Now, there are also plenty of valid tactical reasons that get in the way of major technological change inside companies, too — security issues, regulatory hurdles, and the simple fact that it’s a lot riskier to screw with a revenue or customer-related business process than it is to screw with the way you watch Game of Thrones or order a pizza. But the human, psychological element really is enormous. Everywhere I go, I’m shocked by how hard it is for extremely intelligent people to feel comfortable with the idea of truly removing work from their daily routine.

(As an aside, in my experience it’s actually a bit easier to get the truly incompetent to buy into more aggressive technological change, because they’re less likely to make the connection between their irrelevance and their job security. They just think they have a job because they are awesome people. And that association with incompetence — the idea that you would only hand over your work to technology or process if you are stupid, or unacceptably, shamefully bad at doing it yourself — is yet another stigma technological improvement has to overcome in the workplace.)

Baby steps

There’s no easy answer to undoing untold years of professional insecurity inside our workplace culture. I wouldn’t even know where to begin inside of a large company, but in the startups I’ve worked at over the last couple of years, I’ve had some luck with leading by example and trying to demonstrate that you can be a great asset to a company and still be really bad at certain things. In fact, you can be bad at almost everything, but if you’re really good at finding cost-effective ways to eliminate the impact of those things on your company, you can actually be incredibly effective. (I probably won’t be putting that in my LinkedIn profile anytime soon.)

Of course, that’s not easy, or especially common. Instead, the situation I see most often is a very talented, knowledgeable professional who by their very two-handed, bipedal nature, cannot scale the same way an awesome system can. And while they often “get” the system, they remain hung up on things the system can’t do (usually edge cases and certain hyper-specific ways of reacting), while glossing over the much more damaging fact that compared to a system, they’re really freaking slow and mistake prone. That concern comes from a good place, but in a lot of operations work it’s ultimately limited. We’re not brewing artisanal coffee, here.

Anyways, I always try to be the opposite of that, and I express no shame at all. When channeled properly, a little laziness can be a powerful accelerant to productivity, because it keeps you from accepting the necessity of grunt work and pushes you to find better ways to get it done. But I’ve written about that before.