Computer Says… Far Too Much?

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Criteo’s Head of Workplace Experience EMEA, Mike Walley, is no Luddite – but admits that a number of digital ‘innovations’ leave him scratching his head and asking whether they really are worth the hassle.

Not a day goes by where I’m not contacted by someone encouraging me to take a perfectly ordinary business process and make a computer do it. Digital Transformation is the term they give it. But, being part of a highly customer focused team, I am always dubious about the constant drive for automation and self-service systems. Now, before I go further, I need to point out that I am not a technophobe nor Luddite, but I am a great believer in the old adage, ‘Just because you can, does not mean you should’.

My favourite example of this is from a company specialising in voice-activated control software. They licensed their software to a coffee machine manufacturer, who wanted to make a voice-activated coffee machine. They proudly delivered the prototype back to the software company and, having plugged it in, all the software engineers gathered excitedly around it.

One brave soul stepped forward and shouted ‘Latte’ at the machine. It sat there. It hummed. Everyone stared at it. It stared back. It did not dispense coffee.

‘We only licensed the German codex,’ an engineer pointed out, ‘you just spoke Italian’. ‘Kaffe mit milch’ shouted the brave soul. Still nothing. Just then the coffee man arrived, having been outside, parking his car. ‘You have to press the button before you speak,’ he said, slightly out of breath from running up the stairs, ‘it puts it into listening mode.’

25 engineers stared at him incredulously. He looked around somewhat nervously, ‘What?’ he asked. Someone replied, ‘You have doubled the number of actions it usually requires to get a coffee.’

There was a collective sigh of disappointment and the previously excited crowd melted away, leaving the coffee man alone with his over-engineered coffee machine.

The crestfallen coffee man left shortly afterwards, with his machine tucked back into its box – and he never returned. The manufacturer realised there was no value in adding voice recognition tech to this particular problem and quietly canned the project.

Now, whilst this is (hopefully) an amusing story, it does still hold truths today. We need to think carefully about the benefits any Digital Transformation may bring and the effort involved to introduce it. The big word to watch out for is… Integration. Many new systems, like room booking systems or occupation monitoring systems, require integration with existing infrastructure. This will then bring you into contact with the IT department.

The largest single block to technological development in the corporate world, is the IT Department.

Before the helpdesk team beat down the door to my room and drag me out, I must qualify that remark by saying it is our fault. Us. The users. We have become so dependant on the infrastructure that we will not tolerate any disruption of service. The slightest failure of tech results in howls of outrage and a cloud of fault tickets. Have you seen a teenager’s face if you tell them the home WiFi has failed? It’s just like that.

The result is that we have made the IT department so risk averse that it takes a lot of careful preparation and trials to roll out any new tech infrastructure.

But let’s assume you have determined that the transformation is warranted, and that you have carefully developed the roll-out with IT and executed the delivery faultlessly. Job done?

Not quite. Have you worked out how you have to change operations to ensure the transformation actually takes hold? I speak as someone who has enthusiastically introduced new technology only for it to wither and die because it added to the workflow without increased benefits. Or the extra effort was greater than the benefit achieved. Or, worse, nobody was sure what the benefit was supposed to be, got bored and wandered back to the old way of doing whatever it was.

I recently installed a space management system that promised to revolutionise the way we monitored desk usage. What we had not counted on was the number of internal relocations taking place at HQ.

It was so high that it practically required a full-time person to keep the system up to date. We had spent months working on some really clever data integrations, protocols for regular updating of base information and a truly funky interface with an in-house messaging app that allows you to type in a name and it will show you where they sit – but what we had not worked on enough was the daily workflow and how that would develop.

The whole plan wobbled – until we worked out a new workflow plan for the team. Now it runs really well and noone is stressed.

Just ask yourself three questions. Do you really need it? Does it warrant the integration effort? Have you thought about what it will take to keep it running? This should keep all your Digital Transformations exciting and successful.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a coffee machine to shout at.