Sunday, June 30, 2013

Digital Technology and Human Mindset

The other day when I was traveling from a leading city to another leading city, separated by four hours of flight time on a leading airliner of an advanced country, I had the occasion to go through the in-flight magazine. The magazine opened to a statement by the Chairman as to how the airlines has been harnessing digital technology in a variety ways to make travel options easier, more productive and more comfortable for the traveler. As the full plane braced for a takeoff after an intriguing hour of delay, the captain informed the passengers that due to bad weather the plane has been provided a different route which happened to be a longer route, and the plane did not have sufficient fuel to cover the longer distance. Hence, the plane had to re-taxi to refuel itself, and could finally take off after a total of over two hours of delay. Ironically, however, the flight covered the s called longer route in the normal flight time. This delay of more than two hours for the stated cause of fuel insufficiency was a surprising experience given the strides reportedly made by the airliner through digital technology which should have made prediction and coordination seamless and easy.

The same flight had an in-flight advertisement of a leading car maker as to how its state-of-the-art cars are designed. The video showed extensive use of computer aided designs, graphics, computations and simulations on computers. However, it also showed how craftsmen make and carve sophisticated models of its cars by their hands, feeling and chiseling intricate shapes. It showed how experts touched and felt the exteriors and interiors, for both form and texture, and compared materials personally on looks and feel. It was as if the traditional craftsmanship and the innate human sensory perceptions were essential compliments to modern computerized design. This combination of human touch and elegance with computer power and perfection as shown in the video was truly remarkable in an industry where design and manufacture are widely assumed to have been digitized. In a flight which seemed to have been no better for all its technology, the automobile video was a good reminder that technology and human faculties are complementary.

Digital limits and opportunities

The two examples reviewed above demonstrate certain subtle aspects of digital power (and powerlessness) and human ingenuity (and confusion). The airliner operates in a country which can accurately predict weather days in advance and which can calculate flight paths of spacecrafts to planets millions of miles away. The airliner thus has access to all the predictive, computing and coordinating power of digital technology. Yet, all of these were of no avail in predicting and managing a mild dislocation caused by not-so-bad weather. The basic and genuine need of the pilot to ensure flight safety could not be met by matching digital flexibility and application of human mind, even of a very simple and normal variety that is available in such an advanced country. Not only that, as the plane landed with all its long delay, the crew completely disclaimed any responsibility towards connecting passengers and said that ground staff would take care of them; but alas no such staff was present on the ground! The disconnect between service and technology was palpable.

On the other hand, the craftsmanship in making the wooden models of cars and the manipulative skills of the designer's hand in shaping computer images tells how human dexterity would continue to be one of the most enduring and most wanted human capability notwithstanding the boundless progress in digital progress. The design approach for elegant cars also illustrates that as long as a product is designed for use by a human being, human touch in design would be an essential concomitant. Societies which think that expert craftsmanship is a relic of the past would find themselves dealing with products that miss out the human-friendly approach. Enlightened societies that continue to respect tradition alongside modernity would see service and technology as inseparable. Firms that appreciate the nuances of craftsmanship bring out best-in-class products like Apple. Technology is not an end in itself but is an enabler for customer delight. Although in the same industry of transportation both the sectors seem to view technology-service paradigm differently.

Sublime in sophisticated

As technology develops sophistication is bound to increase. The objective of technological sophistication is better need fulfillment. That said, there tend to be complexities and subtleties of sophistication. Complex technologies require expertise to design and handle. The designers must understand the needs of lay persons who use complex technologies while users must understand the full potential of such technologies. An insulin pump, for example, must be designed with all the advanced heuristics that are required to manage the complexities of multi-factorial diabetes disease but must also have the child in mind for simple and error-proof operation. A teenager or an adult who invests in a sophisticated smart phone must, on the other hand, take the embedded technology as given but expand his or her knowledge of its hardware and operating system to push the utilization of the phone to its design limits. There is, therefore,an important step of converting technological functionality into user experience.

The way the educational ecosystem must evolve to cater to the technological challenge is clear; it must provide fundamental knowledge as always because it equips a person to serve a variety of functions and industries. However, it must also track the evolution of day to day transformations that technology provides as only then will the human mind have the ability to harness the full potential of its own developments. In other words, the new generations of humans, regardless of the domain, cannot be technology naïve. The taxi driver of tomorrow, even in the emerging economies, cannot be ignorant of technologies. He or she must be capable of being a part of radio calling and distributed dispatch network, and have the ability to adapt to a wide range of electronic payment systems. The customers too must be able to move on from conventional debit or credit cards to mobile wallets, for example. Digital devices are the answer to the call of the future but require more than just technology to deliver the full promise.

Poka-yoking technology

Measurement is the insurance against misapplication of technology. As devices become more powerful and versatile, a whole new set of connectivity options and measurement systems become important to keep the devices and systems efficiently and appropriately functional. Typically, the new generation of devices and systems must have two processors and operating systems; one to deliver functionality and the other to ensure quality. The performance of the first needs to be assured by the quality measurement unit. This becomes extremely important as medical technology leapfrogs to offer newer bionic devices for human rehabilitation. Measurement can be by ordinal or cardinal measures. What is important is the application of measurement for assuring integrity of design in actual delivery. Japanese have perfected the art of poka-yoking technology. There is another dimension of technology, however; that relates to unintended misapplication or deliberate misuse,and is much harder to tackle.

As technology progresses and network integrates, the risks of unexpected randomness, loss of privacy and the insecurity of hacking also increase. The random and dangerous pitfalls of algorithmic trading constitute an example. Similarly, as social networking, e-commerce and online payments increase, the risks of unintended data usage and loss also increase. While more technology filters and more fixes can be deployed, ultimately it is the discretion and caution of the human mind that can prevent inappropriate use of technology. The human mind must continue to be trained to function independent of technology so that the ability of an individual to evaluate both intuitively and experientially varied technological outcomes is not hampered.

Mindset, not technology set

When I set out to write the blog post, I did not envisage a return to the case of the advanced airline of the advanced nation with which I started this post. This time, I was returning to my base city on a flight, and had the opportunity of listening to all of its representative employees and the Chairman emphasizing in their pre-takeoff video how committed they are to ensuring absolute customer delight. Upon landing, after a long wait of one hour at the baggage claim, upon enquiry, I was informed that my missing suitcase would be arriving by another later flight. The  airlines, in spite of knowing this through its self-acclaimed digital baggage tracking system, never bothered to inform hapless passengers like me, on a proactive basis, of the delayed baggage arrival. Nor did the airline tender even the simplest of apology, or any other comforting assurance of whether the baggage for sure would arrive at an appointed time. While the airliner would deliver the baggage to home eventually, the disconnect between digital tracking and physical expression has been disappointing to say the least.

Clearly, even the best of technology can only be as good as the level of human commitment to deploy and leverage it. It is the human mindset that will determine not only the limits of digital technology but also the multiple ways in which it can be harnessed for customer delight. While deploying technologies in all possible ways firms must focus on shaping of employee mindsets in three different ways. Firstly, there must be an abiding focus on deriving the full benefits of technology. Secondly, there must be the needed flexibility and ingenuity to deal with situations when adverse environment disrupts planned outcomes of technology. Thirdly, the entire organizational ecosystem and employee performance must be driven by a passion for customer delight. It is worth repeating that the best of technology can only be as good as the human mindset that deploys or receives it.

Posted by Dr CB Rao on June 30, 2013


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