Inside Business: Machines and minds are not connecting

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Modern technology certainly makes a lot of things possible that were not even dreamed about only a few years ago.

In particular, it is revolutionising communications in the workplace. Companies can now set up teams of people who never meet but work together across continents and datelines using electronic and voice mail and networked computer systems that enable documents and drawings to be worked on simultaneously.

It all sounds wonderful, but a report just published confirms what just about everybody working in a modern office knows already; it is not all joy.

"Unfortunately, technology and people do not always go together as smoothly as predicted," according to The Human Factor: New Rules for the Digital Workplace, a report by Synopsis Communication Consulting. "Junk e-mail, flame mail [hate mail via the Internet] and voice mail used to deflect phone calls, and strategies for coping with information overload, all show people thwarting the good intentions of technology."

The research, among such organisations as Andersen Consulting, Barclays Bank, Rover Group and SmithKline Beecham, shows that companies are failing to manage how they are combining people and technology. It adds: "Technology is becoming a victim of its own success, as people learn to take their revenge and thwart some of the good intentions behind the technology."

Nevertheless, respondents to the survey suggest that they are planning to introduce even more technology over the coming two years. Intranets - allowing Internet-type communication within organisations - are by far the most popular form of technology planned, with such developments as e-mail, groupware, voice mail and videoconferencing given about equal weight.

Two-thirds of organisations apparently feel that communications have improved, but even the technophiles are concerned. They feel that the human side is losing out and that urgent corrective action is needed to get the balance right again.

In an attempt to deal with this, the report identifies three things that companies must be able to do, in order to create "the best combination of man and machine".

They are: connect - the ability to access knowledge and information; share - the ability to integrate and share information; and structure - the ability to extract meaning from information. What this amounts to is that "interaction" is more important than bare information.

As the report explains: "organisations have to match their expertise in hard wiring with an understanding of how employees' heads are wired. Smart organisations know that employee brains are the last link in the information chain, and are investing time in working with the 'soft wiring' of how people think and react, as well as how to hard wire information to them."

This requires complementing investment in technology with investment in training in "interaction technology", or coaching people in how they deal with with each other and how well they understand their own thought processes and reactions.

The report attempts to put this graphically by saying that companies will have to become more sophisticated in their management of this area by abandoning the "oil refinery" model, in which more and more messages are pumped down communication pipelines, for an "air traffic control" system, which provides an overview of communication activities. The best companies, it concludes, "understand that successful communication is a collaborative process" and combine communication and technology to best advantage.