Science fiction vs. consumer reality

As a lifelong fan of science fiction, I’m always interested to see where the creative types think technology could lead us. On one hand, you have the dystopian vision seen in I Robot: humans entrust robots to take care of them, which leads to the robots attempting a global coup. On the other hand, you have the utopian version seen in Star Trek: people boldly go where no one has gone before, work out their neuroses in holodecks, and transport off-planet with the amount of effort it takes to tweet.

Both versions offer intriguing views of the future and, while they trend towards opposite extremes, they share one thing in common: our dependency on information technology. The trend started decades ago—probably the first time someone picked up their 12-pound laptop, groaning and gritting their teeth as they struggle to get to their next meeting. Since those early days, the rate of change of consumer technology has been staggering. Consumer demand has driven technology development as the industry realized the profit potential and responded with increasingly awesome products. Today, we keep our computers in our pockets.

The accelerating trend in consumer technology combines mobility, social groups, and ease of use to empower end users in ways unimaginable a few years ago. Smartphones are designed to be with you at all times — try going out sometime and deliberately leave your phone at home. Feels weird, doesn’t it? Likewise, tablets are highly portable, extremely intuitive, and offer more computing power than all of NASA when we first landed on the moon. These amazing devices keep us connected to each other and aware of what’s happening in the world. They enhance our lives by enabling us to spend less time computing and more time living.

This ultimately translates into productivity.

Time saved is productivity gained

When was the last time you spent twenty minutes scrutinizing a map at a gas station? How about driving to the bank to deposit a check or calling a travel agent to book a trip? Today, we outsource those tasks to our devices and reallocate the time we save to other, more productive activities. Our devices are designed to increase our productivity (assuming time spent on Facebook is productive) as well as engagement.

But once we stop being consumers and start being employees, things are different. We fill out forms, call internal help lines, and log in to multiple websites using multiple passwords. Our phones and tablets aren’t allowed to talk to our servers. We have to mark our emails as “read” on two or more devices, and we have to maintain contact information on different machines. Compared to our experience as consumers, our experience as employees dealing with information technology can be wildly unproductive and frustrating.

When a company’s IT environment impairs an employee’s productivity, three things happen:

1. It costs the company money.

Productivity lost is money lost, pure and simple. With today’s fast-paced business environment, every minute counts. A few minutes could mean the difference between securing a large account and losing it to a competitor. And when employees are spending as much time wrestling with internal systems as they’re spending interacting with customers or completing tasks, they’re less able to contribute to the company’s success in meaningful ways.

2. Employees become disengaged.

Our experience as consumers has created a new set of tech expectations. You might say we’ve become spoiled, and you’re probably right. But spoiled or not, the reality is that when we encounter a clunky user interface or an inefficient system, we become frustrated, and eventually cynical. Employees interact with their companies through technology, and if an employee’s IT experience is marked by frustration, those feelings will extend to their employer.

3. The customer experience suffers.

One of the accepted industry benchmarks for company success is the Net Promoter Score, or whether a customer would recommend the company to a friend. Like it or not, an employee represents their company to the public and, more importantly, to customers. If your employees are unresponsive and disengaged because of their IT environment, this inevitably carries over to your customers and how they then choose to represent your company to their peers. A happy customer can be an incredible asset, while an unhappy one can trash you with extreme efficiency, thanks to social media.

Mind the gap

There’s a gap between our technological lives as consumers of and our technological lives as employees. It’s the responsibility of IT leaders to narrow that gap by supporting apps and devices that provide the same streamlined, intuitive IT experience that employees have become used to as consumers.

While this transition will not be inexpensive, the cost can easily be justified by long-term gains in productivity and positive customer experience. This approach will also increase employee satisfaction and enhance your company’s reputation with its customers. By mapping the IT function to customer satisfaction and employee productivity, IT becomes an integral part of a company’s strategic success, driving the kind of transformative change that impacts the entire ecosystem.

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