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There’s no question. Information Technology (IT) is changing humanity. In many ways, for the better. But in many more ways, for the not-so-much-better. I find myself increasingly focused on the human aspects of technology these days, and have been having some thoughts on the matter I felt were time to put down and share with the world.

Technology is Making us Better

I think this part is obvious. As people get more access to the Internet, and all that it contains, the better life becomes. We can pay our bills without putting pen to paper. We can buy movie tickets from our mobile devices. We can get restaurant suggestions based on our geographical location. We can get real-time traffic data in our cars no matter what road we are on. Speaking of cars, reflect a moment on how drastically different the process of purchasing a car in the United States is today than it was in the 1980’s.

The list goes on and on. I was just discussing a topic like this with my 15-year-old daughter last night over dinner. We were talking about what life was like in North Korea, where the citizens get no access to the Internet, and what they are taught from birth is not quite the whole truth, and if somehow their citizens could get access to the Internet, their culture would have to change. This is the promise of the Internet, and our Information Age, whether intentional or unintentional. As we connect more with one another, the better we all become. We are better informed and better equipped than in any other point in human history.

But…Technology is also Making us Worse

I think, somehow, in the midst of all of this amazing technological advancement, we are in many ways starting to lose our humanity. We are becoming like the technology we have created; cool and mechanical. Let me explain.

In the corporate world today, the drum beat of any organization is metrics. We create analytics, metrics, KPI’s, etc. to track how we are doing as a company at any given day, month, second. Meeting KPI’s has become the de facto standard for how employee reviews are given, pay raises are granted, and layoffs are survived. In many ways, the metrics are now the most important thing in our work day. We cannot allow anything to reflect poorly on our metrics, because the metrics are what drive the business. But in adopting that attitude, take a step back for a moment and look at what we’ve become.

We have become a society where it is okay to close a help desk ticket without helping the person who opened it, because we think they opened it incorrectly and it would reflect poorly in our metrics.

We have become a society where it is okay to not respond to an email, because ignoring it is easier than spending the time to reply.

We have become a society where we will treat our System Administrators poorly because a system went down and ruined our goal of 99.9% system uptime goal KPI, and thus spoiled our incentive bonuses for the year.

We have become a society where technical support will call the person asking for help after business hours, just to add a note to the ticket showing they attempted customer contact within the first 24-hours, knowing there was no possible way that person was still at their desk.

This is also starting to bleed out into everyday life, and not just in the office. Take a walk around outside someday around town. How many people have their noses and eyes down looking a a mobile screen instead of enjoying the moments that are passing them by? Sure it’s great that we can contact anyone, anywhere, anytime… but should we?

What Role does Empathy Play?

To me, it is becoming increasingly important that we do not forget the human factor of our professional lives. There are humans on the other side of all of those devices, and no matter what you may think, humans make up those metrics and KPI’s, and human activity is what generates the data. The systems just measure. People have feelings, and those feelings are on the receiving end of all of those communications and systems. People have needs, and often need help in the increasingly complex world of IT. And when we can reach out to another human, and treat them with respect, dignity, and empathy, really good things can happen.

Take Zappos! as an example if you think I’m nuts. Look at what they do with their customer service. Their customer service agents do not have any time restriction for how long they can speak to a customer. No metrics around how fast they can close a call, or how many customers per day they must interact with. Zappos! customer service agents are empowered. They can make almost any decision to make the customer happy without having to ask a supervisor for permission. Is Zappos! losing money because they don’t close enough customer calls in a day? Is Zappos! losing money because their customer service agents are processing too many refunds or returns? Nope. Zappos! is ridiculously successful and is cultivating an intensely loyal customer following (I’m one of them).

What is the Answer?

I know this may seem really unbalanced coming from an Analytics professional. But maybe it’s because I am so deeply steeped in the Analytics culture that this is bothering me so much. I see it nearly every day, and it worries me. I honestly don’t know what the answer is. I can only challenge those who also see this as an issue to try and help reverse it. Take a moment before you hit “Send” on that terse response to what you feel is a “stupid” question. Don’t be overly emboldened or brave because there is an LCD screen between you and the receiver, and you can’t see their face while you communicate. Take a minute before you lose your temper at the IT Support technician on the other side of the phone. Remember those people are PEOPLE. And unless I woke up on Mars or in another dimension this morning, we’re often all working towards the same goal. We all want our businesses to succeed. Success is the truest metric there is. If we are treating our people, and our customers well, does the rest of that stuff really matter in the long run? Is it worth losing our sense of empathy for other human beings over?

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12 Comments

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  1. Susan Keohan

    Well done, Greg.  I get very frustrated when I see people sitting together – with their noses in their devices instead of talking with *each other*.  And sometimes those people are my sons.

    I have some users who are happy to talk to me, even if they have filled out a ticket that there is a problem. Why? Because they get to TALK to someone, not just get an email ‘your ticket has been closed’. 

    I like it when my users are happy.

    Sue

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  2. Marilyn Pratt

    An exceptional piece, perhaps even more powerful given that it is written by an analytics expert and a person with firm professional experience with vast, organized, hierarchical entities (hope I don’t presume too much in that connection to your professional affiliations but it makes it striking that someone who deals in sizing, performance and architecture for a living thinks in such humanistic and humane formats).

    I think this thought piece perfect for Nicolle Gurule Sternberger ‘s work in SAP Design Thinking content.  I’m sure she and Jeremy Thomas would concur with everything you say here about customer service and IT support would resonate with them well in the world of IT sales and solution development.  Are we designing products for customers that are truly based on having empathic conversations with the folks we wish to sell to and serve?

    Shame that this wonderful blog is in your “personal space”.  Hoping when we have a home for Design Thinking content, it can live there.

    Thank you for sharing your important opinions with us on SCN.

    Marilyn

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  3. Frank Koehntopp

    Approaching other humans with a smile on my lips and reminding myself that they most likely have good intentions, no matter what I’m seeing so far, works for me.

    Great post!

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  4. Derek Loranca

    “Huh…what…did you say something?  I’m sorry, I was looking at my device.”

    Snippets like that seem to be happening more frequently.  Thanks for writing something I’ve been thinking about for a long time.  I am sure that I seem awful to my tween daughter when I snap her for ‘put down the technology and pay attention.’  But if I don’t start early, that habit will be ingrained and not easy to break as she gets older.

    Nicely done!

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  5. Former Member

    Great read! Having lunch or dinner with people who are fiddling on their iPhones or Blackberrys is one of my pet hates… and I always wonder what addiction they have until by own phone wabbles in silent mode and think that it might be something important but turns out to be someone chasing noisy SCN points by plagarizing blogs, etc.

    Happy people and a collegial working environment would be greater metrics if the bean counters could find a standard unit of measurement for it, but then again they would probably change the platform often enough to make people look happier…  ๐Ÿ™‚

    IT and services also have a governance responsibility toward their users and consumer communities when designing systems.

    With my kids we sometimes play “school”. They teach me grammar, we create maths tests for each other with playful challenges, and I teach them some things about SAP and how some application programs work with numbers. But I won’t show them SCN until the childish points system is done away with or they are mature enough to not get sucked into such silly tredmill…

    Cheers,

    Julius

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  6. Heike van Geel

    thank you for this great blog!

    empathy is the key differentiator that allows us to design more a desireable experience of products and services ๐Ÿ™‚

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  7. Tom Cenens

    Hi Greg

    Thanks for the post.

    This is a very interesting topic and perspective.

    When I was in Palo Alto for Virtualization&Cloud week I had the opportunity to talk to many interesting persons (including you). In one conversation, metrics came up as the person who I was having the conversation with, has to reach certain metrics in order to do a good job. He was rather surprised when I told him I don’t really have any metrics that I have to reach. For me, it is really a benefit that I have in my current position, I’m not restricted by metrics. At some point, money becomes a restriction but by caring about your customers and really caring about what you sell, I’m convinced in the long run that point moves further down the road.

    It’s rather scary to see and hear nowadays that picking up the phone to call an end-user or going to his or her desk if located nearby is perceived as “weird” or “I will be bothering this person”. In 99% of the cases, they are very happy that someone cares about the problem they encountered. Nothing beats meeting up in person.

    Best regards

    Tom

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  8. nabheet madan

    Awesome Greg seriously sometimes i feel it would have been better without the technology where at least we would have respect for Life, respect for every human being.Today we respect matrix, tags and are always busy in improving them. Many people are busy following all the wrong ways to improve the so called matrix. I think the most important thing is to respect everyone.

    Be Good and Be honest.

    Thanks once again  for sharing for sharing your thoughts with the community.

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  9. Luke Marson

    Hi Greg,

    Fantastic blog and some excellent points. It’s a shame that metrics are driving this behavior when we know that analytics are for driving a business forward, not holding (or even pulling) it back. As IT moves towards a services delivery model in the Cloud and analytics become more readily available, businesses will need to be more careful about how they track and “force” behavior in organizations with metrics and analytics. I also don’t think this is limited to your example of support, but it is applicable elsewhere in businesses.

    Best regards,

    Luke

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