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?