In the past month or so, I?ve seen a couple of well-argued pieces in the press claiming that an internet backlash is on the way. It wouldn?t surprise me. The higher expectations are raised, the stronger the likelihood that disappointment will follow. It may be a general law. Hype invites its own backlash.
On the other hand, I see no reason why a wave of scepticism should break over the internet alone. IT in general raises expectations. Sometimes it does so in a vague but challenging fashion as, for instance, on those regular occasions when we are told the only restriction to the scope of an application is our own imagination. This usually has the effect of bringing home to us the scope of our lack of imagination. Sometimes it is specific and enticing ? my own favourite example is the Microsoft campaign a couple of years ago that enumerated the minutes we could save by using Microsoft packages. The drawback is that you know only too well that if you save time on a particular job, someone will surely find something extra for you to do.
A more general disaffection with technology could arise from its imperfections. When it works, technology quickly becomes barely noticeable. It is easily taken for granted. But when something goes wrong, it provides a handy scapegoat. Then, those features said to be transparent to the user are all too clearly visible. One diseased cell quickly generates secondary tumours.
For example: you have an airline ticket and are asked to confirm your intention to use it at least 72 hours before departure. You do so. But when you arrive at the check-in desk they have no knowledge of you. The result is that an already tense experience becomes even more fraught ? will you actually get on the plane? And, as you stand your ground, suspicion grows that the check-in staff and the people behind you in the queue regard you to blame for the problem. Then, when you do get a boarding pass, your window seat in the smoking section is no longer available and the vegetarian meal you booked for your partner is nowhere on the record. An organisation that competes on quality of service has just lost a customer.
There could be an opportunity for dealers here. In industry and commerce, users of computers continually stress the importance of service. They claim to see service as the chief means of differentiating themselves in competitive markets. When things go awry, the customer gets an impression of lip-service rather than genuine service. But that isn?t necessarily fair. The problem may be that the demands of technology have distorted their staff training programmes.
When people talk about the dependency culture technology has generated, they usually mean that companies could no longer function very long without their systems. But there is a second level at which IT develops a culture of dependency. The people who sit at PCs to perform a function or provide a service become dependent on the systems, in a different way.
If they make a mistake, or if a transaction goes missing, or if the system simply behaves in a way neither its user nor the organisation?s customer expects, disaffection and confusion will usually follow. I stress ?usually?. They don?t always. I know some people who haven?t had a gas bill for 13 months, despite periodically trying to do the honest thing, and they remain happily connected. They regard British Gas as a world-class supplier, and it may well be, but a fault in a computerised process has caused a glitch.
The practice among companies introducing technology is to train their staff in the software to be used. It is an obvious and not unreasonable thing to do. But to limit themselves to product-specific training is bound to cause problems. Staff may know their way round the software but they give the strong impression of losing touch with the processes it automates. New recruits are perhaps now trained in the software where previously they would have gone on company induction courses. The result is that they know the programs but don?t understand the company?s business. Whether or not you knew for certain that this was happening, you could infer it from dealings, as a customer, with people in (of all places) the service industries.
So there is a clear need for a change of emphasis in training, away from mere explorations of the functions of packaged software and towards tailored walk-throughs of software in the context of the company using it. Resellers should be better placed than anyone to provide such training and consultancy. They would also be providing a substantial public service. If the scepticism about business services grows, it will surely spread to other areas.
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