Countering the myths of technology in the workplace

New internal research conducted by the Australian Taxation Office provides some of the first real proof that digital-mania in the workplace is driven by myths. People are simply not subscribing to the hype about technology in the workplace.
I've been an early adopter of new technologies in my work for many years. After trialling Facebook in teaching in 2007, using Yammer and Twitter in 2010, and using e-texts to replace expensive hard copies, I found that the digital native is a myth. Nowadays I focus on effective use of technology, and sometimes that means low-tech.

No so twenty years ago. When I first joined Army, we were forced to draft (by hand) endless minutes concerning every piece of administration one could imagine. Every leave application, every request for resources, every approval required a covering minute to accompany the relevant form.

I purchased an Amstrad word processor from a friend and hooked it up to a printer. Instead of the usual draft by hand, have it red-penned several times, take all day to complete one minute, I shocked my boss by adding his corrections and returning with a new minute moments later and reduced my admin time by days. Technology was effective.

Later, I hired a Packard Bell 486 SX-33 and my own Hewlett-Packard Deskjet 540 printer and admin was a breeze. It took my unit several years before computers were a normal part of doing business.

But these days, I find a 50/50 split in screen-readers and paper-readers. Colleagues found that students did not like using their mobile phones for their university study. Some students even found it "creepy". Some liked  to use their Facebook accounts for university study but others hated it.

What I found was that the more involved I became in instantaneous communication with my students, the less they did for themselves and their problem solving and written communication skills deteriorated into help-seeking and text-speak. It simply didn't work.

Up until this time, I had all of my work and personal communication mixed up. There was no line between work and personal. I was working 24/7.

To add insult to injury, the more cutting-edge I became, the more I became a one-person helpdesk for hundreds of students who were unfamiliar with the professional use of social media. One Sunday morning at 3am (during the mid-semester break) I spent an hour helping a student with an essay via Facebook. And that was the straw that broke the camel's back.

Then I tried open source products such as Wikiversity. I found the same problem - I was a one-person helpdesk. Then, when I wanted to have Moodle's capabilities improved, I found that I had to "vote" for functionality that any commercial learning management system (LMS) provided as a matter of course.

The benefits of technology were not all-encompassing. A suggestion at one of the local "hack" sessions suggested we could "network in general awesomeness" and that was it. I went back to basics.

What I found was that so many products are sold to organisations without consultation with the users of the product. The promises of many marketing campaigns are routinely proven to be false hope. Effective use of technology is key.

The ATO's latest research on the use of technology by its workforce is a breath of fresh air. After endlessly being told by people that lecturers who do not use the latest social media are behind the times and yada yada yada and then seeing work produced by the "hypers", it was clear we had lost the plot. The ATO has proven the same point. ATO People deputy commissioner Jacqueline Curtis says it succinctly:
“The research we did really strongly suggests it is important to co-design with your workforce in order to be sure that the assumptions you are making about their needs and requirements are not just assumptions, that they are actually reflecting the needs of the workforce”
The assumption that more is better and that social media is "the way to go" is about technology for technology's sake. A reality check is needed. 

Yesterday I saw a new web-based approach that uses advanced search technology to create individually customised reports. What this means is that for the first time in about a decade, it is now just as fast to find information on the website as it used to be to find the same information using an indexed hard copy book. Wow. Ten years.

The question needs to be asked: What are you trying to achieve? Using web-based applications or social media does not help students develop sound communication or problem-solving skills. Indeed, it can have the opposite effect. 

And bring-your-own-device does not really help the user experience. It helps workers do more work while not at work, while still being expected to turn up during the required working hours. And it often means incompatibility problems that can cause unnecessary delays. And don't get me started on people who insist on using Macs.

But that's not to say that I do not use technology in my work. Indeed, I remain at the cutting edge in my teaching. But my approach is significantly different. And it avoids all kinds of hype.

The ATO's findings are food for thought for any organisation. Think about what you are trying to achieve through technology, rather than following trends created by skilful marketing.

For the love of God, ask your people what they need to do their jobs more effectively, rather than imposing yet another system that not only costs more, but makes one's job even harder because the majority of work time is spent trying to make the new system work.

And the next time some geek tells you they have some "awesome" new technology, and your old-fashioned university degree can be replaced by ten-minute TED Talks? Don't believe the hype. It's a myth </ end rant>.