Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The Sword of Technology

I work for a technology company that produces software used in the banking industry. Unlike many technology-driven industries, the banking industry is very conservative and slow to adopt innovations that could improve their business. As an example, my company did not require its customers to abandon our DOS-based software products and move to Windows-based versions of those products until the year 2000, when Microsoft formally abandoned support for DOS.

By the time banking executives decide that a new product or service has matured to the point where it’s safe to use, there are usually a half-dozen choices to pick from. And of course, they seem to always pick the wrong one. We’re constantly receiving memos from high-ranking Vice Presidents informing us of some wonderfully wrong-headed technology “solution” that they have bestowed upon us.

Nowhere is this more apparent than the bathroom sinks. My company leased space in a building and fitted it out over the period of several months while we occupied another building. When we moved in, we discovered that the sink faucets in the bathroom were styled after airport facilities, without handles. The faucets use some kind of Star Trek sensor at the base of the spigot to detect the presence of hands, and begin dispensing a stream of water when hands are held underneath. The stream shuts off immediately when the hands are removed. This makes it impossible for someone to leave the water running (water costs money), or to use a lot of hot water (energy costs money). When you talk about saving money, bankers listen.


The water is delivered at a predetermined temperature, which I imagine is dictated by some corporate committee. In fact, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that an employee at corporate headquarters has the responsibility of lowering the water temperature by a few degrees at company facilities all over the world whenever corporate earnings fall, to recoup some of the losses in water-heater energy savings.

Unfortunately, the sensors were designed at about the time Star Trek was a popular TV show. They are ridiculously unreliable, breaking frequently. This is not a problem at a typical airport, where there may be a dozen sinks. You simply move to one that’s working. However, we have only two sinks. This means that after that first cup of morning coffee, a line forms at the one working sink. Inevitably, the soap dispenser at the working sink runs out of soap, forcing employees to do a little sidestep dance from one sink to the other. Complaints to building management seem to take weeks until repairs are made. I swear that right after a faucet is repaired, the water temperature goes down a few degrees.

The company has also decided to use a popular (though expensive) online meeting service to enable senior management to communicate directly with employees. By “directly,” I mean “poorly.” It seems that senior management consists of people who require very large offices to contain their egos. Sending an e-mail with your message attached simply won’t do, even though it’s free. People with big egos require a live audience. So the online meeting service enables the presenter to display a presentation, while speaking verbally over the phone. Besides the expense, there are two problems with this solution.

The first problem is that the phone link can only support a limited number of connections, and management is too cheap to pay for the level of service that would permit employees to listen from their office phones. So every employee is forced to crowd into a conference room, shoulder-to-shoulder, where the display is projected on a screen, and the voice portion is delivered on a crackly speakerphone. Despite this consolidation, the phone connection is horrible, breaking up into an unintelligible, garbled mess at frequent intervals.

The second problem is that not everyone with a big ego is an effective speaker, although they all think they are. Most of them simply read their PowerPoint presentations, bullet-point by bullet-point, in a monotonous drone. Clearly, they don’t think we can read. Every employee leaves these meetings feeling resentful, sarcastic and degraded – exactly the opposite of the speaker’s intent. Worse, after each presentation, the water temperature goes down a few degrees.

Technology is one of those double-edged swords. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you can get cut. As I see it, high-ranking executives in my company have the authority to demand technology solutions, but don’t have the expertise to comprehend the solution. In addition, they don’t have the common sense to recognize that a new solution might be inferior to the old solution. Like faucet handles and e-mail, which work just fine.

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