TechWatch: Inappropriate Technology

The Institute for Business, Technology, and Ethics promotes “good business through appropriate technology and sound ethics.” How can technology be inappropriate?

I think of technology as “inappropriate” if it leads to poor business solutions (adds more cost than necessary, or more cost than benefit), or if it creates a poor environment for people (“mind numbing” jobs for employees, underutilizing the skills of employees, or frustrations for customers). In the extreme, technology is inappropriate if it actually harms people.

The roots of inappropriate technology are in two areas. One is simply creating poor technology-based solutions to business problems—an inappropriate application of the technology. A second area involves looking at the nature of the technology itself—identifying tendencies we should be cautious about, independent of the application.

Inappropriate Application of Technology

For the first area—inappropriate application of technology—I will examine examples of the application of PDAs, wearable computers, and laptop computers in business situations. (I ignore the poor use of cell phones because it is too obvious: “Hi. Guess where I am? On the bus going to the airport. What’s going on? Nothing here either…..”).

PDAs for Quick Reference

Many of us have been in the wrap-up of a meeting when someone says, “We need to get back together within a month. How does it look for you the last two Wednesdays of this month, or the first Tuesday of next month?” The person with the printed monthly calendar pulls it out and immediately says, “any of those dates work for me.” The person with the weekly calendar says almost as quickly, “I’d like to avoid the fourth Wednesday.” The person with the PDA says, “Just a minute—still checking.”

PDAs don’t work well for this function. The display isn’t large enough to look quickly at weeks or a month at a glance. The query is more than pulling out a sheet of paper or a small book—data needs to be entered to find the calendar and the appropriate date.

This does not make PDAs inherently inappropriate.

What they do offer is the ability to link to the calendar on your office computer, solving the problem of keeping multiple calendars in sync. They have no year-end boundary problem (carry two calendars, copy appointments from one to the other, etc.). They can be linked to an address book with ready access to other information (phone numbers, addresses, etc.).

There is a simple solution to the lookup problem—print your calendar in a monthly format for the next few months. As the calendar is updated, simply recycle the paper. Use the PDA for the source of the data, not the quick reference to the data. I recognize that you won’t appear high tech with this approach!

Wearable Computers

The miniaturization of technology opens the door to other types of portable computers such as the wearable computer. Pioneered at the MIT Media Labs, these computers can be as powerful and capable as a laptop. They can be worn on a belt allowing the user to easily carry separate lightweight components such as the computer, the memory, and the battery. Obviously there needs to be a way to interact with this computer, either for input or for viewing.

Solutions to this include a special set of “glasses” that have a small display mounted in the corner of one of the lenses. A display no bigger than one half inch on a side will “trick” the eye into seeing a large computer screen where data can easily be read and pictures and diagrams can be understood. You really need to try this to believe it, but it does work. Input can be handled through voice commands on a tiny microphone, or simply a one handed “mouse” adapted to another spot on the belt.

The business opportunity is to provide simple access to very complex information in a hands-free way in a work area. In a situation where the worker would typically spend a significant amount of time away from the work area looking up information, this wearable computer offers the promise of significant productivity. They can even be adapted to allow material to appear in a precise place even while your head moves. The computer, using the position sensing, can adjust the material to compensate for movement of the head! Tom Caudell, then at The Boeing Company, coined the term “augmented reality” for these applications, since the real world was augmented, not replaced, with computer information.

As exciting as the possibilities of this technology were, early applications failed for several reasons. First, the cost was too high for widespread deployment, though as applications grow this will change. Second, the weight of the headpiece was heavier than we wanted, risking the possibility of neck strain with long use. But the final and dominant reason was the workers’ that they would look “geeky!”

Variations of this technology have found a home in special purpose military environments, where people are already carrying heavy packs. But for now this more general application in the factory must go down as an inappropriate application for both business and people reasons.

Laptops for Meeting Registration

The third illustration comes from a group that puts on business forums. The group wanted to be sure that people who came to the meeting had paid (pre-registration was on line) and that everyone who paid had checked in. They considered purchasing laptops with a wireless network linking them. When people arrived, those who had pre-paid would enter their e-mail and password to check in, then pick up their pre-printed name tags. Those who had not pre-registered would enter credit card information, or pay with cash and enter their name and address. In the end, there would be a record in the database of everyone who had come to the event as well as those who had paid but not attended.

There is a much simpler solution. There is no reason for the majority of people who pre-registered to enter anything into a computer. They simply pick up their name tags and go into the meeting. Those name tags left over represent the people who paid and didn’t show. In addition to eliminating some technology expense, this greatly shortens the irritating check-in lines, reducing the work required for most participants. Yes, someone from the organization would have to enter the names from the tags left on the table to complete the computer-based record. But this is a small amount of work compared with inconveniencing all the pre-registered guests who did come to the meeting.

These illustrations all demonstrate poor business results and frustration for customers or employees. They are not intended to criticize those who create inappropriate solutions with technology. Rather, false starts are the norm when exploring the use of technology in business. What may seem like a good idea at the beginning may turn out to be a poor solution with costly side effects. These side effects add to cost (bad for the business) and add meaningless difficulty for either customers or employees (bad for people). The tougher part is abandoning a false start.

We would like to hear your own stories about the “inappropriate application” of technology in business. Please see our Ethix Forum question and contribute your stories.

Tendencies in the Technology

Another approach to thinking about “inappropriate technology” considers the inherent characteristics of the technology itself. Much of the discussion in the literature has focused on nuclear technology, automatic weapons, genetically altered food, etc. These clearly fit the extreme case of causing potential serious harm to people. But there are tendencies in information technology that also raise fundamental questions.

Building relationships, and maintaining them using technology, can make our lives and our businesses richer. But the technology lacks the nuances of face-to-face communication, and we must be alert to significant opportunity for misunderstanding and divergence of view. The counter to this is to be aware that technology is most effectively used for communication when it is accompanied by more personal interaction.

Speed can be a good thing, particularly for business where “time is money.” Yet too much speed can lead to huge mistakes and high stress for employees. We must build in time to think, to pause, and to not be on line, in order to create a good business.

Thirdly, electronic data may seem similar to published data in books. But published information generally has a review and editing process, and understood biases based on its source. Electronic data is different because it generally lacks these characteristics.

Technology can contribute to creating good business and good environments for people. But technology also can detract from the business and create negative environments for people. Understanding what is appropriate technology for good business requires strategies for dealing with the general tendency of the technology as well as the particular applications of technology.

Fortunately, there is usually good alignment here. When technology is applied well, it can support good business objectives and support good environments for people. Conversely, when it is applied poorly, it generally works against both. When the tendencies of the technology are understood, effective solutions can often be found that minimize the downsides and capture the benefits.


Al Erisman is executive editor of Ethix, which he co-founded in 1998.
He spent 32 years at The Boeing Company, the last 11 as director of technology.
He was selected as a senior technical fellow of The Boeing Company in 1990,
and received his Ph.D. in applied mathematics from Iowa State University.