Faulty thinking about technology has made customers’ lives worse


“We are stuck with technology when what we really want is just stuff that works”.

– Douglas Adams

In my last article, I discussed the fad lifecycle, giving several examples of the well-known tools of today, failing to deliver, and heading towards the place where fads go to die.

They will eventually join their brothers and sisters in the panacea graveyard; fads that were once popular, promised much, but over time failed to deliver, waned, and then died. Examples of fads that are now six feet under include: ‘Total Quality Management’, ‘Benchmarking’, ‘Process Re-Engineering’, ‘Balanced Scorecard’, ‘Customer Focus’, ‘Core Competencies’, ‘Self-Directed Teams’, ‘Straight Through Processing’, and ‘Learning Organisations’.

Inevitably, for each that now sit in the panacea graveyard, there will be some hardcore fans who will still say that they weren’t fads, that they were just misunderstood and abused, that each was not a tool, and were instead, about thinking and mindsets. Regardless, time has proven they were not the saviour they were claimed to be.

These panaceas are sold to managers with the promise that each will solve their problems. You have to have sympathy for managers.

Russell Ackoff, an American organisational theorist, said back in 1995:

“I sometimes have tremendous sympathy for management, primarily because they are subjected to more panaceas than they have problems.”

Technology-led change

Technology-led change is the norm today. In addition to bespoke technology change using ‘Agile’, ‘Lean’, ‘Lean-Startup’, ‘Design Thinking’ and their brethren, there are other kinds of technology that commercially-motivated toolkit salespeople sell into organisations.

Some of these tools directly interact with customers. I’ve listed examples below. When you read about each tool, as a customer yourself, it might be useful to reflect on how you feel about each one when you interact with them. Think about whether all customers want the same thing, in the same way, and whether they all want to be channelled through these tools.

Tools for direct customer interaction

Personalised Customer Experience: You see personalised digital content and receive personalised marketing based on data held about you. Sometimes you are asked to log into a portal to see your personalised content. Often you have trouble logging on and accessing your information, or your information on-screen is incorrect.

Assisted-service: Interact with frontline workers via phone, email, social media, or online chat. It is common to be either handed off to another specialised colleague or referred to the website for further instruction. Digital social media response team members often lurk in the background dealing with your issues, questions and complaints that might affect the brand – replying with canned responses.

Self-service: Interact digitally, without the need to interact with a human being, through text message, mobile apps, virtual assistance, and websites. It is common to be either handed off to another specialised colleague or referred to the website for further instruction if your demand cannot be met through self-service.

Interactive Voice Response (IVR) and Automatic call routing: Be asked to either ‘press 1 for this or 2 for that…’, or be called upon to ‘state in a few words the reason for your call…’. The options provided are generic and high level. It is common to be routed to an automated voice who refers you to the website or directs you to use self-service.

Interactive Voice Response (IVR) – Outbound: Receive automated voice calls, at a time not of your choosing – the time of the call is decided upon by the organisation. Often it is a sales call. Often the number is withheld, and you get numerous calls until you answer.

Call centre script software: When you contact an organisation, you are read scripts and prompts. You get told ‘First I need to take details from you,’ and you have to give the person many more details than you need before they answer your question. You get read disclosure statements – ‘First I need to tell you that I am a tied agent of this company.’ You are asked – ‘Is there anything else I can help you with?’ even when the person knows it is highly inappropriate and not the time to ask. You are often sold to – ‘I’m so sorry we messed up your account. But while I’ve got you, can I interest you in home insurance?’

Predictive dialling system: Your number is pulled from a list and automatically dialled. When you answer, you are automatically routed to a frontline worker who talks to you about an issue, or about a product for sale. Often the number is withheld, and you get numerous calls until you answer.

Branded online communities: Get your questions answered by a community of fellow customers in an online forum.Frequently advice given is incorrect or out of date. Social media response team members often lurk in the background dealing with your issues, questions and complaints that might affect the brand. You are encouraged to take complaints ‘offline’.

Customer feedback solutions – customer satisfaction surveys, voice of the customer (VOC), and electronic surveys: Either at the end of every interaction you have, or soon after, you are told that: ‘Your experience with us is very important to us.’ Followed by: ‘Please tell us what you think and share your feedback.’ or ‘Please tell us how likely it is that you would recommend us to a friend or colleague.’ If you don’t complete the surveys then you are likely to receive numerous reminders. Sometimes while you browse a site, a survey will appear over the content you were reading.

Automated notification: Text messages, emails, calls: Receive automated voice calls, text messages, and emails, at a time not of your choosing – the timing is decided upon by the organisation. If you miss a call, you must wait until the next designated time.

Display advertising: As you browse a website, graphical advertising appears within the text, or pops up, often in the form of video. Frequently the sites do not offer the facility to turn this feature off.

It is not uncommon for the above technology to be in use even in the smallest of organisations. Even my local library has an IVR when you ring them (with only two options in the menu!).

The tool vendors tell us what benefits will be achieved through implementing these tools:

  • Give customers a choice on how they interact with you, in a seamless and cohesive way.
  • Give the customer what they want, with no delays, and with less effort.
  • Enable customers to be easily informed of progress.
  • Understand from customers how to improve.
  • Improved service.
  • Reduced costs.

Sound great doesn’t it.

Next, let’s look at the second group of tools, which this time indirectly affect customers, in other words, they are tools that drive the way in which the frontline people serve customers.

Tools that indirectly affect customers

  • Customer loyalty management
  • Customer experience management (CEM or CXM)
  • Social media management
  • Customer interaction management (CIM)
  • Customer complaints management
  • Issue tracking management
  • Omni-channel interaction and journey management
  • Customer relationship management (CRM)
  • Customer care management
  • Call centre management system
  • Outbound call management
  • Workflow management system (WMS)
  • Work management system
  • Case management system
  • Document management system
  • Back office workforce management
  • Workforce optimisation (WFO)
  • Interaction monitoring system
  • Customer journey optimisation
  • Data analytics and insights
  • Knowledge management system
  • Quality assurance system (QA)
  • Enterprise resource planning (ERP)

And that list isn’t even exhaustive!

The tool vendors tell us the benefits that will be achieved through implementing these tools:

  • Enable the frontline workers to focus on the customer.
  • Increase self-service which will reduce operational costs (because if more customers self-serve, then we need less staff).
  • Make the workforce more efficient, productive, and consequentially, their utilisation will be higher.
  • Improve morale through better skill assessment and employee coaching.
  • Improve forecasting and scheduling of resources; balancing work across functions.
  • Route customers to the right area of expertise.
  • Automate business rules and protocols.
  • Optimise the efficiency of the front and back office through better prioritisation, routing, and queuing of work.
  • Understand what works, and what doesn’t work for customers, resulting in improved and streamlined processes.
  • Enable work to be off-shored to be done by less expensive resource.
  • Obtain measures of performance through data, analytics, business intelligence and reports.
  • Meet business goals, targets, KPIs and SLAs.

It is very cogently argued and will be considered manna from heaven for most service organisation managers.

How well does technology achieve its purpose?

Managers have bought these tools in droves. Walk into any service organisation today, and you will find the majority of the above-listed tools either in place, being built, being configured, being installed, or being upgraded. Sometimes you even find a tool is being replaced by an identical tool, except this time from a different vendor. In all instances, fortunes are spent.

Not surprisingly, the most vocal champions of technology-led change are those with a vested interest in the technology being used as widely as possible. Whether development and support activities are provided by internal technology departments or, as is more common these days, external outsourcers, both need large budget allocations to stay in business.

The amounts involved are hardly trivial. As an example, according to research by Celent published in Computer Weekly:

European banks spent £41bn on technology in 2014, rising to £42.23bn in 2015 and £46bn in 2017.

As they purport to improve service, it is reasonable that these tools should be scrutinised to learn how and how well they achieve their purpose.

‘Computer says no’

It is common for technology to be delivered late, go over budget, be de-scoped and, perhaps worst of all, when finally installed, make the job of serving customers harder. As recent high street banking system failures demonstrate, technology changes can paralyse even the least complicated of customer transactions, paying money in and out. It’s fair to say that customers’ experience of services is dominated by how the technology works, whether through direct interaction online or via agents all too often telling us ‘Computer says no’.

Most service organisations have invested heavily in workflow management systems to log, scan, sort, batch, queue, allocate and measure work and worker activity. These tasks tend to be highly valued by management but, paradoxically, are often a major cause of failure demand and waste.

When ‘the work’ is studied using the Vanguard Method, the impact of tools and how they make things worse for customers and workers becomes immediately obvious. Listening to or reading what customers ask for at major points of contact, for example in the Contact centre, Helpdesk, Sales support and so on, reveals how technology also disrupts flow, and in so doing, causes the customer problems – resulting in even more failure demand that is then logged, sorted, batched, queued and allocated. It is not uncommon for this Kafkaesque cycle to go through many iterations before a simple request is resolved.

It’s easy to see how technology budgets in individual institutions can run into the hundreds of millions and why service organisations have a highly paid Chief Information Officer or Chief Digital Officer on the board to be accountable for the spend.

Are these huge capital spends justified? Or is there a way of ‘doing technology’ that achieves better results at lower cost?

A technology managers dilemma

If you are a leader in technology, this is a critical question to answer. The odds are stacked against you. In evidence of this, Couchbase surveyed 450 enterprise technology leaders across the US, UK, France, and Germany.

73% believed they could be fired as the result of a poorly implemented or failing technology project.

You can understand the technology managers dilemma; ‘how to invest in the right technology?’

To illustrate the risk: In an article titled ‘Heads roll over $60 million Brisbane City Council IT blow-out’ the Brisbane Times reported:

Heads have rolled in the wake of Brisbane City Council’s $60 million IT systems blow-out, with two senior officers leaving the organisation last month…

The Chief Information Officer and the Organisational Services Divisional manager both departed. As reported in the Brisbane Times:

…council chief executive Colin Jensen said the two IT staff members departed after they met with him the previous week. ‘After careful consideration, they both decided to separate from the organisation immediately,’ he said.

This is not an isolated incident. Two academics; Robin Gauld and Shaun Goldfinch have studied failed technology projects, and published their results in a brilliantly titled book called ‘Dangerous Enthusiasms’. They found that 20 to 30 percent of technology projects are abandoned completely, 30 to 60 percent are delivered, but don’t work properly, cost much more and, thus, are partial failures. Doesn’t leave a lot does it!

The findings from the Harvey Nash/KPMG Creative CIO survey 2016, which represents the views of 3,352 CIOs and technology leaders across 82 countries, were also sobering.

In the survey respondents were asked: ‘For projects completed during the last TWO YEARS, indicate how successful you feel the project was’.

The resulting chart from the survey shows some technology projects were rated overall as being successful. For example, infrastructure roll-out, moving systems to the cloud, or a new website, however, for the majority of the list, less than 50% of people deemed them as successful.

These findings (there are many others) give further evidence to the fact that current fads in use for ‘doing technology’ aren’t solving problems for today’s technology leaders and the businesses that they support.

Why technology is predictably problematic

We need to go beyond the consequences of technology failures to provide insight into why technology is predictably problematic.

Our starting point is to understand the problems managers are trying to solve through technology, in other words, what is their dilemma?

It is equally critical to understand why technology-led change makes sense to managers; to examine the logic that underpins the vast sums of money that managers invest in technology.

There are fundamental beliefs about the world of work that managers bring to bear in an organisation. The prevailing underpinning logic behind those beliefs is command-and-control.

In recent times the ability to command and control all aspects of organisational life has been increased with all-encompassing technology; and over time the size of the management factory – whose only purpose is to either command or control – has grown.

A lot of people know there is a problem with command-and-control. However, of the two words, most people tend to concentrate on ‘command’; bosses that are being too bossy. Experts suggest the antidote is to implement empowerment programs and engagement programs. They espouse that we should be nicer to our people, and have leaders be coaches. This approach is fundamentally wrong. In evidence of this, ‘empowerment’, ‘engagement’ and ‘coaching’ programs have been in use for many years now (and a lot of people have read Dan Pink), and yet our organisations are still wedded to command-and-control.

Instead of focusing on ‘command’, the word we have to look at is ‘control’. Our theories of control are the problem in our organisations. In reality, our methods of control send organisations more out of control than in control. This is part of what leaders learn when they go through the Vanguard Method, without changing your theory of control, you won’t change the performance of your organisation.

It may seem counter-intuitive; however, the problems afflicting today’s organisation are axiomatic. The theory of control is a universal problem. All around the world, when managers study their organisations, they learn it is all of their current controls that are the cause of their problems.

Technologists have become the unwitting instrument and enabler of command-and-control management

What has this got to do with technology? Technologists have become the unwitting instrument and enabler of command-and-control management.

Technology has become the backbone of organisational life, and command-and-control thinking is implicit in the design of technology.

Paradoxically, conventional controls lead to an organisation being out of control, and technology compounds this. The conventional theory of control is ‘baked into’ off the shelf tools that technology managers buy, and is specified by command-and-control managers to be built into technology through bespoke development. Once locked in and rolled out, the unintended consequence is that the technology entraps rather than enables the way people work and how customers interact.

To illustrate: let’s look at some examples of command-and-control thinking and how technology managers are asked to reinforce and solidify it.

In a conventional service organisation design, if you’ve got a front office and a back office, you’ll get two views of the customer; one based on a conversation with the customer, and the other based on a series of rules or protocols. It is common for the front office to break down a service request into a number of separate tasks to be completed by the relevant back-office function. Each of these designs increases the potential for things to be sub-optimised. Technology managers will be asked to implement tools for front and back office work management, and to code the rules and protocols into the systems.

If managers are standardising work, for example, asking customers to fill in forms, technology managers will be requested to create online forms or implement document management systems that scan paper forms into digital records to be checked and processed. It results in an adversarial relationship forming with customers, as, inevitably, they will misunderstand what to fill in, miss something, or have to ask for help filling the form in, breeding failure demand, rework and frustration.

If you are managing people’s activity, in other words, how many tasks they should be doing per day, then that will stop the organisation from absorbing variety, which results in a lot of customers not getting what they want, and creating failure demand. Activity management is hardwired into off the shelf tools or will be specified by command-and-control managers to be incorporated into bespoke technology development.

The same is true if people within the organisation work to standard times, in other words, limiting their time to complete a task. A veritable factory of activity will sit around standard-setting, monitoring, reporting and resource-planning. Technology managers will be asked to configure or code time recording and adherence to service levels into corporate systems, to ensure, for example, call centre agents meet standard times for handling calls, back-office workers meet standard times for completing tasks, home-repair tradespeople and car-repair shop technicians meet standard times for repairs. It will negatively affect capacity and lower capability.

If managers specialise the work, which is quite common, they increase the number of handovers, which in turn, means more fragmentation of work, increasing the number of errors, duplication and rework. Technology managers will also be asked to be hardwire specialisation into corporate systems.

If you think you should control what is said (or sold) to the customer – by mandating the use of pre-determined scripts and prompts – then both will stop the organisation from absorbing variety of customer demand, making it frustrating for customers to get what they want, and infuriating them as you try to sell them something they don’t need. Technology managers will be asked to program scripts and prompts into corporate systems to take pre-determined information from customers.

If you inspect people, then people worry about meeting the requirements for the inspection, which is not the same as serving the customer. The more inspection you add, the more waste increases. Inspection is either built into off the shelf tools or specified to be built into corporate systems.

The limited abilities of what technology can do also drives command-and-control managers to specify what should be built or configured. For example, if we question why managers believe that standards are so important, the answer is because technology does not cope well with variation. Similarly, if we question why rule-based processes and decision taking are so important, it is because rules can be coded, whereas principles can’t.

Customer Relationship Management (CRM) interferes with the relationship not builds it

To illustrate further: Let’s look at an example of a popular tool in use today, and how the above faulty thinking is manifest.

We are told that Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems enable an organisation to store customers’ details, and keep a record of previous interactions with each customer, regardless of how the customer has interacted with the organisation, for example, through phone, email, text or online. Notes for each interaction are recorded by the frontline (or automatically) and stored in the CRM system. Outbound correspondence is also recorded. The CRM system is often linked to other corporate systems, to enable the workers to see a holistic view of a customer.

It is quite common that when a customer contacts the organisation, the CRM system automatically knows who they are, as, before arrival, they would have been verified through other automated means. All data the organisation has about the customer is onscreen and at the frontline workers’ fingertips.

The underlying dilemma command-and-control managers are trying to solve, that drives them to purchase CRM systems, is ‘How do we retain customers?’. The thinking is that if we ‘know our customers and their history’ they will feel ‘loved and cared about’, and consequentially, they are more likely to stay with us. With that underpinning logic, it makes sense to record every transaction and have those records instantly available when a customer makes contact. The CRM system makes us appear like we treat each customer as an individual – after we have asked them for their account number, client id, and security questions that is!

In his article ‘How to deliver a perfect personalised service experience: The experts’ advice’, Neil Davey cites two sources who give examples of conventional wisdom:

Carolyn Blunt, founder of Real Results Training says:

“A bad customer experience could be very damaging. A good customer experience can build customer loyalty and retention. It can help your business save thousands on marketing efforts if you are retaining customers and getting positive reviews from them.”

Simon Towner, divisional director of retail at Omnico Group, adds:

“Shoppers are people and as such have a number of emotional needs. These include acknowledgement, appreciation, being cared about, being important, listened to, getting noticed and being valued. Personalisation recognises these emotional needs and differentiates your company from competitors that don’t provide such a great level of service.”

On the one hand, we have managers wanting to retain customers, on the other we have the prevailing wisdom on how to do so. It’s inevitable then that an amalgamation of the two results in technology that is either bought or built based upon the prevailing logic.

However, what is invisible to command-and-control managers, and so-called experts, is that their CRM system of record is stuffed full of failure demand interactions – progress-chasing, querying letters and forms, and so on. It might surprise you to learn that in utilities, for example, failure demand can run as high as 80 – 90 percent of all the demand into the system, in insurance companies it’s 40 – 60 percent. This all gets catalogued and recorded in the CRM system. Customer Relationship Management might be more properly called Customer Record Management.

There will be some customers who expect their service organisation to remember who they are, what they’ve bought, and give a personalised touch, others couldn’t care less; they just want what matters to them understood and delivered – quickly in and out. There will also be a mixture of customers somewhere in between the two extremes.

Command-and-control thinking leads managers having to ‘make budgets’, and workers having to ‘work to procedures’; the consequences for customers is evidenced in the bad fit between what matters to them and the way the organisation responds. What matters to customers is rarely sought, and even if customers volunteer what matters to them, it becomes lost amongst the thousands of records of failure demand held within the CRM system.

The reason customers leave is simple: different things matter to different people; if the organisation fails to deliver against those things, customers go elsewhere.

To solve the problem: ‘How do we retain customers?’ the object is to understand the nature of customer demand, its predictability, and variation and design optimal responses. Not only is this cheaper for the organisation, it also improves customer satisfaction through building the customer relationship rather than destroying it.

‘Push’ sales

The second underlying dilemma command-and-control managers believe a CRM system will solve is ‘How do we increase sales?’.

CRM stands for customer relationship management, but in truth, it has little to do with relationships and everything to do with selling.

The CRM system is used to capture information about what customers have bought. People in marketing think this will give clues as to what to promote to those customers by email, online, or when they next call.

But how often does this interfere with the relationship rather than build it?

What is invisible to command-and-control managers is the unintended consequences of customers being ‘sold to’. Paradoxically, prompting frontline workers to sell to customers, actually results in increased costs and lost revenue. When popups appear driving the frontline to sell, they pass-on customers for whom they would be unlikely to make a cross-sale or up-sale, and even avoid selling customers something they wanted if it didn’t help them make their cross-sales and up-sales targets. Worse, it increases the probability that customers will NOT be sold the things they want.

An example will illustrate: In a telecommunications organisation, when a customer contacted them, the frontline worker would enter their mobile number into the CRM system. A prompt appeared detailing the top three things that the customer would be interested in. Frontline workers were informed that the system would analyse the customers’ bill and check what would be right for the customer. Through study, what they learned was it didn’t matter what you put into the computer, or what was on their previous bills, it just told the frontline the top three things that the product managers and marketing wanted to sell.

Mis-selling led to unintended consequences, for example, repeat calls, and the reverse logistics of the customer having to return the product – each of which had a direct impact on costs and customer satisfaction. Such consequences were invisible to the command-and-control managers that specified the sales prompts for technologists to implement.

To solve the problem: ‘How do we increase sales?’ How the system is designed and managed will determine the volume of sales. The sales paradox is that by doing less ‘selling’ you allow customers to buy more from you, and you free up your people to have the capacity to deliver what people want to buy.

The fastest way to generate more sales is, often, to improve your sales flow. When you study sales flows, managers are usually astonished at how difficult it is for people to become customers – with technology institutionalising those difficulties. Conventional managers think the fastest way to improve sales is to spend money on marketing. If your customer acquisition processes make it hard for people to become customers, this just ensures more people talk about how difficult you are to deal with. Conventional managers also think the fastest way to get more customers is to incentivise the front line to sell. That always leads to fewer sales.

All we want is stuff that works

As I led with this article, It was Douglas Adams who said:

“We are stuck with technology when what we really want is just stuff that works”.

When you put all the technology together, predictably, for customers, it often just doesn’t work. To illustrate: in the article ‘IT Just works’ you can read an example of how technology hinders customers from getting what they want and puts customers off from buying. It is a common example of poor service, and increased costs, which are the inevitable outcomes when the tools based on a conventional service design are in operation.

To get the service they expect, customers have learned to work around the technology. For example, in one company, as many as 50% of the customers ringing in with an invoice enquiry abandoned their call. Customers learned to trick the IVR and speak to the customer services (sales enquiry) line instead. As many as 40% of the calls coming into the sales line were billing queries. These were all logged in the CRM system and passed onto the invoice enquiries specialists through the workflow system, taking days to get actioned.

Often the customers called again, to chase the progress of their enquiry, triggering more records to be recorded in the CRM system, and more work objects to enter the workflow system. Work objects were not identified as being related to the same enquiry (the corporate systems just saw them as more work to do), which had a doubling effect, as different specialists would pick up work objects from their queue and work on them, causing duplication of effort.

This is an example of measures of control that were getting in the way. Executives working on functional measures, bad debt, sales volume, call volumes, and time to answer calls were oblivious to the problems. Technology managers were to ask to hard code all of these measures into the corporate systems, unwittingly institutionalising the very thing that caused increased costs and poor service.

Customers work around the technology because they can ‘see’ the waste: they know how many times they need to call to get service, they are irritated by IVR systems (‘press 1 for this…’) that fail to get them to someone who can help them and hence mean they have to repeat themselves, they are infuriated by service workers who follow scripts and procedures in their corporate systems – and who say ‘my system is running slow…’ (while they lookup the next line of their script) – and the failure to be listened to or have their problem solved.

This infuriation leads to another example of working around the technology; savvy customers who tweet, or Facebook post their issues. They have learned that their service provider will address issues faster than if they were to go via the contact centre. They are right, as the service organisation will be worried about brand damage; they continually monitor Facebook and Twitter for mentions of their brand.

In his article ‘5 Social Media Hacks for Better Customer Service’ Daniel Bortz writes:

Anyone who has ever tried to navigate a voicemail menu or been stranded on hold by a customer service rep knows how maddening it can be to get help over the phone. According to an American Express survey, more than half of callers say they’ve lost their temper while on the line with a representative. That may explain why more and more people are turning to social media to vent their frustrations. In a J.D. Power survey of more than 23,000 online shoppers, 67% reported having used social media to lodge a complaint.

One of the biggest growth areas in frontline support is the ‘Social media monitoring team’. Increased social media demand should be a signal to managers, however, for a command-and-control manager, the signal is ignored. Instead, they increase resources in the team and install technology that can be used to post back (either manually or automatically) pre-written messages to ‘buy time’, ‘turn positives into negatives’, and give the appearance of listening to customers. The implication is more cost for the organisation and unhappy customers who are encouraged to take complaints ‘offline’ and end up back in the same system with their issues unresolved.

Electronic Taylorism

Managers probably exhibit more dysfunctional behaviour in their attempts to manage people than in any other activity. Command-and-control managers assume their people to be ‘the problem’. It is natural, therefore, for them to seek technology-based ‘people solutions’.

In their article titled ‘Robots have already taken over our work, but they’re made of flesh and bone’, published in the Guardian,  Brett Frischmann and Evan Selinger state:

“The modern, digital version of Taylorism is more powerful than he could have ever imagined, and more dehumanising than his early critics could have predicted.

…Technological innovations have made it increasingly easy for managers to quickly and cheaply collect, process, evaluate and act upon massive amounts of information.”

To illustrate their point: Monitoring employees is on the rise. Technology sits in the background recording what people are doing. For office-based workers technology tracks, for example, if are they doing their work within the specified times, how much time are they spending surfing the web or on social media, how many emails or instant messaging chats are they sending, and how much work they did that day. For field service workers, the technology tracks, for example, how long they took to get to a job, how long they spent on a job, how long they spent on their breaks, and how many jobs they do per day.

Paradoxically, several of the largest institutions in Australia who are ‘going agile’ as means of moving from command-and-control are deploying such monitoring technology at the same time.

Brett Frischmann and Evan Selinger warn:

“When the guiding assumption of management is that employees won’t be productive unless forced to be by constant observation, it engineers low morale and pushes people to act like resources that need to be micromanaged. Too often, we become what we’re expected to be.”

Technology makes it systematically hard for employees to improve the work, because how they work has been specified and inputted into a computer. For employees of an organisation, this technology drives the dysfunctional behaviour that infuriates customers and lowers their morale.

Rewarded for adherence to command-and-control logic

What’s disturbing is that despite their customer’s infuriation, and declining staff morale, organisations continue to win awards for excellence in service. Award-winning plaques adorn the walls and trophies sit in the boardroom. Why the disconnect?

You only have to dig a bit deeper to reveal the answer. The criteria for the awards are based on adherence to command-and-control logic.

To illustrate: Let’s look at a sample of attributes listed in the ‘International Customer Service Standard (ICSS) 2014 – 2017’ that are commonly used as judging criteria:

  • The enterprise has strategies and processes for managing customer loyalty and retention.
  • The enterprise maintains contact with customers through a regular communication process.
  • The enterprise ensures accurate and timely information is maintained about each customer transaction and relationship through the use of knowledge and technology assets.
  • The enterprise has a practice of monitoring and responding to social media environments.
  • The enterprise utilizes technology to enhance customer transactions for existing and potential customers.

Each of the above act as reinforcing loops for command-and-control thinking.

Nowhere in the criteria is it specified that award judges sit on the phones to see if the organisation understands what matters to its customers, or its ability to meet what matters to customers there and then. They don’t look to see how much failure demand is entering the organisation, or what is contributing to the failure demand. They don’t judge how well the work flows through the organisation and what activity directly delivers purpose from the customers’ point of view. They don’t see if managers take decisions based on measures that are derived from the work that demonstrates capability and variation. They don’t ask for evidence that managers have designed a system that allows customers to pull value from it, or if managers are working within the work, enabling the system by removing ‘system conditions’ and building capability in the frontline.

The same is true for regulators, who exhibit the same, dysfunctional, command-and-control thinking; they too need to re-think their theories of control. Their assessments are another reinforcing loop.

The central error is that both make the same mistake of specifying measures and methods; this can only result in inhibiting innovation and breeding a culture of compliance to command-and-control.

How to do the work is the superordinate paradigm to change

Problems such as losing customers, decreasing sales, poor morale, increased costs, and brand damage have their roots in traditional managerial assumptions. Spending vast sums of money on technology will not solve these problems; it is more likely to institutionalise and, hence, exacerbate them.

Today’s faulty thinking about technology in service organisations is rooted in a dim view of human nature and an over-optimistic view of automation. Command-and-control managers typically think of staff as ‘resources’ and automation as a means of reducing costs by replacing people with machines and getting customers to do more of the work. Their expression of command-and-control thinking is provided by technology.

Technology leaders, and in turn, their teams of technologists, have therefore become the unwitting instrument and enabler of command-and-control management. Wrapping ‘Agile’, ‘Lean’, ‘Lean-Startup’, ‘Design Thinking’ and their kin around faulty command-and-control logic can only result in technologists doing the wrong technology faster.

Through not addressing the fundamental issues, problems will go unsolved, and so many technology failures, write-downs and lack of success will continue.

How to do the work is the superordinate paradigm to change. If an organisation wants to untether improvement in service and reduction in costs, managers need to know what to do about the work.

Part of the problem is that the tool vendors don’t talk about work, how to do work, how to understand work, how to learn from it and how to improve it. Instead, they focus on ‘features’ as ‘benefits’. The technology industry is continually re-inventing itself, the major players move from promoting features of one tool to the next. Are these ‘solutions’ designed to improve your organisation or is their purpose just selling more products?

Managers operate on a misguided assumption on how much work is being done. For example, managers can tell you where all the work objects are, how much is being done by everybody, how much work is coming in, going out, and in backlog. A command-and-control manager’s dream which tool vendors sell into.

While technology appears to improve performance (because of the conventional measures in use giving the illusion of better performance), the underlying norms and practices relative to doing work are not articulated or challenged, and it is these that maintain sub-optimal business performance. Managers have been sold a dream that is, in fact, a nightmare.

Problems occur because, on the one hand, the tools are not actually dealing with what’s wrong with the system – they just reinforce it, and on the other hand, technology leaders are inhibited from contributing precisely because of the system (the way their work is defined, the way measures are used, the way functions, processes and roles are designed). These ‘system conditions’ are the way they are because of command-and-control managerial thinking.

This leads to the question; how do we change it? People don’t give up their traditional ways of working unless two conditions are satisfied: They see how current methods produce sub-optimal results (customer dissatisfaction, inefficiency, lost opportunity, increased cost), and they feel confident about doing things differently – they can see how a different approach will benefit the organisation and its customers. The first condition relies on understanding the organisation as a system which, in turn, leads to good decisions about what to do differently.

Technology that adds value to the work and to customers

The extent that technology is a benefit depends on how it helps or hinders the way work flows and helps deliver what matters to customers.

Customers are fed up. They see how technology is disabling their service organisations in delivering what matters to them. Equally, people who work within a service organisation are less motivated when they work in systems where they feel ‘controlled’ by technology.

To create better lives for customers, and for the people who work in organisations, technologists, and their managers, need to be liberated from faulty command-and-control thinking. Doing so will enable them to create technology that adds value for customers and those that serve them.

People who work within organisations will become more motivated through working in systems over which they have more control. Technologists and their managers will deliver technology that helps, not hinders – and will be lauded for it. Customers will flock to the organisation as the variation of what matters to them is simply understood and delivered.


In my next article, I address one more remaining unintended consequence of command-and-control technology-led change; the ‘Digital Cost Trap’.

If you would prefer not to wait for answers, senior leaders who have crossed a Rubicon, completely re-thinking their ideas about management, who have liberated technology, and built a generative service organisation that produces extraordinary results will each be talking at our upcoming Progressive Leaders Summit at the Melbourne Arts Centre on the 2nd November.

Further articles in this series:


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