12 July 2014

Planes, cars and drivers

I fly a fair bit. Usually economy. But for a recent trip to China I thought that I'd inquire about an upgrade to business class. Maybe I could spend some of my air miles. So on the day of departure at the airport I went to the ticketing office and asked the apparently simple question "Are there any business class seats available and what would it cost me?" The rest of this story hinges around the word "apparently"...

The very attentive lady who helped me kept apologizing for the time it was taking her to give me an answer. "What's the problem?" I asked sympathetically. "Well," she said, "it takes a lot longer with our new system. The system is quite beautiful but it you just can't use it. It used to take us about five minutes but now it takes five times as long". She was juggling with information on the screen and a stack of printouts on her desk, because it was difficult to find the information in the system. We got there in the end and it took half an hour - partly due to her having to call somebody because it was the last seat and she needed human confirmation that it was still available. Surprised by the time it took and the inefficiency, I asked whether this was a common transaction. She said that they do it multiple times a day.

The University of Twente in the Netherlands conducted research into productivity losses due to IT issues and discovered that 6% to 10% productivity loss is caused by IT problems, almost half of which is due to ineffective or inefficient use of the systems. Was the productivity loss in this case caused by lack of functionality for this task or did the ticketing agent simply not know how to use it? We will probably never know.

I speak a lot at IT conferences and share this story to illustrate how IT departments are often oblivious of what happens on the shop floor. And how little effort is spent on ensuring that users actually realize the the systems' potential value. To use a transport analogy, if the IT department is in the business of building and supplying cars, who is helping the drivers to get to the right destination?