Friday, April 24, 2009

The hard stuff is easy, the soft stuff is hard.

Technology, of whatever type, is a tool and that is all. Outside of enjoying a tool purely for its own sake (tool-o-phile?) there is no value to a tool except what you do with it. You don't buy a drill, you buy holes. A shovel might represent a crystallization of effort with a forged head and carefully turned handle, but it is just a shovel. Until someone picks it up and digs a hole with it there is nothing to see, move along.

"High" technology needs to be viewed the same way. It can become VERY complex and challenging to understand, but ultimately it is just a tool. A database without data in it is an empty shell. Even when full of data it means nothing until you DO something with it. Transform the pieces of data into information that you can use to make decisions. Again, the technology by itself is nothing. It takes people to use it to get value from it.

Technology is for most people the "hard" stuff. People skills like communication and collaboration are considered "soft" skills. Depending upon your personality type you might gravitate towards one or the other. In the end, though, the effectiveness of whatever your enterprise is will rest upon the behavior of the people using the technology. In most cases the hard stuff will come with a default setup that works in most cases, and if it doesn't you can find someone who can make it work for your situation. Really, in the grand scheme of things, that was the easy part.

The "soft stuff" is where the real challenge lies. Many technology people consider the soft stuff relatively worthless as it does not improve the speed of their hardware or software. It does not help directly with their up-time. It does not give them more disk space to store data. Very often they will gloss over the people-oriented items or leave them to others.

This is a mistake.

If you don't take into account who is going to be using your system you will fail. The end users of the system are most often not technologists. They are people who want to use a tool to get their job done. They want to get in the car, push the gas pedal and drive somewhere. They don't want to have to know any detail whatsoever about how the engine works, how the linkages between the control systems ensure that the vehicle goes in the correct direction, etc.

Gas, go, done, next.

You can build the most technically elegant system in the world but if you don't take into account the people who are going to use it you are dooming your efforts. This is true for systems that are internal to companies, or external to be sold to others. You can mandate usage internally (you WILL use the new system) but it will never be accepted and unless you have a monopoly you have no hope externally.

If you find yourself looking at a technology decision be sure to take into account the soft stuff. Who is going to use it? What are they going to do with it? What is the LEAST that you can do to make the system work? Systems do not exist for their own sake. They exist to serve people in some way. Keep that foremost in your mind and the decisions about what to do should be clearer.

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