The siren song of technology.

My friend Kyle works at an insurance adjuster that’s the corporate equivalent of Andy Griffith’s Mayberry, RFD. According to Kyle, everyone is just so nice to each other that they can hardly get any work done. Every birthday, anniversary, child’s graduation, promotion, deal closing, hand-knit scarf, and new haircut gets noticed and praised. Usually through a blast email that everyone in the company receives. The company is awash in messages providing feedback, coaching, and thank-yous, and Kyle says it’s a small miracle anyone can find important customer communication amidst the deluge.

The CEO is very proud of the tight-knit culture he’s created, but recently he noticed the downside: people were spending inordinate amounts of time reading and writing emails of questionable utility, while responsiveness to internal and external customers declined. So he bought and installed Rypple, a “social performance platform built for teams to share goals, recognize great work, and help each other improve” (according to their website). Surely, he thought, this would keep people from spending so much time on email. And it did. People’s email usage plummeted.

Unfortunately, they put all that time into communicating via the Rypple interface, so there was no improvement in customer service.

The CEO fell into one of the oldest traps in the book: he assumed that technology would be a panacea for his problems. Just slap some fancy hardware or software on the problem, and it will go away. But as Kevin Meyer & Bill Waddell have noted many times before, and as Mark Graban pointed out recently, automation is seldom the answer. Add technology to a broken process and all you get is a faster and more expensive broken process.

In the case of Kyle’s company, the culture valued and promoted that kind of close interaction. In fact, the quantity of “Attaboy! Nice job!” emails was part of the annual performance review! It’s no wonder that installing Rypple had zero effect on time spent e-schmoozing.

Kyle has gotten permission to disable Rypple for his team of adjusters, and now he’s trying to revamp the criteria used in performance evaluations. He’s not trying to turn the company into a Dickensian sweatshop, but he is trying to get the underlying process right — in this case, the measures used to track real performance as valued by the customer.

Next time you consider buying a fancy new toy, remember: buying software for your process problem is like buying a bigger pair of pants for your weight problem.

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