You might think ‘webstress’ is a formal job role title for a female spider: if you have a lousy broadband connection (this morning’s news in the UK indicated you might well), you might not be able to get to Google or Wikipedia to check, so let me reassure you it isn’t – it’s another hurdle in our working lives for us to hop or jump over: the ‘skip’ option in this instance, however, may take a few seconds longer or compel to watch a little movie for the three thousandth time first. And a new survey indicates it’s high time HR had a firm word with IT too.

Sci-fi writer Arthur C Clarke once commented that:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Sadly he was writing in 1961, and he might nowadays come to the conclusion that our technology isn’t sufficiently advanced – or that the magic has gone out of it. The problem with the Web for most of us in our working lives might not be the problem you might first guess at – that we waste time looking at inappropriate things or its infinite ‘riches’ are a monstrous diversion. The problem is that it’s intrinsic to the working lives of the vast majority of us – we are, as Ben Christophers once sang, “caught like butterflies in sellotape” – and all too often the applications we use over it are slow, unreliable or just plain broken.

A few sample statistics from the full report (PDF file) highlight the extent of the problem:

  • 97% of workers wouldn’t be able to do their job without web applications.
  • 81% say they have no choice but to use some business applications even when they aren’t working properly
  • 78% cite lost productivity as the biggest impact of badly/slowly performing work applications
  • 69% report that poor internal IT negatively affects their view of their employer

Researching around the survey highlighted another issue respondents reported too: 85% of respondents say that quick and easy-to-find information affects their satisfaction levels from an online engagement. Very true: searching for the European Commission report Guidance on work-related stress Spice of life or kiss of death?, Google pointed me to the International Stress Management Association UK website, which told me that the page was not found. A few seconds (mercifully only a few seconds later), their site also informed me “Our search facility is currently offline, but will be made active again very soon.” And neither their Top Ten Stress Busting Tips or FAQs seemed to notice that web applications can cause stress. (The booklet is available here in English as a PDF, if you’re not now too stressed to read it.)

The survey was conducted with a sample group of 200 employees in each of five European countries – France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK. Bravely under the circumstances, it was also conducted online: CA Group’s commitment to web-based application delivery is admirable. And – although we are not as impatient with non-performing applications as the French or Italians – the British seem to be getting the worst deal and have (no doubt as a consequence) the least faith: Italians are five times as likely to expect a resolution to a problem with 10 mins.

Of the five countries surveyed, we are the mostly likely to miss deadlines as a result of IT issues, most likely to identify them as a cause of lost productivity, and the most likely to be angered or frustrated. We are also – as Management Today noticed – the most likely to consider leaving our current employer because of inadequate IT systems. (As a friend once commented to me: “I keep pressing the Home key, and I’ll still ******* here”.)

So how did underperforming IT get to ‘wag the dog’ so woefully, and how did so many companies implement systems that not only aren’t doing their job, but are getting in the way of the rest of the company doing theirs? My own experience suggested a rather gloomy reason. I used to work in educational management, in the registry of one of the UK’s largest universities. (I won’t name them, as they don’t deserve to be singled out: indeed they had the good sense to complain when they calculated that the leg- and IT-work involved in making one complex response in order to bid for research funding cost more than the money they were awarded from the exercise – and they would have been fined for not taking part. You lose some, you lose some …).

Any IT system is a tool, and should be there to make otherwise impossible tasks plausible or to increase the productivity of the workforce. Many years ago, I leading a team charged with automating a university’s admissions process. I surprised the central clearing house for university admissions – whose central system each university’s system must exchange data with on a daily basis – by seeking their advice on the best-performing solutions. No-one, it seems, had done that before.

Visiting each potential supplier in turn, we also surprised them by having ‘ease of use and familiarity of interface’ as our top criteria in the selection process – but if admissions tutors (the academics responsible for making offers of places to prospective students) can’t operate a new system faster than they could continue to work on paper, there is no benefit to a six-figure outlay.

Even then, there was no training budget. Armed with desktop publishing software and a photocopier, we overcame that problem by producing paper-based open learning materials – but we had already chosen an online system whose interface was deliberately modelled on the paper-based forms they would already be familiar with. (A few weeks later, the university implemented a new finance system with no prior staff training and found itself even able to issue invoices for a few weeks: sometimes, people will insist on learning the hard – and expensive way).

But learning is surely the real issue here. The survey certainly looks like we haven’t learned to take system users seriously in developing and testing systems and their interfaces, nor to evaluate the bottom-line cost of introducing new systems into the workplace. Here’s Alexander Kjerulf of The Chief Happiness Officer blog:

[today] … companies are demanding ever higher levels of productivity, efficiency and customer service from their people. If companies demand this but don’t give employees the well-functioning tools they need to deliver, the result is unhappiness at work.

And of course, when employees are unhappy at work, the results are:

  • Lower productivity
  • Higher absenteeism
  • Higher employee turnover
  • Lower customer satisfaction
  • Lower profits

These factors taken together can cost organizations huge sums of money.”

I may be using a computer to write a blog that will live on a second computer for you to read on a third one (although the CA Survey indicates you’ve likely clicked away by now …), but I still believe a little scepticism is healthy. In which spirit, here’s an extract from Peter Drucker being interviewed in Wired magazine back in 1996:

 Drucker: Will you people at Wired please accept the fact that the computer industry, as an industry, hasn’t made a dime?  

Wired: Hasn’t made a dime?

Drucker: There was a time when IBM had wonderful profits. IBM earned enough money, but no more money than the rest of the industry lost. Every year since then the industry as a whole did not make a dime. Intel and Microsoft make money, but look at all the people who are losing money all the world over. It is doubtful that the industry has yet broken even.

Now it looks like it’s doing its best – even in current conditions – to make sure the rest of us don’t. HR, training, learning and development professionals should be up in arms – especially given the web-based and vitally important nature of online learning and knowledge management applications. It would be lovely to be wrong here, but it does look as if HR are letting IT get away with (metaphorical) murder here when they could be working with them to ensure that they were playing their part in making learning last, rather than simply putting it last.

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