It is my sad duty to report that technology–the delightfully multifaceted entity that I and so many others have come to revere over the past 20 years or so–may have fallen victim to the Peter Principle.
The concept of the Peter Principle was introduced some years ago by Canadian sociologist Dr. Laurence Johnston Peter in his book of the same title. According to Merriam Webster’s College Dictionary, the term refers to the observation that in a hierarchical work environment, employees tend to rise to the level of their incompetence. Now, incredibly, technology–in its service to humankind–also seems to be topping out in its ability to make life more productive for us.
Before you ask, no, I have not ingested any mind-altering substances before writing this, nor have I been paid off by the secret cabal of Luddites who even today seek to return us to the Dark Ages. Actually, these thoughts came to me as I listened to Daniel Burrus, a speaker at the recent ASCnet annual conference. Burrus, you should know, is not your ordinary motivational cheerleader. He is one of the world’s leading technology forecasters and business strategists, and the author of 6 books. Over the past 2 decades, he has established a worldwide reputation for accurately predicting technology-driven trends and their direct impact on the world of business–at least according to his website.
Once we said, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” but Burrus contends that in today’s breakneck-speed tech environment, the mantra could be, “If it works, it’s obsolete.” As a result, the tendency is to rush headlong into new technologies without regard to how well the old technologies are doing the job. “We haven’t exploited what we’ve already paid for,” says Burrus.
According to Carl Abrams, Financial Services Sector executive at IBM Research, Hawthorne, N.Y., “We have more computational power than we know how to apply. We’re just learning how to do it.”
As an example of the tremendous impact of technology today, Burrus cites the idea that new technology allows hospital critical care nurses to reduce their time on the phone with patients’ families from 4 hours a week to just 45 minutes. But is that a good thing?
My wife works as a nurse practitioner on a stroke team that treats many critical patients. From what she tells me, the time she spends with the relatives of such patients is a crucial aspect–both practically and emotionally–of the care her unit provides. Reducing that time deprives patients of a key component of that care, and reduces families to the status of nuisance. Technology is only useful if it provides more time for helping families heal along with patients.
“Technology change will accelerate,” says Burrus, “but remember, it’s a human world.”
Precisely. The truth is that in many cases, technology is outpacing our ability to use it, our desire to use it, and often our need to use it. Think, for example, of the predictions by pundits such as myself that offices in the 21st century would be completely paperless. Certainly, we now have the ability to use less paper, and a few offices are close to paperless, yet overall we continue to use more paper than ever. Why? Because as humans, we tend to like and trust something we can touch and handle more than something as ethereal and fragile as electronic data. Because we don’t trust all of our critical information to electronic media, technology has in essence reached the limit of its ability to serve us on that score, and only we can decide when and if that limit should expand.
So here is where I must sing the praises of the insurance industry’s use of technology. We definitely do not rush in and adopt new technology for technology’s sake. In fact, it’s likely we don’t even know about new technology until some years after it has been introduced elsewhere–and even then, we are stubbornly consistent about getting the most value out of our old technology before we start ripping and replacing systems. Like it or not, that is a good thing.
Some (including myself at times) may decry the plodding pace of technology adoption in our industry, but there is definitely something to be said for the slow and studied approach versus the idea that a company or agency must have the latest technology now, and at any cost.
Make no mistake: Technology is cool and fun and, ultimately, very useful. Its utility ends, however, where human needs decide it will end. We will undoubtedly find ways to use the tremendous computing power that has developed over the past several years, and the good news is that, at least in this industry, those uses will have been thoughtfully applied.