Thursday, April 2, 2009

Why do I feel exhausted? - The change in the professional environment caused by technological change

I feel exhausted at the workplace and it is not the economic crisis that causes it. Universities in Europe are, at least for now, not greatly affected. Others I know feel the same – more the more they use computer in their work environment.

We all use the web for a large part of the daily transactions: banking, reserving airline tickets, dealing with purchase orders, billing and accounting, travel expenses etc. It is more convenient, as we can do ourselves what we had to go through staff and ask for assistance. A few clicks and the airline seat is reserved, the bill is paid – all done!

Is it really that easy? In theory: yes, but in practice many obstacles may be encountered on the way to perfect paperless web administration:

  • I do not remember the web address of the service I have to use, forgot my user name or password,

  • I do not understand the terminology used on the web form and there is nobody to help me with it,

  • the conventions for entering data are not the ones I am used to (e.g. 1.10 vs. 1,10)

  • I made an error and can correct only with starting all over or, worse, not at all,

  • I get interrupted and when I come back I do not see what is already done and what not; often I have to start from the beginning again.

The real problems start, if a case does not properly fit in the foreseen structure or an error is committed and must be corrected. Then I call a hot line, send email and explain the case and much time is lost before a solution is found – if ever.

I feel exhausted because the many small and easy tasks I plan to do are not completed at the end of the day. I leave some for tomorrow, and I expect tomorrow not to finish what tomorrow brings in in new tasks. The tasks should all be simple and quick, in practice the obstacles mentioned above drag many of them out to consume much more time than planned.

What was different before? I had the luxury to have worked with several wonderful personal assistants, who took care of a large part of the tasks of my job as manager in a research center and later as head of an university institute. Having an assistant allows to divide the tasks into those which require technical or scientific knowledge and those which require administrative knowledge. I could delegate the administrative tasks to a human being whom understood the my intentions and our environment and dealt with the obstacles intelligently. Now I have to cope with an artificially intelligent computer.

Even without the assistance, paper forms where easier: Filling in a paper form allowed more flexibility, was resilient to interruptions and allowed easy corrections. It is true that sometimes phone calls were necessary to understand the forms – either by myself or the assistant – but based on my observations more phone calls are (or would be) necessary with web forms.

The analysis indicates that the feeling of exhaustion is caused by the conflict between the expectation that all is “easy and quick” and the experience that I cannot do it as easily, as quickly and as effortlessly as I am told all others can. I feel dumb and inadequate. But when I ask others, then I see them suffer from mostly the same feelings – web forms do not work in most cases for most people who are not using the same form often. The management consultants who advocate the changes from paper to web forms must realize that they offload work from central administration to the users in a degree which is detrimental for the motivation of the people and detracts them from their productive tasks to learning how to cope with the ever changing web forms.

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