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The Ghost in the Machine
Uses and Limitations of Technology in Decision-Making
Have you heard the one about the consultant who showed up at a company to do a presentation on security only to have his laptop confiscated at the door — for security reasons?
That’s a real-world example illustrating a growing tendency in the computer age: People taking technology—usually computer technology—so much for granted that they don’t think through the ramifications of its use. Terri Griffith, professor of management, uses it to make a point.
“The pervasiveness of technology and computers means we have to change our approach to decision-making,” she says. “We have to be more thoughtful and know what the checklist is; normal people, in a sense, have to be accidental systems designers.”
Griffith, Gregory B. Northcraft and Mark A. Fuller have written a chapter on technology issues for the recently published Oxford Handbook of Organizational Decision Making. The chapter is titled “Borgs in the Org? Organizational Decision Making and Technology.”
Not so long ago it was more difficult to take computers for granted. They were large and stationary, and executives often couldn’t access the technology themselves because they didn’t know how to type. Now that the technology is at everyone’s fingertips, a whole new set of issues has arisen, some of which Griffith and her colleagues discuss in the chapter.
For example, there’s the whole question of when decisions can effectively be technologically automated — say, having the computer track inventory and decide when to reorder. Setting up such a process requires a great deal of care and consideration in order to determine which decisions are routine and well structured (and can thus be easily automated) as opposed to those that have “quality dimensions” requiring human intervention and evaluation.
Another issue has to do with the sheer volume of information that can be called up immediately. “Thanks to technology,” Griffith and her colleagues write, “our ability to collect data far exceeds our ability to make sense of it.”
If someone is looking for the best price on golf clubs and types “golf clubs” into a search engine, the search could easily generate tens of millions of hits. That, in turn, requires the searcher to design a system for sorting the information in a feasible manner. A perfect decision is impossible, and even a good one requires a thoughtful, systematic use of the technology.
Because of these invisible building blocks and structures inherent in technology, Griffith and her co-authors write, “There is always a ghost in the machine, and woe to the decision-maker who fails to bear that limitation in mind.”
The book is aimed more at an academic audience than at business managers, but Griffith hopes the material from her chapter and others will find its way into practical application. She says that addressing the issues through the medium of a book chapter, as opposed to a formal research paper, provided an opportunity to reflect more deeply, play with ideas and suggest tools, tips and tricks for using technology wisely.
“If I had to cite one thing I’d hope people get from this chapter,” she says, “it would be Stop. Look. Listen. Stop and assess the opportunities for technology use. Look carefully at the current scenario and what you need to do. And listen to the feedback you’re getting.”
Terri Griffith’s blog on technology and organizations can be read at www.TerriGriffith.com/blog