Friday, January 25, 2013

Local solutions are only part of the answer

Ken Banks has a great write up in the Stanford Social Innovation Review on the most recent Mobile for Good Conference. In it he talks about the tendency of Western development to throw technological solutions at problems in the developing world without knowing the environment. This isn’t only a problem of development organizations. Most Fortune 500 businesses have had very expensive failures where a technology solution was applied to solve a problem without first considering the real problems stakeholders face. 

What if we got the Microsoft "blue screen" every
 time we mis-designed a tech solution for development?
Banks points out that in Africa, local talent is emerging that can finally take ownership of problems that used to be the focus of Western practitioners because that talent did not previously exist in the local populations. He argues that “…the ICT4D community—educational establishments, donors, and technologists, among them—need to collectively recognize that it needs to adjust to this new reality, and work with technologists, entrepreneurs, and grassroots nonprofits across the developing world to accelerate what has become an inevitable shift,”  or it will become irrelevant. It is a well-argued and urgent call to action. And it will move these organzations closer to those they are supposed to serve—the customer, or stakeholder.

Throwing technology at an issue is nothing new. It’s as common in boardrooms in Silicon Valley as it is in schools along the Rwandan border. I don’t have to explain this, because we have all experienced it: all of the big business examples Banks mentions in his article (Google, IBM, Microsoft, Nokia, Hewlett Packard, and Samsung--all technology design leaders in their own right) have been either victims of this mistake, or implementers who cost their clients sometimes $ millions because they did not adequately consider all the environmental factors that their customers would experience.   

Some of this is due to project mismanagement, but it often comes down to customer experience. Massive CRM systems and data warehouses are built only to find out that users don’t understand them, and instead develop workarounds so they don’t have to use them. Products that look great on paper do not take into consideration the the end user and how the end user will use it, and lose market share as a result. There are Harvard cases studies devoted to training business leaders on the perils of the technology trap, that they still fall into upon graduation from top schools.

This is not an issue that will be solved through education of local talent on how to develop local applications; it will be solved by focusing on the user experience with the application, and the larger customer experience that sets the customer up for using the application the way it was intended. The application was developed with the application in mind, not with complete understanding of the problem to be solved. That understanding comes from integrating your stakeholders in the design and implementation process, focusing beyond your technological solution to how your intended beneficiaries will use and receive the solution, and then holding your organization accountable to those stakeholders for results.  

Customer experience as a practice is gaining acceptance around the world because corporations are learning they cannot assume that they know what is best for their customers.  Locally empowered and educated technologists are a key part of the equation for applying technology to development problems, and they are making great inroads in solving issues that Western ICT4D organizations have not addressed. But even those technologists often come from a different perspective than the people most affected by the problems they are trying to solve. If they are learning inside of a new stakeholder-focused reality though, they are sure to succeed. 

This is not an ICT4D issue: it is an issue for anyone trying to solve a problem with a technological solution. Until we can stop looking at technology as the way to solve an issue, and instead start with the problem itself that is attacked in partnership with the stakeholders who will benefit, even local home-grown solutions won’t result in a win for all. Overall experience design needs to be included in this argument, otherwise the strong call to action will be misdirected and will not succeed. 

No comments:

Post a Comment