Saturday, April 10, 2010
The problem may be that we don't even realize that there is a problem
Posted by James BonTempo at 3:30 PM
It happened again. Yesterday I was on a phone call, pitching an ICT idea, when someone said it: "This sounds like a solution in search of a problem." If I had a nickel for every time I heard that...
What made it particularly difficult to stomach this time was that my proposal was based on a very specific problem that was shared with me by a member of our executive management team who also happens to be a globally-respected leader in his field. And the solution was actually something that the two of us came up with together and through a conversation. In many ways, it is a great example of how simple and effective solutions can be discovered when a challenge is approached from different perspectives and areas of expertise.
But this morning I had a bit of an epiphany.
Lately, I have been in the habit of mentioning the "transformative affordances of technology" when talking with my colleagues and coworkers. I'm usually referring to potential new ways of doing our work, in ways that we can't even imagine (Rumsfeld's "unknown unknowns"?), that could be realized through the application and integration of ICT. But while it may be true -- while these new ways of working may be right around the corner (or even right in front of our faces!) -- just even thinking about these unknowns and trying to imagine what they might be can be quite a challenge.
But there are obvious and immediate ways that we can transform our work today, right here and now. They're related to the More, Better, Faster, Cheaper framework I wrote about earlier. But they require us to admit that we could do things better. Here are a few simple, concrete examples...
More - Implementing a social and behavior change communication project? Thinking about printing up a bunch of flyers? With mobile phone penetration rates skyrocketing around the world, an SMS-based campaign will allow your message to reach millions of more people.
Better - Training people? Bringing them all to a central location for a group-based workshop? A recent US DoE report on online learning shows that blending online with face-to-face instruction leads to better educational outcomes than doing either alone (and purely online is better than face-to-face).
Faster - Collecting data for monitoring and evaluation purposes? Does it take months just to receive the data & even more time to aggregate and analyze it? With a netbook or smartphone & data connectivity, or even a basic phone & SMS, you can get data in real-time from widely distributed sites and dump it directly into an application that produces rich visualizations.
Cheaper - Are you involved in quality improvement? Are you sending technical experts all over the place to make in-person site visits? If you changed half of those visits to phone calls -- and maybe even exchanged some regular SMS or MMS messages -- you could cut thousands of dollars from your budget.
And just to throw in a few extra elements I've been thinking about...
Easier - Are you involved in providing services that require stepping through algorithms and/or doing calculations (like antiretroviral therapy)? Applications can be written for a computer, netbook, smartphone or even a mid-level feature phone running Java that can lead providers through complex, branching algorithms and perform calculations in microseconds, literally at the click of a button.
Fun - Are you working with youth or young adults and education? Video games and simulations are an easy way to make learning more fun and engaging. And it has been shown that learning is improved if students are engaged in the process.
In the end, my point is that the problems to which ICT can be a solution do not have to be those obvious things which are clearly barriers to getting work done. The problems may simply be the way we've always gone about doing things. And if we don't even allow ourselves to think about how we might improve upon our work, if we're not willing to challenge our established beliefs and "slay the sacred cow," we may be missing out on major opportunities. The problem may be that we don't even realize that there is a problem.