As I listen to pitches from entrepreneurs looking for investors or advice on expansion, I am often amazed at how many seem to believe that technology is what’s holding their companies back. “We would love to get into that market, but we don’t have the systems to support it yet” is a common refrain. As is, “Our profits took a hit last year after a series of system problems,” which has become the great catchall excuse for just about anything that goes awry. Have you ever been told by a customer service representative, “I’m so sorry. I’d love to help, but the database doesn’t let me do that?” Such inflexibility signals a company’s underlying weakness: an inability to change quickly when disaster strikes. The best businesses maintain a healthy balance, adapting their technologies to the chief executive officer’s vision for the company. Your information technology systems should work for you, not the other way around. I was thinking about this recently when reading a book by one of my favourite authors, Erik Larson, who has an incredible knack for writing about historical events. While he’s probably best known for The Devil in the White City, my favourite is Isaac’s Storm.
It is the true story of Isaac Cline, a dedicated employee of the US Weather Bureau, and his experience of the hurricane that struck Galveston, Texas, in 1900—one of the deadliest natural disasters of all time in the United States. The city was almost wiped off the map by winds of up to 120 miles per hour and a 15-foot storm surge; more than 5,000 people were killed.
Larson explains that although Weather Bureau employees had only relatively primitive techniques at their disposal, they did a pretty good job of tracking this monster storm. Ultimately, however, the hurricane made a sudden, unexpected turn and slammed into low-lying Galveston, with devastating consequences. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, the storm demonstrated mankind’s continuing powerlessness against nature’s fury. The sophisticated storm-tracking devices developed over the century between the two hurricanes made little difference when Katrina made an almost identical surprise turn, striking a few hundred miles east of Galveston. More than 1,800 people were killed.
Post-Katrina New Orleans
During Katrina’s chaotic aftermath, as the levees broke, New Orleans flooded, and people tried to evacuate the city, rescue and recovery efforts were hindered by a lack of supplies and co-ordination, exposing a huge gap in local and federal authorities’ abilities to plan for and cope with a large-scale disaster. Some areas of New Orleans still haven’t recovered, and some residents simply never moved back. Such unpreparedness and inability to adapt may have been due in part to a false sense of security generated by our advanced technologies. But technology fails, too—as we have been reminded this month, which marks the hundredth anniversary of a purportedly unsinkable ship’s tragic sinking. Embarking on its maiden voyage in 1912, the RMS Titanic relied on lookouts in crows’ nests to see what lay ahead. It was one of a few ships to have the new Marconi radio system installed, but the crew’s ability to communicate with other ships was still negligible. Some analysts believe that had the Titanic been equipped with contemporary radar and satellite navigation systems, it wouldn’t have collided with an iceberg, and more than 1,500 lives would have been spared. It’s an interesting thought—but then how does one explain the recent disaster that befell the cruise ship Costa Concordia? A century after the sinking of the Titanic, the Costa Concordia also foundered. The ship was steered onto a rock in calm seas while the captain enjoyed dinner with his guests. At least 32 passengers died. What I find intriguing about these pairs of disasters—the hurricanes and the shipwrecks—is that, in both cases, technological advances over the intervening century seem to have done little to improve matters. In Costa Concordia’s case, old-fashioned human error, or sheer neglect, caused a tragic blunder.
IT and the Titanic
When you are running a business, things will go wrong all the time, and even the best information technology and communications systems can compound problems. Had the Titanic been equipped with the same navigational aids that were aboard the Costa Concordia, and suffered a temporary glitch, the ship might still have plowed into that iceberg. Paradoxically, had the Costa Concordia been forced to rely on a couple of sailors with binoculars sitting at a masthead, it might well have avoided that lethal rock. When preparing for “what if” scenarios, it is more important to make sure you’ve got the right people in place, and they are on alert to contingencies and keeping watch, than investing in the latest technology. No matter how sophisticated your IT systems might be, keep in mind that they are just tools, and can and should be adaptable as a situation changes. Whether a front-line employee is helping a customer or an executive is pushing through changes to a product, human judgment and leadership should take precedence. Trust your people, not your tech. And at risk of sounding like a Luddite, don’t let any chief information officer tell you otherwise!
Richard Branson is the founder of the Virgin Group and companies such as Virgin Atlantic, Virgin America, Virgin Mobile and Virgin Active. He maintains a blog at www.virgin.com /richard-branson/blog. You can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/richardbranson.
Questions from readers will be answered in future columns. RichardBranson @nytimes.com.
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