Could less technology improve problem solving?

Hands-on in a high-tech world

As we hurtle into a vast range of future worlds, each with their own number (5G, Web 3.0, Industry 4.0 etc) the past seems to retreat further behind at an increasing pace. Cloud based, remote access systems; chatbots; and self-service everything make life quicker, more convenient and in many cases more accessible. But these technologies can put a layer between us and our fellow humans. We’re less connected with the problems we’re trying to solve – they seem less real and more virtual reality. So how do we embrace the benefits of high-tech advances whilst remaining hands-on?

New ways to collaborate

I read an article recently about the vast range of emerging technologies available now to support root-cause problem solving. One of these technologies was interactive whiteboards.

Now I haven’t seen one of these yet. But I was immediately transported back to 1987 and to the office I worked in in Edmonton, Canada, where we had gathered to see our new toy, an “electronic” whiteboard. It came with special pens, and a plug, and a small embedded printer. You had to position it where it could be plugged in. How did it work? Basically, it was just a big scanner – whatever was on the board could be printed onto a sheet of letter-sized paper (and it was all black and white, if I remember correctly). So, a project team could produce a plan, an analysis, a diagram – and then save itself the bother of copying by just printing it multiple times, and distributing it. Brilliant, a world changer.

But when was the last time you saw one of those? I haven’t seen or used one in at least 20 years, and no-one now makes them.

But it seems what might be taking their place is the “interactive whiteboard” as cited in the McKinsey article. “Whiteboard” in this context is a bit of a misnomer. Whilst the device looks like a whiteboard, it is basically a large computer screen that is either a standalone device, or acts as a touchpad for other devices which it is linked to. It can be used as a terminal device to link to the web, or to capture input, or simply to project, say, a lesson in a classroom. It is definitely more advanced than its “electronic” ancestor.

The McKinsey article points to the incorporation of speech-to-text or handwriting-to-text applications. These could improve the speed of capturing, say, the outputs of a collaboration session. It also points to the ability of the whiteboard to link to datasets to allow the running of machine learning analyses (in their context, of the root causes of failures).

High tech vs high touch

It sounds great, doesn’t it? But it caused me to search the bookcases at home for a book published in 1982 (“wasn’t born then”, I hear you say….), John Naisbitt’s Megatrends (what a glorious 1980s word, but one that has lasted). In it he floats the concept of High Tech/High Touch – his idea

“that whenever new technology is introduced into society, there must be a counterbalancing human response – – that is, high touch – or the technology is rejected. The more high tech, the more high touch.”

This counter-balancing has been borne out by our own experience in designing and installing whiteboards in the education and corporate sectors over the past decade or so. The more tech-savvy the client or department, the more they have evolved the use of the low-tech high-touch, traditional whiteboard as a shared collaborative thinking and learning medium. Indeed one operations director of a global leader in gaming platforms told me “after our people and their computers, the next most critical things in here are whiteboards” (ahead of chairs, desks and the like).

So why aren’t the most tech-savvy rushing out for the latest Cisco Webex board or a Google Jamboard? Well they are, because these are powerful ways of collaborating in virtual spaces. But they are no substitute for the real-world, face to face, hands-on, spatially connected interactions that make things real, tangible, and owned… and that’s key to creativity.

I couldn’t help thinking that the gist of the McKinsey article – basically, a catalogue of technologies that could improve root cause analysis – had somehow missed the point on the need for the counterbalancing investment in a high touch human response.

The rise of the interactive whiteboard

I wonder if the history of interactive whiteboards bears this out. Since their invention in around 1990, the global market has grown to be worth between $3 billion and $5 billion. Most of the big names in consumer electronics, and some of the biggest names in computing (IBM, Microsoft, Cisco) have an offering. The UK is the leading market in Europe; within the UK the education sector is the leading market, with high take-up rates forecast for all stages of education, as well as increasing corporate take up. The McKinsey article itself might drive some more demand.

And yet… I can’t help feeling this is still a technology that has not yet quite landed, that might copy the trajectory of its electronic forbear. I have never seen one used, in all the sectors and companies I have worked in during the 30 years they have been available.

In education, there is a body of opinion that they simply replicate traditional teaching methods. They fail to capitalise on the growing interest in collaboration, and in group working and learning. To be fair, other commentators and researchers have found improvement in standards of educational attainment linked to the use of interactive whiteboards.

There is obvious potential in the use of the interactive whiteboards for remote work teams, both in education and industry. Where people cannot physically be in the same place, they can be brought together by the technology. High tech to replicate high touch? The whiteboard as an app (see Google Jamboard) supports this type of collaboration.

The power of writing things down

The McKinsey article sees the interactive whiteboard as a great leap forward from the sticky post-it notes so beloved of today’s designers, project managers, facilitators etc.

I too am no fan of post-it notes, but am instead a fan of magnetic whiteboards with which one can use magnetic icons, in shapes designed for specific methods and techniques. In my own experience of using these whiteboards as part of facilitation and collaboration approaches, the relative low tech of the solution is balanced by the high touch aspects that people experience. In, say, Logo Visual Thinking (LVT) the participant is:

  • writing on the magnetic hexagon;
  • placing the hexagon on the magnetic board;
  • manipulating the placed hexagons by combining them into clusters.

All of this increases the personal investment of the participant in the workshop’s results.

There is some anecdotal evidence (I’m still trying to authenticate this) that the ordinary whiteboards are more widely used in US high-tech companies than their interactive equivalents.

Balancing real and remote

The role of the interactive whiteboard in multi-site collaboration is a hard, but not impossible, act for the magnetic whiteboards and their haptic experience to emulate. The answer is probably in some combination of the two, in a configuration that we are currently experimenting with.

What we’ve learnt is that technology on its own, however good it is, is unlikely to be adopted , and then used pervasively unless attention is paid to its impact on the people using it. We also need to give thought to what the corresponding high touch might be that lubricates acceptance of the technology, and then accelerates its adoption and use.

All of which means we need to power ahead on both fronts, continually cross-checking, and allowing high tech and high touch to influence each other.

1 thought on “Could less technology improve problem solving?

  1. Its an interesting question. Thank you for the discussion.

    It seems to me that this question is more pertinent if you want people to collaborate when they are not in the same space or time.

    If they are in the same place and time, then techniques such as logovisual thinking enable people to structure their thoughts as external displays or patterns (the structure is what changes information into knowledge – an integrative activity). Without being able to literally see one another’s structures of meaning, we are liable to mis-understand. So the making visible of our structures of meaning in a way that invites interaction is an enhancement of collaborative thinking. As you say, simple magnetic media work very well because of their haptic quality – you can literally feel the thinking going on.

    When people are not co-located, this is more challenging and can certainly be helped by technology. If there is a central display with which people can interact virtually, then it should be possible to get closer to the experience of being co-located. This would be the proper role for technology – to serve the thinking, rather than to displace it or to blur it with wizardry.

    My own experience with interactive whiteboards is limited but I hope to experiment with the combination I have recently installed that combines interactive technology with a magnetic whiteboard. (A Thinking Wall with short throw interactive projector). Similarly I want to experiment with virtual conferencing that combines current capability with visual thinking to achieve enhanced thinking capability. New software will be required that is led by the process rather than shaping it.

    As you suggest, it could be that we are still at an early stage of convergence of high tech and high touch that will lead us towards new ways of interacting and collaborating.

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