A series of interactions with airlines in the past few days has left me thinking again about the interactions between humans and technology, and the fact that while technology may hold the promise of making parts of our live more efficient and productive, the human dimension will ultimately determine the extent to which this is true.
A few days ago I traveled from Wellington to Christchurch with my wife. We both checked in together, our bags tagged together etc. On arrival in CHCH my wife??s bag appeared on the carousel, but not mine. Through the marvels of technology (using the barcode on the label etc) it was discovered that my bag had actually ended up in Auckland, and was delivered to me the following morning. Seems that, despite the efficiency of computerized labeling and tracking systems, online booking and ticketing etc, the decision of a luggage handler working under pressure to separate my bag from my wife??s and put it on a different plane is what made the difference here.
I??m now sitting in a hotel in Dubai, where the same thing has happened. My bag has finally caught up with me (less than 24 hours later) ?? but it failed to turn up on the carousel ?? apparently because a baggage handler had inadvertently placed it with the set of bags on the place that were destined to travel on to the next destination. Again, the technology worked perfectly ?? the bar code on my bag was in fact the thing that enabled it to be tracked, but it was the action of a human being along the way that failed.
Still on the airlines theme ?? when was the last time you tried to book online with Air New Zealand ? I??m a regular user of their online booking system, and have been impressed with the services they offer ?? that is, until last week. I tried booking a companion fare using airpoints for my wife who is one of my nominated ??giftees?? and has all her details entered in the system. No matter how hard I tried the system simply wouldn??t accept the data that I entered, and continued to send me a message to say that some of the data didn??t match what was on their database. In desperation I rang the 0800 number, only to be put through to the technical department where we finally resolved what the issue was. In these days of interoperability and open standards etc, Air New Zealand, in their wisdom, have decided to ??optimize?? their online system so that it will only work if you are accessing it via an up to date MS Explorer browser on a Windows-based PC. Thus my attempts to access and use the system using Firefox on my Mac just didn??t foot it. The best advice the help desk person could give me was ????go out and find someone with Explorer on a PC and have another go!?? Sorry Air New Zealand ?? not good enough!
All of these examples illustrate just one thing to me ?? so often it??s not the technology that fails us, it??s humans. Now I??m not saying that technology never fails (as I speak my laptop is in for repair), but from a systems point of view, so many of the issues that we face are the result of human actions that disrupt the processes and systems that the technology is working to. Perhaps I simply need to wait until the technology matures ?? imagine what could be possible if instead of simply bar-coding the bags, there were sensors in the label and the plane that could automatically ??know?? if it were in the right place, and perhaps audibly ??call out?? if it is left behind somewhere?
As for the AirNZ online booking system ?? this illustrates for me the dangers we face with building and creating systems that are closed and restrictive in the name of efficiency and reliability ?? or could that be because of the limited skill or experience of the programmer, the limitations placed on them by time and money, or some conspiracy to form an alliance with Microsoft ?? whatever the reason, it seems very odd that in a world that is so obviously moving down the track of open standards and interoperability, a human being made the decision to ignore this.