Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 21 / FEBRUARY 1982 / PAGE 22

Guest Commentary
Hidden Costs Of Computer Technology

Craig Brod
President, Technostress International, Inc.

During the 1970's most banks computerized their operations. At one California bank, a team was assigned to develop a program to pay savers their interest automatically on the first of each month. The task was completed to everyone's apparent satisfaction and most members of the team were reassigned to new projects. The day before the first automatic payments were to be disbursed, due to a fluke – a favored customer being handed his computerized check a day early – it was discovered that the bank had overpaid everybody as much as double the interest due them. At 6:00 P.M. the team's remaining analyst was called in. The project manager came. His manager came. The vice president came. An estimated eight to ten million dollars in bank funds were on the line, to be disbursed when the doors opened for business the next morning. Could the analyst find the flaw in his team's program? Could he develop an algorithm to withdraw the appropriate amount of overpayment from each of the savers? This analyst was a prime candidate for, if not the victim of, technostress.

Exactitude, Repeatability, Detail

Computer technology has become a fact of organizational life and has brought with it new values and new costs for those within the organization. Exactitude, repeatability, and close attention to detail are the hallmarks of everyday operations. Computer technology promotes formal relations between people, their machines, and their environment.

The new technology is qualitatively different from the old. Compared to a computer information system, a telephone or xerox machine were simple communication devices whose use required a minimum of quiet and concentration and whose users had a great deal of latitude. The computer, on the other hand, requires a specific response time from the user (turned operator).

The recording of information and the retrieval of data within the language of the program both place constraints on the operator, who has become machine-dependent and works in a captive environment. Control over sound, lighting, and work flow is important for maximum concentration and effective management of data. While assembly-line work, or even typing, are sometimes grueling types of work requiring attention to detail, the demands on the computer operator are unlike those heretofore known in the workplace.

Captive environments and machine-dependent people are indications of new forms of organizational life, and one result is technostress: the condition resulting from the inability of a person or organization to cope with the demands created by the operation and maintenance of computer technology. It occurs where necessary technological stress (such as response to work changes) is translated into unnecessary human strain. There are examples of technostress at all levels.

Age, Experience And Competence: A Reversed Relationship

Computer technology often reverses the relationship between age, experience, and competence at work. Unlike managers of the past who passed tips on to new employees on how to "kick the ditto machine" to make it work, their years of experience have often merely accumulated outdated knowledge in today's managers. And they are usually at a disadvantage to young recruits who command a great deal of recent technical knowhow.

Today's project manager has no reliable way to measure productivity. The manager functions as a go-between, talking to the system user – say the department of a bank that wishes interest payments computerized – and then schedules it, deciding whether it should take six people three months, four people a year, or whatever.

To most programmers, such schedules are a joke: "You could throw darts at a board and do as well," is often heard. One told recently of a project scheduled for three months and which came in at two and a half, earning the group praise; yet it could have been done in three weeks and, that the group dallied, constituted a mini-revolt. No matter; as long as the projects come in ahead of arbitrary schedules, managers are happy. Able to measure only results and not understanding the work well enough to gauge productivity, many of today's managers who have not come up through the technical ranks lack the respect of their workers.

A Struggle Between Monotony And Perfectionism

To operate a computer is to live with stress, even for relatively low-level operators. Consider the operator whose job it is to process claims and transfer data from one source to another. The machine will have "peaks" and "valleys"–a job requiring thirty minutes at 7:00 A.M. may take several hours at mid-afternoon; and, every so often, due to overload, the whole system crashes.

These fluctuations fragment the worker's planning process, his ability to structure his workday. However, the machine makes no mistakes and turns out a uniform product. Given the repetitive nature of his task, the worker struggles between monotony and perfectionism. It is the machine that gets credit for a job well done, and there is no human feedback intrinsic to the system.

Analysts, those who write the programs, are familiar with the dreaded 2:00 A.M. phone call: "It blew up." And the challenge will be to fix it before 6:00 in the morning when perhaps thousands of other workers must depend on it, or, in the case above of the automatic interest payments, eight million dollars may ride on it. It is no surprise that many of them eat Maalox like candy.

An ace analyst is one who has few peers and earns little praise, due to the fact that so few understand what goes into his work. Knowledge builds with the number of systems upon which he has worked. This can have a snowball effect within the organization, always with increasing numbers of people asking "How does this program work?" about increasing numbers of systems. For some, it is a gradual process of becoming identified with the machine – more and more information demanded – with the effect that large chunks of self, time, and energy are drained. Tyrannized by their own expertise, the pressure ceases only when they change jobs. Then they are no longer responsible for every system upon which they have ever worked.

All of these problems are felt, but generally go unstated, surfacing as negative behavior - sabotage, absenteeism, last-minute sick calls, frequent job changes – or as direct problems with productivity. Employees and managers need more technical training, training on how to adapt to new technology, and better work designs.

The power of technology has silenced all but the gallows humor which has grown up around it: "If I hung myself, the machine would just keep plugging away." Technostress manifests itself in a variety of ways.