Equal access to technology

Equal access to technology is a regular topic of conversation in the world of education – the concept that all students should have access to technology and information regardless of their ethnicity, socio-economic status, age, physical ability or any other quality. That without it they will be disadvantaged and unable to participate equitably. It’s a sentiment that makes sense.

But can we apply the same thinking to the workplace? Do companies give every department equal access to technology? And does uneven access to technology investment, or automation tools or even data, have a detrimental effect on business performance and potentially morale?

It goes without saying that successful companies are those that are able to harness emerging technologies to their advantage. More and more, we are seeing an innovation achievement gap between companies with massive resources in data, artificial intelligence and enterprise systems compared to those that don’t – a trend that has been even more prevalent since the start of the pandemic.

However, a recent Harvard Business review article suggested that the real problem may not be the disparities between these companies and their competitors, but the hidden technological disparities within their own organisations that increase inequalities in talent’s access to automation tools and AI reskilling initiatives that ultimately hinder competitiveness.

In many organisations we have noticed that some teams feel empowered to invest in technology to execute their business goals, while others don’t, often leaving them at a disadvantage. For instance, teams working in an IT function are often focused on ‘keeping the lights on’, leaving them little time to find innovative solutions to business problems. Meanwhile, more than 60% of investment in information technology comes from outside the IT department, from such functions as marketing or operations. For many organisations, this can lead to mismatched priorities between business capabilities and siloed technologies. Compounding the problem, IT teams are often not trained on these secondary systems, hampering their ability to support or upgrade them. This can cause frustration for departments and IT resources alike and slow the benefits of implementing such systems in the first place.

To help company departments become aligned, it is important for systems to map to business capabilities, and for investments in technology to bring together all stakeholders instead of creating secondary systems and leaving some groups out in the cold.

Similarly, we see situations where humans and systems have uneven access to data, with companies often relying on a mix of cloud based and on-premise enterprise systems. When data is spread across siloes it can be challenging to support business goals or objectively report progress. Other companies find that uneven access to data prevents them from creating a pervasive culture of data-driven decision making. This can lead to numerous pockets of “data illiteracy” in the organisation, a result that can hamper the speed at which the company can roll out new technology.

Leading companies create an ecosystem of services and systems mapped to business capabilities. Data, instead of being locked away and available only via batch processing, moves in real time and at scale throughout the enterprise to enable data-driven business decisions. Cloud technology, instead of being used here and there in the enterprise, replaces costly legacy infrastructure and provides an elastic, scalable infrastructure built for speed, productivity and innovation.

There is also a growing divide between teams with ready access to automation and AI tools and teams without. Consider the impact of this disparity among software programmers. Some might spend 60% of their day performing automatable tasks. Programmers who leverage AI tools to handle those activities code faster. They also become expert at collaborating with AI systems and less prone to errors. This divide becomes critical as customer expectations rise and the pace of change accelerates. The market today doesn’t tolerate slow engineering delivery cycles. It demands modern engineering practices with quick build-measure-learn cycles that the automation have-nots cannot produce. Simply spreading automation more widely doesn’t fully solve the problem. What’s required is a broad systematic approach.

Organisations can begin to address technological disparities among their teams or internal departments by prioritising growth areas that require a rapid return — for instance, CRM in consumer goods — and then span out. The first step is to look at the depth and breadth of the current data systems inside the organisation – a comprehensive audit such as that performed by Alliance SI.

Companies must also work to ensure that their systems map to business capabilities and that investments bring together stakeholders from across the company. Beyond these formal organisational changes, companies can create cross-functional teams of engineers and business experts, adopting agile development practices to prevent IT professionals from being isolated from critical business activities, and vice versa. The sooner organisations address these internal disparities, the faster they will overcome external disparities with competitors.