A Better Mousetrap

IMG_2078Growing up, Saturday was the day that my mother ran errands and, because she tended to attack several items on her to-do list in one car trip, she tended to drag us along with her. At times errands involved going to the grocery shopping and this invariably meant my mother paid the bill by check. Now, writing out a check takes long enough but my mother never rushed the process, and I mean never. She would write out the check amount in numbers and words, pausing to direct the packer not to mix food types in the same bag. She would sign the check slowly, and beautifully and then, just when you thought she was done, she would balance her checkbook. It did not matter how long the line behind her was, she would take her time and complete her process. It did not matter how much grumbling was going on, she would ignore everyone, as she made sure that her numbers were correct.

Last week, I returned from an amazing trip to Zimbabwe, where I was the maid of honor at my sister’s wedding. I love traveling to Zimbabwe for countless reasons; one of these is seeing the changes to the financial systems that I see every time I go back. My last trip to Zimbabwe was a little over a year ago and I wrote about the process I went through in order to get a prepaid phone line. During this trip, I only had to deal with two people and I did not have to travel from one desk to another in order to get things done. I still had to hand over identification but this time, I could hand over the original and the phone company made a copy for me. The system was more computerized and I only needed to deal with one agent but I left with sufficient paperwork for my transaction. The SIM card for my phone line and airtime both had pre-printed serial numbers and I also received one receipt for my transaction, where I bought a line and airtime.

Just about everywhere I went, I was struck by the technological advancements since my last trip. More and more transactions are becoming completely computerized and the changes give me the opportunity to observe whether the advancements have weakened control systems and whether the designs of the new systems took control systems into account. One place where we saw significant changes was with the highway toll system. Last year, most of the toll stations were merely agents standing at a point in the road, with armed guards to make sure that no one tried to fly through the stations without paying. This year, there were built up with automatic booms that let drivers through, after they had paid. These stations had cameras installed in various places and these cameras transmitted images to a central office, as one of the controls to ensure that all vehicles passing through the stations were charged. Just as had happened the year before, every time we drove through a toll station, we received a receipt for our payment. The additional controls, such as the automatic boom and the cameras, added layers of controls without adding time to the process of going through the tollgates.

The challenge, when it comes to the technological advancements, is to ensure that those using them do not pave their cowpaths. This is a concept very well explained by Tom Hood. There is a big risk of using new technologies to do the same things in the same way; instead of using these technologies reimagine processes. It is very easy to dress up the same old processes in a fancy new exterior and convince yourself that you have created a new process. I shall keep taking notes during my future trips, as technological advancements continue to see whether people are paving cowpaths or creating superhighways.

Thankfully for those standing in line behind her, my mother no longer writes checks when she goes shopping. She has found new ways to keep track of her finances that ensure that her numbers are correct but that take less time than writing a check and balancing her checkbook used to. I even had a paper trail for the exhilarating lion walk that I went on at Antelope Park, a lion conservancy just outside Gweru, in Zimbabwe. I had a receipt for my payment and I also signed an indemnity form to prove that I went willingly, just in case the lions got grumpy, smelt my fear or just wanted to play with me with their massive paws!

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