dog digging in the sand
PHOTO: Janusz Maniak

It's been an interesting month for all of us, including tech providers. Many have seen usage climb as businesses, governments and schools around the world have shifted to remote operations. While there are many successes, there are also quite a few failures. We are learning which systems have challenges handling the increased load, which don’t know how to capitalize on their popularity, and which look great but have one minor, but critical, flaw.

As someone who uses these services, it's been interesting to watch. As a technologist, it's been fun (relatively speaking) to try and deduce what is happening behind the scenes. Too many of these failures are things the vendors could have prevented. You should be watching and looking to learn from what is happening so that your content, collaboration and other information systems can thrive in this world.

When 10 a.m. Meetings Become 10:11 a.m. Meetings

John Mancini recently wrote about the trials and tribulations of his local school system's move to remote learning. While his article shares many lessons, as a parent in that school system, I want to highlight one thing: Students couldn't log into the system on the first day.

Blackboard’s systems were designed to handle a fairly substantial load. However, it apparently did not design them to handle 189,000 students trying to authenticate at 9 a.m. Of course, the number was much less than that, as one of my kids was able to connect easily at 8:30 a.m. By 9 a.m., the login service just overloaded.

Blackboard is not alone. Many online systems have struggled as everyone attempted to connect at the top of the hour. My 10 a.m. meetings are most prone to this problem as organizations around the world also begin their meetings at the same time. Starting a meeting on time was a luxury for a few weeks, though the problem persists.

Mature organizations run performance tests against their systems. While many rely on load tests provided by their software vendors, conducting tests yourself is important. Even if a third-party vendor provides the system, you should run the tests. You should understand how the system may slow down and if it breaks under a load 10 times higher than your expected peak. You may not need to address the limits, but you definitely need to understand what they are and what would be involved in addressing those limits.

Because you never know when things will change and the unexpected becomes the new normal.

Related Article: Anatomy of a Collaboration Disaster

Follow What the People Are Doing

One thing that's become very clear through all this is teachers really care about their students. They have been finding new ways and alternate avenues to reach out, support and help their students. They are recording teaching sessions and reaching out via apps that had simply been “fun” before COVID-19. Now they are critical communication tools.

You should do the same thing in your organization, even if you think things are going well. Everyone is looking for new ways to address collaboration. This isn’t a failure on your organization’s part as you probably never planned on being 100% remote 100% of the time

Look to see what tools people are using to get things done. It doesn’t mean they have found the perfect tool and you should adopt it. The tools you find will help you determine what kinds of tools they need and maybe provide an early front-runner for a broader investment.

Related Article: You Rolled Out Your Workplace in Record Time. Now Let's Talk Governance

Change Management Is More Important Than Ever

The old saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is often used as an excuse to not update technology. The problem with technology is it's hard to know what “broken” is until it is severely broken. Feedback from your people comes into play here. Thanks to social media, Fairfax County got a lot of quick feedback about the failures of remote learning. Organizations need to be more proactive in determining how things are going.

But remember that no matter how many people hate the old platform, some people who have used it for years won’t want a sudden shift. Work with them to ease any transition, and perhaps delay their move until after others are using the new tech. With the extra stress we are all facing, it is more important than ever to leverage empathy when ushering in organizational change.

Related Article: Change Management Is a User Experience Feature

So Much to Learn

Zoom is working to determine how to convert all its new users into paying customers. Google’s primary offerings work great if you live in a Google universe. You don’t face either of these challenges with your systems. You do have to sell your people on new solutions and find ways to work with external parties outside of email.

OK, maybe you do have the same problems. But they aren’t new problems.

Scale, performance and the inability to fix technical failings by asking a question of someone down the hall are bringing years of technical decisions into the spotlight. After a month of delays and problems, Blackboard and the Fairfax County school system’s IT department will face a reckoning. What will you do to make sure that the same doesn’t happen to you?