Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Understanding people helps deliver technology benefits

Martin Gibson - Head of Operations

As those of you who have known me for a while will know, I have a phrase “it’s the soft stuff that’s hard”. It is quite easy to make a case for using technology. You can find the costs and calculate the payback time to make a credible case. When it comes to changing behaviour, however, things get a lot trickier. It is hard to calculate the costs of changing behaviour or the outcomes from doing so. It is also a long and complex process to change people’s behaviour.

In the light of these difficulties, we in business often simply opt for technology solutions and ignore the behavioural side of things. A recent study shows that the same seems to be true for the academic research community. Having an interest in all things sustainable, my eye was caught by the article ‘Energy studies need social science’ by Benjamin K. Sovacool (Nature 13 July 2014, Vol 511, p529).

The article points out that to secure a low-carbon future, we need to alter both technologies and behaviour. However, energy research literature focusses predominantly on technological solutions. Most articles (85%) focus on energy production systems. Behaviour and energy demand was investigated in less than 3% of the 4,444 articles covered in the research.

Sovacool makes a strong argument that the focus on technology means that engineers and economists are ignoring behavioural aspects of energy use and therefore miscasting decision-making and action. He believes that researchers in the energy field need to learn from health and agriculture by bringing together social and physical scientists. He notes four worrisome trends in energy research:

  • Undervaluation of the influence of the social dimension;
  • A bias towards science, engineering and economics over social sciences and humanities;
  • A lack of interdisciplinary collaboration; and
  • Under-representation of female and minority group authors.

These findings have strong parallels in the business community. Many business people operate in silos: people keep things within their department when it would be better to work with others across or outside the company. Although there are some notable exceptions to this and a trend towards more collaborative working, silos still dominate. It will take some time before the benefits of collaboration that should arise from using approaches such as those in BS 11000 become commonplace.

For those of us working towards more sustainable business, the message is clear: don’t get stuck in silos. There is a need to make sure that technological solutions are balanced with social and behaviours ones. Technology will open up opportunities but we need to understand human behaviour to deliver them. If we are to deliver on sustainability, we need to consider the complex interactions between technology and the people that use and benefit from it.

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