Header Title



business models, strategies and technologies

“Maintainers” as the real movers

New technologies and their corporate head honchos are often lauded as society’s heroes. But nothing’s sparkly new for long – perhaps the real heroes are those who keep things working – the “maintainers”

The easiest and most obvious narrative about technological change centres around the whizz-kids – the Steve Jobs’es and the Elon Musks. They’re the easy shorthand for lazy journos, the poster execs of the media sound bite.

In 2Q 2016, the Stevens Institute of Technology (a private research university in New Jersey) held a conference about “The Maintainers“. That eloquent moniker alone was sufficient to levitate some thoughts about our lack of obvious business models for the “maintaining” part of our technology spectrum. As far as I could see, the actual conference was more about how the human-built world is maintained and sustained – often by unnamed, unseen and underpaid labour. All true enough.

But there’s another aspect important to the recurrent discussions about innovation and what technology can achieve. It seems like Lee Vinsel, assistant professor of science and technology at Stevens, got the crux of the matter dead centre:

The vast majority of technologies that surround us and underpin our lives are not innovations. And the vast majority of labor in our culture is not focused on introducing or adopting new things, but on keeping things going.

Somehow it ain’t the technology that’s really the point – it’s whether the technological wonder actually works as intended amid the nitty-gritty nastinesses and unforeseeable glitches of everyday life. And whether it keeps on doing so. Your sleek, tech-bejewelled Tesla can be stupendously innovative and eyeball-meltingly fast – but it ain’t going anywhere and isn’t going to impress anyone if you can’t find someone to change your flat tyre, or an electrician to install the charger plug at your home/office.

The capability agenda

It makes me think that the “capability” concept has big potential for development. It’s not just the technology, but whether and to what extent it actually delivers on the promised capabilities. The service/maintenance people and the glitch-busting/bug-fixing brigade – that vast unappreciated army – are pivotal for the difference between mere promise and actual delivery. For example, the perceived value of any architectural wonder depends a whole lot on how well it’s maintained and whether it’s kept assiduously clean – otherwise value and tenant pull can plummet with nosedive vigour.

The service/maintenance story is usually tantalisingly double-edged. Lots of big mainstream companies have long been intensely aware that this is where the big bucks and the consistent cash flow actually lie. But the descriptions of this entire field of endeavour are almost always frustratingly vague – and almost always “tacked on at the end”. No one seems to want to address relatively unsexy “make it work and keep it working” agendas – probably because even raising the issue appears to imply defects/unreliability and doubt.

Wouldn’t there be a reassuring level of realism – and big business opportunities – if the massive leverage factor that the illustrious maintainers provide were to be brought front and centre, portrayed with strong, customer-centric narratives instead of vague “apparent afterthought” allusions?

The delivery agenda

There’s another angle on this maintainer thought, too. When we read the multitude of mags and websites that dwell on technology and digitalisation – and all the wonderful, disruptive, inspiring capabilities they provide – it’s easy to be beguiled by all the brave new world opportunities.

But there’s a hidden, less-glamorous reality lurking beneath the surface. Countless are the magnificent (Danish are the ones most familiar here) public-sector computer system projects that turned out to be black-hole abysses for money and fata morgana illusions that reflect dreams of what should be possible – but never got through the programming birth canal and then get cancelled millions of uncountable oops-bucks later .Many good and great ideas get suffocated and spoiled by implementation by mere mortals, with all our venality, laziness, job alienation and incompetence. The day-to-day realities of healthcare technology and administrative systems in Denmark often seem light years away from the smoothly dovetailed, at-your-fingertips transparency and effectiveness I so eloquently describe in websites for clients.

The technology capability/promise doesn’t always match the realities of delivery. As a consultant, I often get a fly-on-the-wall perspective on the inner workings of big-name companies. Not infrequently, it’s a bit of a wake-up call to witness how many companies billboarded for their technology manufacturing solutions are still resolutely locked in a technologically prehistoric world for their administration/communication and idea drafting – Microsoft Word documents/Excel spreadsheets, emailed back and forth ad infinitum in long, continuous byte-guzzling and time-wasting strings.

It’d probably be beneficial to remember that the 1% poster-children of the technology and disruption nirvana are often the exceptions and glaring anomalies in a silent majority of head-down diligence by lesser mortals as well as a sea of mindless acceptance of the mediocre. And that operating realities often eke out an existence in a whole different dimension of mundane. That’s a narrative we should probably bear in mind when discussing where we’re going with zingingly new business ideas. The less exciting mittelstand companies and backstreet breadwinners can’t just be dismissed as digital dinosaurs doomed for commercial death by the keystrokes of the glam kids.