Richard Branson: People should drive IT, not the opposite

Don’t let IT dictate what you can do. Trust people, not technology.

Costa Concordia sinking. (Roberto Vongher/Creative Commons)

As I listen to pitches from entrepreneurs looking for investors or advice on expansion, I am often amazed at how many seem to believe that technology is what’s holding their companies back. “We would love to get into that market, but we don’t have the systems to support it yet” is a common refrain.

Such inflexibility signals a company’s underlying weakness: an inability to change quickly when disaster strikes. The best businesses maintain a healthy balance, adapting their technologies to the CEO’s vision for the company. Your information technology systems should work for you, not the other way around.

I was thinking about this recently when reading Isaac’s Storm, a book by Erik Larson. It is the true story of Isaac Cline, a dedicated employee of the U.S. Weather Bureau, and his experience of the hurricane that struck Galveston, Texas, in 1900—one of the deadliest natural disasters ever in the United States. The city was almost wiped off the map by winds of up to 120 miles per hour and a 15-foot storm surge; more than 5,000 people were killed.

Although Weather Bureau employees had only relatively primitive techniques at their disposal, they did a pretty good job of tracking this storm. Ultimately, however, the hurricane made a sudden, unexpected turn and slammed into low-lying Galveston, with devastating consequences.

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, the sophisticated storm-tracking devices developed over the century between the two hurricanes made little difference when Katrina made an almost identical surprise turn, striking a few hundred miles east of Galveston. More than 1,800 people were killed.

During Katrina’s aftermath, rescue and recovery efforts were hindered by a lack of supplies and co-ordination, exposing a huge gap in local and federal authorities’ abilities to plan for and cope with a large-scale disaster.

Such unpreparedness may have been due in part to a false sense of security generated by our advanced technologies. But technology fails, too—as we have been reminded this month, on the 100th anniversary of an unsinkable ship’s tragic sinking.

In 1912, the Titanic relied on lookouts to see what lay ahead. Some analysts believe that had the Titanic been equipped with contemporary radar and satellite navigation systems, it wouldn’t have collided with an iceberg, and more than 1,500 lives would have been spared. It’s an interesting thought—but then how does one explain the recent disaster that befell the cruise ship Costa Concordia?

What I find intriguing about these pairs of disasters is that, in both cases, technological advances over the intervening century seem to have done little to improve matters. In Costa Concordia’s case, old-fashioned human error, or sheer neglect, caused a tragic blunder.

When you are running a business, things will go wrong all the time, and even the best IT and communications systems can compound problems. Had the Titanic been equipped with the same navigational aids that were aboard the Costa Concordia, and suffered a temporary glitch, the ship might still have plowed into that iceberg. Paradoxically, had the Costa Concordia been forced to rely on a couple of sailors with binoculars sitting at a masthead, it might well have avoided that lethal rock. When preparing for “what if” scenarios, it is more important to make sure you’ve got the right people in place, and they are on alert to contingencies and keeping watch, than investing in the latest technology.

No matter how sophisticated your IT systems might be, keep in mind that they are just tools, and can and should be adaptable. Whether a front-line employee is helping a customer or an executive is pushing through changes to a product, human judgment and leadership should take precedence. Trust your people, not your tech.

Richard Branson is a philanthropist, adventurer, entrepreneur and founder of the Virgin Group of companies.