What does reliability of technology mean for organisations today? For many organisations, reliability is all about the repeatability, the robustness, and the predictability of processes. The idea is that by focusing on such process management, one will be able to guarantee the business level results, and the delivery of initiatives on time, on budget as well as in the right quality. Sometimes reliability also includes product performance and supporting business services beyond production. Product reliability seems to be a key concern for customers and any news of bad performance can travel very quickly, particularly in our social media-rich age.
What remains is a question of the value of reliability. Have we seen an erosion of its importance? Organisations set out to surprise their customers with newer and newer features, flavours, etc. and they strive to provide their customers with great products before their competitors. However, this leads these organisations to make an important decision: should they release a product as soon as possible with an associated risk of performance or market-readiness, or should they instead take their time in order to ensure that the product does not disappoint? Of course, there is no single right answer to this question, but asking the question is important. The answer will be different from company to company, and from product to product i.e. it will heavily depend on the context.
Let’s consider software development. How often do we receive updates for our operating systems or our smart device apps? Some of us are ‘early adopters’, meaning that we start using software which is not yet adequately tested, trading off reliability for being part of something novel and potentially valuable to us. What we see is the emergence of products and services in use, meaning products and services that are only really ready for use once we start using them. We effectively become intrinsic to the process of product and service development. And we engage as willing participants to the point that some of us get quite excited even about incremental changes.
But is this a universal phenomenon? We can expect some boundaries. The core idea is about products being ready to use when we’re ready to use them. For instance, where there are health and safety considerations or potentially catastrophic consequences, we may be more careful. A senior design engineer for Jaguar Land Rover stated quite unequivocally that if they engaged in such use experimentation, people would die. They would simply not be willing to take that risk. A car manufacturer would suffer a serious blow if its reliability was breached. A famous story was when in 1997 the A-Class Mercedes failed the moose-test; the company spent a great deal of money and effort to undo the damage to the brand image – we have to admit, very successfully.
Some solutions even have backup options to mitigate the particularly severe consequences of system failure in-use; just think about backup power generators of hospitals. Airplanes would be another example with several layers of backup of the flight-related systems, while the long haul in-flight video is simply rebooted if it does not work and the worst thing that can happen is that some passengers get bored. In the case of extreme consequences, such as serious health and safety hazards, we simply accept having to bear these costs in our designs.
And within all that, the customer is another determinant in how we manage and how we conceive reliability in our organisations. If you’ve paid nothing for your contract mobile phone, you might be quite happy to engage in endless updates. It might even provide you some value through being involved and feeling as part of a community. However, if you have just spent £40,000 on a Vertu Clous De Paris Red Gold mobile phone and one of the buttons on your screen is the 24/7 concierge service, you are much less likely to be providing regular user feedback. You would certainly be expecting that phone to work perfectly from the first moment until you wanted a new one.
I am sure that all of you could list numerous examples for both extremes, when we demand full reliability and when we do not care so much, as well as for anything in-between. You can probably also think of further variables that would influence which way we lean. Still, consider this only an initial picture which will be refined further in the rest of the material and we will probably see further changes to the concept of reliability in the years to come.
© University of Strathclyde