Jim Duffy comment: Like Gatwick Airport, don’t discard a low tech fix

Sometimes there is just no substitute for a low tech solution, says Jim Duffy. Picture: Contributed
Sometimes there is just no substitute for a low tech solution, says Jim Duffy. Picture: Contributed
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Only this week Gatwick Airport almost came to a standstill as its technology broke down. Passengers missed flights and there was general chaos as the communications system advising people which gates to board their flights from failed.

Gatwick blamed Vodafone who manage this system, it would appear, but that did not lessen the stress and confusion for customers. So, what did the staff at Gatwick do? Did they have a backup plan in place ready to fire up for such a situation? Yes, but there was no tech in sight. In short, they wheeled out the whiteboards.

We often hear that tech for technology’s sake ultimately leads to problems. I suppose that by outsourcing the management of this communications system, bosses at Gatwick assumed all would be okay and Vodafone would have resilience and contingency in place. It seems not. So, the Gatwick team had to resort to good old fashioned sharpies and a whiteboard. Hardly high tech for such a big operation, but pretty efficient and quick to set up.

As Britain’s second busiest airport, Gatwick cannot simply grind to halt because a few TV screens don’t work. Handwritten flight information for each departure was essential to keep the planes filling up and leaving on time. The Gatwick whiteboard army did their very best to keep the operation afloat. Was it perfect? No. Could it have been coordinated and rehearsed as part of the airport’s emergency planning away days? Yes. And it highlights one thing: every company worth its salt that does not have back up systems should have a stock of mobile whiteboards ready to spring into action at the drop of a hat – or damage to a fibre optic cable, in this case.

A decade or so ago, the whiteboard was replaced by Microsoft PowerPoint. PowerPoint was slick and straightforward to work with so that anyone creating a presentation or delivering information could do so with ease. But, alas “death by PowerPoint” kicked in as bullet point after bullet point sent people to sleep. Add to this the great drawback that Powerpoint needs to be planned and takes time, then it is not so easy to use in a rapidly changing situation. Hence, the whiteboard is a difficult tool to replace; even this week at Gatwick Airport with its expensivetechnology, the whiteboard still has its place in a crisis. Mind you, prior to this incident it was probably sitting in a staff room with the winning lottery numbers for that week on it.

Even today, with all my technology, smart phones, tablets and the like, I still have a whiteboard pinned to my study wall. From here, I can plan my week and show it visually to my partner, who will add in her “must dos” for me. I can write out problems and challenges that are on the horizon. Like how many tonnes of garden chips to get delivered to cover an area of 30 square metres and, of course, which colours and in which size. And so, the uses for my whiteboard go on and on.

It does not need to go offline for long periods. It never needs a re-boot. It has no downtime and, having laid out a fixed one-off cost, there is no maintenance charging or care contracts. In essence, it is a complete bargain and, while not portable in my case, it gets used every week.

So, while we deploy technology in all areas of our lives from smart TVs to airport terminal information systems, keeping some basic communication tools around for a “rainy tech day” appears to not be a bad thing. Indeed, quite sensible and a good use of cash for any business.

Maybe I’m just getting old and too much tech is overwhelming me. But, in times of outages and breakdowns, drop offs and downtime, there is nothing to beat a good old whiteboard to galvanise your team and, of course, customers when the need arises. Gatwick Airport had a trying time this week. It will learn the lessons I am sure. I bet the person responsible for business continuity stocks up on a few more trusty whiteboards, just in case...

Jim Duffy MBE, Create Special.