The Case of the Fake Transatlantic Flight: Can You Really Trust Online Tools?

Whether we realize it or not, we all have become more or less dependent on computers, the Internet, and many different and complex computer systems.

In both our business and personal lives, we widely take advantage of the immediate availability of all types of information and data, and in our day-to-day routine often do not even wonder whether we can actually rely on the data we obtain.

I am not talking about the usual informational trash that the Internet is unfortunately full of. I am talking about the information sources that we usually trust blindly, such as corporate and governmental systems and their surrounding software foremost. We pay a great deal of attention to the new features and functions and cutting-edge technologies—and get a little upset if some brand new things aren’t still available on the market (e.g., an iPad-like user interface for ERP systems), but we all too often forget about the quality of the data these tools provide.

I am no exception to this rule, and both professionally and personally enjoy seeing how spectacularly the world is changing as well as the exciting opportunities that were undreamed of even a few years ago: just recently I chanced to read a Newsweek article from 1995 in which the author scoffed at the possibility of online air ticket purchases and online restaurant reservations, both of which are commonplace today. A recent experience of mine, however, gave me some food for thought on this matter. I hesitate to declare that we should not trust our computer systems and data but I certainly have some fresh and compelling doubts.

My wife recently needed to travel to Europe (from here in Montreal). After driving her to the airport, I opened an online flight tracker that I have been using for quite a while and verified that the airplane had departed on time and that everything seemed to be fine.

Considering online flight tracking tools to be reliable sources of the most recent updates on current flights, I did not expect to be misled. I presume these trackers receive data from one of the most sophisticated software systems in the world—air traffic control systems—and my confidence in the data was high.

Three hours later, I received a phone call from my wife telling me that they were still sitting inside the plane on the runway, waiting for some maintenance work to be completed. Intrigued, I double-checked 12 different flight trackers and found that only 2 of them indicated that the flight had not yet departed. The rest of them were showing me—in good conscience—that the flight was already over the Atlantic!

This particular story really demonstrates the vital importance of understanding that the information we expect to obtain and rely on is being gathered, transformed, and transmitted—and that it is very possible that it may be incorrect or even imitated, and that this false information may be propagated as gospel truth, as in my case.

The same fully applies to corporate systems. The reality of contemporary business is that there is an additional independent level between a business owner/manager and the business: the information systems level. This additional layer provides exceptional opportunities that were not available in the past, and allows dramatic improvements to the decision making process. But as a side effect of this, businesses are now heavily dependent on software vendors, the quality of the software they develop, and their willingness to participate in problem resolution and constant data improvement.

With only a few exceptions, today’s businesses cannot survive without some computer-based system, whether it is an ERP system or any other type of enterprise software. This is simply reality, and I’m not trying to argue that things should be otherwise. However, it’s dangerous to forget that all these advanced computer systems and fascinating tools are developed and maintained by humans—who as we all know, are terribly prone to mistakes. And most probably, the information that these systems provide will contain data that for one reason or another is never 100% perfect. The moral of the story? Exercise reasonable prudence and caution in selecting technology vendors (read: people), and make sure you take advantage of multiple information sources for vital decisions.

How about you? Have you experienced cases where undue trust in IT systems has led you down a blind alley? Let me know in the comments below!
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