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Opinion: Ziff Davis Internet's Jeff Angus writes that it's possible to restructure existing organizations to make processes more efficient by balancing what tasks automated systems handle and which are a human's responsibility.
Assemble a ZBA team from multiple disciplines that go beyond the disciplines that designed your current systems.
Only a minority of the group should be professional technologists, and you should have at least two members who are cooperative end users who do line work and who aren't good with technology (people who normally need a lot of help, but not professional complainers, either).
Start your ZBA exercise on underperforming pieces of your existing portfolio.
Do any of them fall short because of imperfect design, delivering the wrong information, or the right information in forms that create too much friction to use?
Do any lack of end-user buy-in? Are any of them using technology to do things people have done better? What would you have to do to dis-automate pieces of them or the entire project?
You can add texture to the answers if you interview end users; the cooperative-but-low-tech members can be superb interviewers for this purpose.
Your interviewers, however, have to make sure they don't intimidate informants or make them feel like they have to display understanding when they don't.
Move on to projects that have not yet been set in stone.
Here you have the opportunity to do rationalization in its most purely profitable way especially if your goal is a business-oriented and not just gadget-oriented one.
How do human skills and technology best complement each other to achieve your goal?
Play with the concept of zero-based automation, that is, if you had no existing automation to get you to the defined goal, which pieces are humans intrinsically poor at to a degree that it would be worth inventing technology from scratch to assist or replace the humans?
What pieces do people never improve by their touch but only create the opportunity for degradation? What technology exists that might work as a replacement?
Don't Be Make Yourself Roadkill
Even if you're too timid to be a leader in this unstoppable trend, you can prepare yourself to hop aboard by running these kinds of thought exercises now.
The farther you strip away the concept of technology-as-human-replacement and build instead on the idea of open-eyed realism in creating partnerships between technology and human aptitudes, the higher the potential returns and competitive advantage.
The end of the intensification cycle has a few bits of margin to squeeze out, but they are diminishing returns on diminished principal.
Much of the gain to be harvested is in zones where social pushback will be high enough to undercut the calculated benefits.
A prime example (of both gains and whirlwinds to be reaped) is the British initiative to use prisoner-tracking technology to make sure workers don't take unauthorized breaks and to help them navigate the stock in large, dynamic warehouses.
Those intensifications of de-staffing projects will still exist.
There are still mediocre gains to be had in them for organizations with a strong commitment to mediocrity.
The big rewards will be in rationalizing your technology, and in getting the most out of people, technology and the patterns that bring out the complementary value of the two.
Jeff Angus is a management consultant and has been working with IT since 1974. He has held IT management positions in user interface design, marketing, operations and testing/analysis. Look for his book, "Management by Baseball: A Pocket Reader." Jeff's columns have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Baltimore Sun. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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