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Process Automation and Morale

Tuesday, June 23, 2009 by Slaughter Development

The local Indianapolis telephone services company, Interactive Intelligence, has announced “communications-based process automation.” The offering sounds great for management, but what about for employees?

A story by Patrick Barnard at TMCnet.com includes some interesting language:

Much the same way a contact center agent can route a call or other contact to any designated end-point throughout an organization, based on pre-defined rules, any worker (or automated system) in any department can use [Interaction Process Automation] to automatically route documents to any other end point on the network. What’s more, the same automated re-routing and failover mechanisms found in the contact center platform still apply: For example, if a worker is unavailable to handle a task, at any given time (as indicated through their presence), the system will automatically re-route that task onto the next available employee who is qualified to handle it.

If you are a senior vice president of operations or a COO, you might be salivating at this copy. But what about if you are a front-line employee in a company like those described in the article? Barnard’s choice of words dismisses “workers” as equivalent to “automated systems.” He phrases the features of the software application in the language of infrastructure, using words like “automated re-routing”, “failover mechanisms”, “unavailable.” Although the author is accurately describing the system, he is also writing about the lives of people and characterizing their livelihood. Imagine how employees feel when their unique contribution is described as just a movement in a machine.

In addition, Barnard writes:

As such, the software gives managers the ability to create and implement customized, “communications-based” workflows based on specific business rules, as well as employee skill sets. Perhaps most importantly, the solution helps drive increased productivity, as workflows become more efficient and streamlined. Interactive Intelligence claims that with this new offering, organizations will be able to harness additional power out of their [Unified Communications] systems to drive new levels of efficiency and productivity.

The first snippet minimizes the importance of stakeholders while the remaining collection of sentences places the corporation on a pedestal.  As managers design workflow “based on business rules” and “employee skill sets,” the idea of productivity morphs into something which arises not from worker innovation, but from being “driven” out of the system. In other words, a design that effectively tells people how they should work, as though they are operating machinery or herding livestock. In the end, increased efficiency is apparently achieved through a more streamlined sequence of work, rather than any increase in actual training, understanding, or intellectual sophistication. Finally, the article claims that the organization benefits from the new system since they can  “harness additional power” out of pre-existing systems; leaving factors such as individual creativity, satisfaction and personal growth as non-essential.

Interactive Intelligence’s new product offering will undoubtedly help businesses improve benefits to customers as well as decrease costs. Yet, if implemented without regard to employee engagement, it will surely leave stakeholders at a loss. With each opportunity to improve workflow, decision makers should always engage with stakeholders to generate ideas. After all, describing a corporate initiative to employees by using words like “drive”, “automated processes”, “mechanism” and “failover” only reinforces feelings of being a “cog in the machine.” Failure to embrace their humanity damages morale and stifles innovation in the largest, untapped internal resource for ideas: front-line employees.

As technology advances, some jobs will cease to exist. There used to be countless elevator operators and gas station attendants. But as The Methodology Blog has covered before, your employees are valuable because of instinct and brilliance, not routine mechanical tasks. Learn more about how to embrace change by embracing your stakeholders. Contact Slaughter Development today.

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Like this post? Here are some related entries from The Methodology Blog you might enjoy:

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Read on »
Process Follows People - No industry should be more focused on the well-being of people than healthcare. According to a new study however, organizations are over-emphasizing process and technology to the detriment of workers. Read on »
Process Improvement Failure - Millions of companies have pursued major business process improvement projects. Some new evidence reported in the Wall Street Journal, however, shows that most of these endeavors fail. Read on »
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2 Responses to “Process Automation and Morale”

  1. Gina Clarkin Says:

    Thanks for taking the time to express an opinion on the recent TCM.net article. Please take this response not as a debate, but as an expression of how we see IPA differently. I’d like to clarify our approach to process automation, and provide some details as to why customers (both management and front-line stakeholders) find our approach appealing. In no way are we promoting the elimination of the initiative, creativity, satisfaction or personal growth of employees. In reality, by automating, and in the process, streamlining, manual business processes that are a drain on the corporate environment, a company can eliminate the non-value adding steps, unplanned workarounds, informational black holes, and a host of other inefficiencies that frustrate employees (and incur costs to the business) on a daily basis.

    Just watch the AccuQuote customer video series (http://www.inin.com/ProductSolutions/Pages/AccuQuote-Video.aspx) and you’ll see– instead of focusing hours a day on searching, moving, shuffling and stuffing folders all day, the employees are able to spend more time on their “real” work, and are more free to become creative and involved in improving the process. Supervisors can spend more time training and coaching employees instead of figuring out how to find the folders and papers that are causing bottlenecks. By eliminating waste and inefficiencies, process automation has the potential to enrich employees’ work and make their role in processes more meaningful instead of less so.

    Today’s process automation shouldn’t be geared simply toward eliminating people, or their initiative and creativity – just the opposite, in fact. Today’s process automation should be about making people more effective at what they do, which can actually increase employee morale. It is not intended purely for “transactional” processes, but rather is designed to improve the process and the customer experience, provide added value to the business, and explicitly capture the functional representation of the business process. Companies can change the people or organization without “breaking” the process, opening the door for increased personal development and career path opportunities and avoiding the all too common scenario of an employee getting “stuck” in a role because it’s too difficult to easily replace them.

    Ultimately, how IPA is applied is really up to the customer. So the relative emphasis on employee well-being is a company culture issue that is only reflected in how technology is used – not the other way around.

    We would be happy to show you in more detail how IPA works and discuss our methodology for process automation projects, as we rely on expert consultants like Slaughter to ensure all facets of an organization’s operational performance (especially the human element) are considered when deploying IPA.

  2. Robby Slaughter Says:

    Thanks so much for your comments, Gina!

    You’re absolutely right that modern process automation should be focus on helping people become more effective by encouraging them to be creative and innovative. IPA does sound exciting. Indeed, we wrote above that: “Interactive Intelligence’s new product offering will undoubtedly help businesses improve benefits to customers as well as decrease costs.”

    Unfortunately, Patrick Barnard’s original article from July 2009—upon which our blog post was based—is no longer available. However, our main concern was not with the technology but the language. Any technology can be used to empower people or to do the opposite. You are right that ultimately customers have to choose how they implement a system and the words they use to describe their implementation. Hopefully they will use language more like that of your comment and less like the copy from the original TCM.net article. Your phrasings illustrate that you truly care about helping businesses and their stakeholders through innovative technical solutions.

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