Technology offers us the opportunity to do business faster than ever. With all the automation, collaboration, and high-speed communication, there’s only one thing standing in the way: People are still involved.
Inefficient, un-improvable, unpredictable people.
How People Limit Work
You may recall Amdahl’s Law, which states that if one part of a program can’t be parallelized, then no matter how much the rest of the program can be parallelized, the part that can’t will limit how much the program can be speeded up. What makes this a problem in management? Because the slowest, least parallel component is our human brain.
“Because human nature doesn’t change, the fundamental art and science of managing human beings doesn’t change either,” writes Zachary First, executive director of the Drucker Institute, in the Harvard Business Review.
Be Careful What You Measure
Ironically, Drucker is the one who is known—though misattributed—for the saying “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”
“Drucker wrote a great deal about how managers should measure performance, but this particular phrase didn’t come from his pen,” First writes. “The challenge is that all too often, managers haven’t asked what results they ultimately want to achieve. Most of what an organization chooses to measure, and to do, must hinge on this question.” (He makes a great argument, for example, that engagement is more important than the number of participants.)
It turns out, too, that focusing too much attention on measuring every little nuance of a human’s behavior to wring the last possible drop of productivity out of them isn’t necessarily effective. Indeed, as we’ve seen, people show a remarkable propensity for resisting such attempts to manage them through measuring them by finding new and improved ways of gaming the system. (There’s even a name for it: the Cobra Effect, after India supposedly offered a reward to people to encourage them to bring in dead cobras. The government found that people were breeding more cobras so they’d earn more reward money.)
Instead, rather than getting too focused on trying to improve management and get people to stop acting like people, go back to the basics, First advises. “Managerial effectiveness today is, as it has ever been, based on management engaging the three tasks that Drucker identified as uniquely its own,” he writes:
- Focusing the organization on its specific purpose and mission
- Making work both productive and suitable for human beings
- Taking responsibility for the organization’s social impacts
“This list is not new,” First writes. “It is old, which is exactly the point: These tasks have been tested by time and experience, through all manner of social and technological upheavals.”
Even IT is Social
In particular, this means you need to continue to be aware of how your organization fits into the social milieu of which we’re all a part, First writes. “No matter the type of organization, the purpose is always social: Businesses exist to create customers, nonprofits to change lives, and governments to effectively express the ‘common will and the common vision,’” he writes. “Social impacts are not a concern only when all other costs have been accounted for. Every organization depends for its existence on the world beyond its walls. When organizational problems spill over into the outside world, the organization almost always suffers in the end.”
Note, for example, that corporations have been on the forefront of pushing for social change, ranging from companies boycotting states that implement laws they don’t like to making it a priority to hire veterans. Microsoft, for example, announced last year it would work only with contractors that gave employees at least 15 days’ time off per year, while Apple CEO Tim Cook has told people who don’t believe in climate change to “get out of his stock.”
Most of all, remember that, ultimately, you are managing people, not processes, First writes. “It means governing workers with policies and procedures that embrace humanity’s unending peculiarities, including the ways that we look and feel, our abilities and motivations, and our values and identities.” So when you’re working on business process automation in your organization, remember that the P stands for “process,” not “people.”
Peculiarity. It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.
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