Future of Work: Workforce automation, old ideas with new implementation is not the answer.

recent article in the Wall Street Journal covers the topic of increasing interest by corporations to gain high resolution into the activities that workers are performing on the job. On the face of it this article may seem as if it is presenting a new paradigm to the workforce. Using new technologies like RFID tracking sensors coupled with electronic systems to meter and monitor the vagaries of workers in the office to try and extract more efficient and productive work by reshaping either the work place itself or the business processes that workers engage.

On it’s face this is an admirable goal but unfortunately it is not really new, it is essentially an attempt to replicate ideas that were rampant in business during the 50’s and 60’s and 70’s using current technology, to see why we need to first take a walk down memory lane to see what automation and productivity was back in the 60’s.


Cogs in the Machine

As a child one of my favorite cartoons was the Hanna Barbera produced Jetson’s, this cartoon was a hilarious take on a future as told from the minds of an age where the United States was asserting the power of it’s developing industrial might to achieve great gains in GDP in post world war II Cold War era. The emergence of the micro-electronic age, the formation of the first efficient transistors and the rapid miniaturization power of the computers and electronics this technology made possible. Enabled businesses to think differently about how they could get their workforce’s to achieve computer like efficiency. The writings on the matter of efficiency that were being produced by economists and mathematicians in a way informed what would emerge as apparently the right way to solve the problems of efficiency and productivity in the work force.

The foundation was laid in the late 30’s and 40’s as the US embarked upon the atomic bomb program, the need to think about the scenario’s that could give rise to atomic attacks and how to avoid Armageddon were discussed and debated by the principle founders of a branch of mathematics called game theory. One of the pioneers of this area was John Von Neumann, Von Neumann did critical work in analyzing the behavior of individuals involved in group dynamics regarding differential resource needs. This work was also part of the play ground that economists like John Nash played in and his Nash equilibrium famous from the movie A Beautiful Mind,  is in essence a game theoretic result.

In the 40’s and 50’s the work on the limits of computing systems by Alan Turing set the stage for some thinking about human agents as cogs in the machine of a functioning dynamic system. Like real cogs, their efficiency was seen as being correlated to highly metered performance. If you can measure how it behaves you can track and improve it’s performance. It was believed that tracking a workers time and ensuring that the worker was on task as often as possible was the best way to get high productivity out of that worker. However, the fundamental flaw in this idea…is that like a real cog…workers would and do get worn down by the monotony of the work they are performing. Unlike computer programs, real workers also have inspiration and creativity as factors in how well they perform their work, particularly in knowledge work.

The Jetson’s already was telling a tale of the monotony of the type of work that was performed by white collar workers in the mid 60’s. George Jetson worked for “Spacely’s Sprockets” a generic name combining the founder of the company with a “sprocket” a generic device that is never fully explained in the series. This underscores the bland and monotonous nature of the type of work that George was doing and mirrored the cog in machine concept that connected workers to corporations in the 50’s and 60.

Another aspect of this time was also subtly touched on, that corporate competition necessitated that businesses push on their workers in unusual ways to demand that they perform. In the Jetson’s this was symbolized by the competition that existed between Spacely’s Sprockets and Cogswell Cogs. Often in the mix for corporations to endlessly pursue the profit motive the workers….the gears, are pushed to be worn out…artificial deadlines are created to have work pushed out of the door when it was not ready, the creative innovation was rushed and thus in many cases missed. The bias for a short term profit motive was baked into the culture of the business and innovation became stagnant. This was seen in the evaporation of many innovative R&D departments that had formerly been a part of corporations prior to world war two. As the people as cogs processes metered lives away innovation took a hit well save for some places where it was seen different (Silicon Valley).

The failure of this type of system could be seen also in the Twilight Zone series of the late 50’s and 60’s. Rod Serling’s views on office life during those decades portrayed it as a monotonous experience, of workers “clocking in” at designated times in the morning and then “clocking out” in an exhausted stupor at night…only to get up the next day to do the same again. The corporate application of rules for nameless computing or task performing agents simply didn’t allow for continuously productive workers…nor did it make any room for an embrace of independent streaks of creativity. This would change ironically with the birth of silicon valley which had as it’s reason d’etre originally the job of building the very transistors built on the computing ideas that led to the work ideas of humans as cogs in the machine in the first place.


Silicon Valley breaks the mold

The rapid development of the transistor industry in the late 50’s inspired innovators like Robert Noyce, Gordon Moore and other brilliant engineers of the time to embrace a new approach to conducting business. Rather than be married to the efficiency driven ethos of a dominant corporation, these men sought to strike out and build their own agile corporations. Robert Noyce along with a team of engineers had been working in Shockley semiconductor under the stewardship of co-inventor of the silicon transistor and Nobel Laureate William Shockley when they, pressed with the over bearing dominance of Shockley as boss were moved to quit the company and start their own company Fairchild Semiconductor. At Fairchild the rigid management style that Shockley enforced was done away with, instead *innovation* was prized above conformance to corporate rules and peak worker efficiency as metered by time on task. Noyce realized that engineers are creative people, and creative people must have the relaxation to be creative on their own schedule in order to produce novel and potentially revolutionary invention. This ethos would spread through out the business world but mostly was a hallmark of silicon valley companies (many subsequently founded by former Shockley and Fairchild workers) to this day…the embrace of this type of work environment by more traditional businesses is a relatively new phenomena but rather than embrace the freedom of enabled creativity the solution has been to give a patina of new to old.


Why metering people over metering work is not maximally productive

The last few weeks have seen the reigniting of the debate of productivity and worker performance by the controversial email sent out by Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo. The email specifies an ultimatum to workers in the companies HR department regarding the need for the workers to begin working in the office again or be fired. The company explained that they wanted to ensure that the workers were more productive by having them commune with their coworkers in a physical office. The directive was met by mixed reaction in Yahoo but shed light on the wider question. Is it possible to generally improve productivity by enabling workers to work remotely and if so how? The Wall Street Journal article highlights the new attempts when it describes the recent results allegedly achieved by Bank of America:

“So, to get more employees mingling, the bank scheduled workers for group breaks, rather than solo ones. Productivity rose by at least 10%, says former Bank of America human-resources executive Michael Arena, who helped conduct its study.”

Leaving potential bias from the study conductor aside, worker productivity inside the context of the office says nothing about how efficiently the same workers could perform if given greater freedoms beyond the walls of the office. The question is category invalid; it can not be answered within the context in which it is asked. It is also known that group interactions also tend to highly bias for workers personality playing a strong role  in determining what ideas get implemented. Thus the most creative and possibly innovative ideas are often ignored in favor of the first and most forcefully argued idea. And in a single company group study that measures “productivity” without measuring *quality of work* will simply miss this important fact. However, innovative companies are going beyond such measures, as the article continues:

 “As Big Data becomes a fixture of office life, companies are turning to tracking devices to gather real-time information on how teams of employees work and interact. Sensors, worn on lanyards or placed on office furniture, record how often staffers get up from their desks, consult other teams and hold meetings. “

This movement though well intentioned is still category invalid. It may be the case that within the office such efforts can incrementally boost productivity by identifying where worker interaction hits bottlenecks, but this tells nothing about whether more efficient work flows would be enabled by physical metering of worker * behavior*. This translates into the liberation of creative production which ultimately is the most valuable for the business long term. And the approach could easily boredom and monotony of the Jetson’s future workplace. I posit that worker behavior in the office should never be the important criteria to meter, instead worker *results* should be and those should be gathered independently of the needs of the business.

The global network including mobile devices has now enabled businesses to provide always on access to all  potential workers no matter where they are in the world. Access is global, always on, and available on multiple devices. The holy grail of achieving both maximum worker freedom and maximum worker productivity is now achievable by performing a very simple act:  freeing any single worker completely from the *requirement* of needing to perform any work at all.

This of course seems counter intuitive, since it may seem that no one will do any work. In a work force that is global and which enforces integrity of workers with the use of social oversight however, such a system can utilize the talents of an emancipated workforce of fluid workers that can be on and off boarded at their own behest but also to purposes set by the organization. The freedom provided to the work force enables the workers to chose when they wish to contribute which highly correlates with high productivity and high creativity, and it also means that when the corporation searches for workers it finds those that are qualified and available by virtue of the aforementioned freedom. Finally, the ability to reject work received allows the dissolving of any bottlenecks to the completion of any unit of work by providing incentives for workers to route work onward to others in the system.

How this works is deceptively simple and can be realized by a simple thought experiment. In a traditional workflow the last stop on a task path is the usually single person delegated and/or permitted to perform it. Delegation refers to the fact that they are part of the business process, either explicitly added into the workflow or tied into the workflow by extended communication media like email attachments or IM. Permission refers to weather or not once the worker receives work they’ve been delegated if they actually have the permissions, the rights to actually perform them. The key is in realizing that the traditional coupling of the ability to receive some work with the ability to perform that work is actually inefficient for the smooth convergence of that action for an agent who can actually perform it.

In a system where the agents are decoupled, it is possible for agents to receive work that they can not perform (do not have the rights or expertise) but by allowing all such workers to be able to always re-delegate the work, a requested action never gets stuck in a particular worker’s queue this is the key to the convergence of all work actions. When the user space is larger than, there is an increased probability that the work will find some one who is able to do it and despite a loose web of delegations across the interacting workflows (the action requested might hop across a network that might could span building floors or continents) or even leave the company to be done by mobile contractors.

This combination of ideas are the hallmark of the Action Oriented Workflow work paradigm that I invented in 2004. At the time the technology was used internally but the power of such a system to spur new types of efficiency into all types of workforces became present to me as an opportunity. The future of a telepresent workforce is something I wrote above in 2006 and is enabled by such systems. Ultimately, the applicability of automation to the issues of worker productively will vary depending on the character of the work in question, but for the vast majority of knowledge workers the need to work in an office is simply no longer present. Rather than the decline in productivity lamented by Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer, working from home coupled with the right technology providing emancipation to the workforce will instead lead to hyper efficiency and profits.

1 Response

  1. This article reveals uncommon insight. I like the use of the term “high resolution” in that context, the reference to human workers when viewed as “cogs” in machines, an the notion of emancipation of the work force. All three of them are parts of my own repertoire, and the last one is part of my personal experience.

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