hrtechoutlook

When It Comes To Workforce Management Systems, We Need Anthropology Before Technology

T.J. Elliott, Knowledge Broker, Educational Testing Service (ETS)

T.J. Elliott, Knowledge Broker, Educational Testing Service (ETS)

When I was a boy in the 1960s, my uncle Brother James Elliott established the first computer center at Manhattan College in the Bronx. Trips to that site fascinated me. The size of the computer in its climate controlled and dust-free room astonished. The disks looked like ancient wagon wheels. (Now I can Google their actual dimensions: fifty 24-inch platters, with a total capacity of five million 6-bit characters. That’s 3.75 megabytes: enough storage for maybe two photographs of medium resolution.) Technology awed us as well in a first time viewing of an early microwave making popcorn or when my father brought a color TV into our living room. But computers occupied a different higher sphere.

In today’s workplace, we live almost entirely within that sphere as email, instant messaging, decision support systems, and even power and lighting grids operating on computing power are commonplace. How does such familiarity breed challenges to enhancing business functions in Workforce Management Systems? First, we no longer notice this affordance; we take it for granted until it goes haywire. Casualness begets inattention and ‘deprioritization’. Second, cloud-based systems especially from the ‘behemoth’ providers reinforce the ubiquity of computing but also execute quickly and perhaps unexpectedly updates and changes to systems that confound users. Third, doing this stuff the right way is hard without significant outlays of money and attention, but since we tend to take computing power for granted senior managers are reluctant to approve those expenses. My experience as a VP of HR and Chief Learning Officer for 14 years with responsibilities for various workforce management platforms from social media to HRIS and even document storage taught me that taking computers for granted leads to poor decisions in the planning, implementation, and maintenance of what should be powerful technology solutions.

“With this knowledge, the company may scale back their workforce management ambitions or stagger their introduction”

This isn’t news. Frustratingly, little seems to have changed since observers like Shoshana Zuboff noted in 1996 declared that saying we exist in an information economy technological workplace of computer-guided processes is different than actually realizing those promises. Two developments since that time cloud-based systems and self-serve protocols have boosted technology capacity while simultaneously hindering further appropriate planning, implementation, and maintenance of Workforce Management Systems. The movement of much of workplace technology to the cloud defies planning: updates and new interfaces emerge without warning for most users and without choice for frustrated administrators. Vendors offer many ways in which software can solve workforce management problems but are less forthcoming about the problems that the software itself either causes or aggravates.

For the implementation of new systems, most work organizations despite the recent spate of capital spending unleashed by tax law changes have minuscule budgets for enhancements to how employees connect, processes unfold, and information flows. Functions are shoehorned into standard issue systems even when essential outputs require some customization. Implementation then stalls and derails because the environment of an operate and maintain company cannot afford an ill-fitting system.(One of the sages in this area, Naomi Bloom, who very recently retired after a powerful career writing and consulting about HRO, discussed this tendency of enforced alterations years ago.)

As Kurt Vonnegut once noted, “Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.” Vonnegut knew something about Workforce Management Systems. Broken links and error messages that lead the user in circles abound. Maintenance suffers because Finance department estimates regularly even willfully fail to include the necessity of dealing with the consequences of enterprise decisions made without warning let alone consent of clients.

This rant need not exist. Following the simple principle of ‘Anthropology before Technology’ would correct many of these problems. This phrase indicates that all involved must agree on a picture of what people do now to produce products and services in order to understand not just the impact of new technology upon those individuals but the ‘ delta’ they face in mindset and behavior. With this knowledge (an understanding once common in the discipline of human computer interface), the company may scale back their workforce management ambitions or stagger their introduction. In other situations, companies will invest more time and attention in the specific targeted communications and education to allow the least disruptive change to long-established even automatic routines. But the anthropology has to be the right kind: not some experts viewing the users from 50,000 feet but ground-level observation and conversation to make sense of the world of these fellow employees.

These kinds of improvements depend upon a different kind of leadership within the organization to inspire a ‘retuning’ of organizational culture. Understandably, this work often flies under the radar of senior executives who concern themselves more with marketing campaigns and strategic acquisitions. But as Zuboff noted in the 1990s and Eric Brynjolfsson supported a decade later, in order to get the most out of Workforce Management Systems and other computing investments, leaders would have to make a different kind of contract or relationship with employees and that would entail spending more organizational capital on these kinds of initiatives. This magazine itself carried a recent report on the necessity of a culture change that the majority of companies as yet do not know how to attain. Where to start? With just a little bit of our lost awe at what computers can do so that we appreciate more fully why we need to look very closely at how their interaction with humans needs more attention, more care, and more anthropology before technology.